A Feature on the Kerry Babies Case by Gerry O’Shea
Sometimes a series of events can be so unusual and improbable that factual information becomes stranger than fiction so that a bizarre story trumps one’s wildest imaginings. This applies in spades to the strange story of Joanne Hayes from Abbeydorney, a village four miles from Tralee, the capital town of County Kerry.
On April 13th 1984 Joanne gave birth to a baby in a field near her home. The baby died shortly after birth of lung failure and Joanne buried him in the field. She attended the local general hospital where the matter was recorded as a miscarriage.
The father of the baby was a local married man named Joseph Locke. He and Joanne had a previous baby together, Yvonne.
Meanwhile a baby, later named Baby John, was found in a plastic bag in Slea Head, near the town of Cahirciveen about sixty miles from Abbeydorney. He had died of stab wounds.
Detectives came from Dublin to join their Kerry counterparts to deal with this very shocking situation. They found out about Joanne’s pregnancy and the hospital reported that indeed their scan ‘showed a recently-emptied uterus’, and they decided that Joanne’s missing baby had to be the one in the plastic bag in Slea Head.
Joanne, her sister Kathleen, her brothers Ned and Michael and her aunt Bridie Fuller, an experienced nurse, signed a statement saying that they had seen Joanne give birth in their farmhouse, aided by her aunt Bridie, and that Joanne then stabbed the baby with a kitchen knife. Ned and Michael dumped the dead baby in a plastic bag in the wild Atlantic ocean at Slea Head.
Case closed – except after Joanne was charged with murder, her sister Kathleen brought detectives to see the remains of Joanne’s actual baby in the field near their home in Abbeydorney. Furthermore, Baby John was blood type A while Jeremiah and Joanne had type O.
The case was dropped, but the Minister for Justice Michael Noonan wanted to know how a whole family could confess to a crime that they didn’t commit. To answer that question and to deal with other related issues, he set up an official tribunal under Judge Kevin Lynch.
The ’80s were not good years for women in Ireland. A 15-year old gitl, Ann Lovett, gave birth to a baby alone in a village in Longford. Adding to the shock and pathos, the birth took place near a grotto of the Virgin Mary. Tragically, the mother and baby died.
1983 was the year of the abortion referendum when most leaders of church and state were arguing passionately that the Constitution had to give equal legal value to a mother and the foetus in her womb. That perspective was affirmed by a two-to-one majority in the referendum and was added to the Irish Constitution as the eighth amendment.
The 43 tribunal experts assembled in Tralee – psychiatrists, lawyers and detectives – were all male and there was little mercy shown to Joanne. ‘What kind of lady do we have here?’ wondered the presiding judge. The leading garda lawyer posed the question ‘Did she love this man Locke, or what he and other men were prepared to do with her?’
Adding a little melodrama to the proceedings, the mattress which Joanne slept on was produced at the tribunal, seemingly to suggest that Joanne lived a promiscuous lifestyle. The name of Tom Flynn was scratched on it, a man nobody could identify. Wags in Tralee wore T-shirts declaring “I am Tom Flynn.” Actually, Mr Flynn delivered mattresses many years before in Kerry but had emigrated to New York.
The gardai in an effort to explain the blood type disparity introduced the concept of heteropaternal superfecundation (HS), whereby a woman could conceive twins within 48 hours of having sex with two different partners. They claimed that this pointed to the real possibility that Joanne gave birth to twins.
An expert on HS came from England and rubbished the idea, pointing out that it nearly always applies only to cats and mongrel dogs. One of the senior counsel to the gardai, who was certainly not focused on finding out the truth, commented about the Englishman, ‘the bastard let us down.’
Poor Joanne testified for longer than any witness ever in the Irish legal system. She couldn’t take the bombardment of questions, some of them prying into her private life, and she collapsed. In order to continue, the judge approved her taking sedation medicine three times a day.
A psychiatrist opined gravely that Joanne could be described as a sociopath. When explaining what he meant, he was forced to concede that half the people in the country would meet his definition of the word.
Judge Lynch disgracefully accused the Hayes family of being bare-faced liars and surmised that Joanne had beaten the baby to death with a bath brush! He criticized the gardai procedures also but dismissed the central claim of the Hayes family that they were coerced into signing statements which were complete fabrications.
DNA tests completed recently show beyond any doubt that Joanne Hayes was not the mother of Baby John and nor was Mr Locke the father. The present Garda Commissioner, the Minister for Justice and the Taoiseach Leo Vardakar have all issued formal apologies to Joanne. Mr Varadkar has promised her that she will receive appropriate compensation from the State for her maltreatment more than thirty years ago. And the gardai in Kerry have re-opened the investigation into who stabbed Baby John and dumped him in the sea.
Gerry O’Shea is a retired teacher and school counsellor, living in New York. He blogs at http://wemustbetalking.blogspot.com.au/