Irish Women’s Rights Changed over The Kerry Babies Case

Nell McCafferty writes about the 1985 legal crucifixion of Joanne Hayes, who had defied sanction by giving birth to and rearing her first child at home, and holding down a paid job. Her sacrifice paved the way for major social and political changes for Irish women.

Kerry Babies Case-the tipping point for Irish Women’s Rights

Cork University Press
May 8, 2010

To mark International Women’s Day, this introduction from a new book by  NELL MCCAFFERTY  plots how the ‘medieval’ treatment of Joanne Hayes in the Kerry Babies Case acted as a catalyst for change.

IT WAS MEDIEVAL. A group of men put a young unmarried woman on the stand and questioned her about the exact circumstances of the conception and birth and death of her newborn baby. She came from a tiny village in the west of Ireland. They had come down from the capital, Dublin. The pope had just come and gone from Ireland. The men wondered aloud if the woman had in fact given birth to two newborn babies who had been found dead in Kerry, though blood tests showed that she could only have been mother to one. The men put forward and examined for six months a theory of superfecundation, which postulates that a woman can conceive of twins by two men if she has sexual intercourse with both in the space of 24 hours. “There were times when we all thought she had twins,” said presiding Justice Kevin Lynch.

The legal men and a succession of male doctors, psychiatrists and police officers – 43 in all – spent six months probing the young woman’s mind and body. A doctor gave the dimensions of her vagina during a previous birth. Ordnance survey maps were used to pinpoint the exact locations of the places where she had sexual congress with her married lover. The question was asked, “Did she love this man or what was he and other men prepared to do with her?” It was medieval, but it happened in 1985. The probing of the woman’s sexual history brought the men gathered around her to such a fever pitch that she collapsed. She was excused, temporarily, and could be heard retching and sobbing in the corridor.

The judge ordered that she be sedated and then brought back to testify. She gave evidence in a daze, her head bobbing off the microphone. The judge asked that her friends keep a suicide watch on her that night.

The country was sickened, and showed support for Joanne Hayes by sending her flowers and Mass cards. When the inquisition finally ended, the country rapidly changed, by constitutional vote, and a New Ireland came into being. It was forged on the anvil of Joanne Hayes’s suffering. Never again, the changes showed, would one woman be held to blame for the ills that had beset Ireland. Or, at least, never again would an exclusively male panel of men sit in judgment of one woman.

TO UNDERSTAND WHAT was done to Joanne Hayes and why, and how much has changed as a result of that, it is necessary to set a context. When John Paul II came to Ireland in 1979, he preached against contraception, divorce and women’s work outside the home. There had been stirrings of modernity on the island, thanks to the Irishwomen’s Liberation Movement, founded in 1970, and accession to the European Community (now European Union) in 1973. The IWLM demand for the legalisation of contraception had met with popular support, and opposition from State and church. The sale or advertisement of contraceptives was illegal and punishable by penal servitude. The legal prohibition on married women engaging in paid work outside the home had been lifted in exchange for massive European funding, though the enforced entry of women into the paid workforce was treated with reluctance by business, trades unions and parliament. At the time of the ending of the marriage bar in 1975, less than 10 per cent of married women were in the workforce, and single women were mostly confined to work in the unskilled service sector.

Still, the appetite among women for freedom from the kitchen sink was growing. There had been growing unease at State-sanctioned punishment of those women who had incurred State or church displeasure. The punishment had been aimed mainly at single mothers, whose children were deemed illegitimate in law, an official sanction of bastardy that the Catholic Church relished. It was normal to incarcerate single mothers in Magdalene homes run by the religious, usually until their children were adopted, but often for life. Thousands of Irishwomen, in succeeding generations since the foundation of the State, had thus been spirited away and forced to put their children up for adoption. Others escaped to England and came home childless. This seems medieval now. It was normal right up to the legal crucifixion of Joanne Hayes, who had defied sanction by giving birth to and rearing her first child at home, and holding down a paid job.

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Author: Leslie Carol Botha

Author, publisher, radio talk show host and internationally recognized expert on women's hormone cycles. Social/political activist on Gardasil the HPV vaccine for adolescent girls. Co-author of "Understanding Your Mood, Mind and Hormone Cycle." Honorary advisory board member for the Foundation for the Study of Cycles and member of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.