How the shocking treatment of Joanne Hayes changed Ireland 

The day a shattered Joanne Hayes jumped from the witness stand, ran out of the room and rushed along a corridor to a toilet where she got physically sick is still etched in memory, almost 36 years later.

After a lifetime in journalism, you forget many stories and only remember the incidents that impressed, amused, shocked, or upset you in a personal way. That day in Tralee remains as vivid as if it was only yesterday.

The Kerry Babies Tribunal made an impact on people far removed from what was one of the big stories in the final quarter of the 20th century in Ireland.

The tribunal was supposed to last just two to three weeks. It began in Tralee in the frosty days of early January 1985 and finished in Dublin Castle in sunny June after 82 days of emotion-charged hearings.

A high moral tone reflecting the established sexual mores of the era pervaded the hearing. Lights were shone into many dark corners of so-called hidden Ireland.

In 2020, we pride ourselves in being one of the most tolerant and socially progressive countries in the world. But in 1985, Ireland was a far different country. Divorce and the practice of homosexuality were still illegal; contraception was allowed only for married couples and then on prescription; same-sex marriage and abortion were more than three decades into the future.

There was still a stigma attaching to women having babies outside marriage and to unmarried couples cohabiting. That was the kind of hostile atmosphere into which Joanne Hayes, a 25-year-old single mother of a young daughter, was thrust.

The tribunal was basically a public sworn inquiry into how the gardaí monumentally botched a murder investigation; into how Joanne made statements admitting to the murder of an infant — a murder she could not have committed.

A woman protests during the Kerry Babies Tribunal. Photo: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

But the tribunal soon turned into an inquisition into Joanne’s private life and her affair with a married man, Jeremiah Locke, who was the father of her daughter, Yvonne. So aggressive was the level of questioning by counsel for senior gardaí, it seemed like she was an accused person in a criminal trial.

The all-male tribunal attracted huge publicity. In days long before the internet and social media, the print media was still dominant and the newspapers sent teams of reporters and photographers.

I reported for The Cork Examiner and Evening Echo, along with colleagues. Each day in the early weeks, the Examiner gave two full inside pages to the tribunal as well as a front-page story.

Plucked from the obscurity of a smallish farm in north Kerry, Joanne soon became a nationally-known personality. I got to know her and her sister Kathleen and we often chatted during breaks about everyday things, with the GAA being a regular topic. The sisters seemed inseparable and were friendly and open, ordinary country people.

They were also gentle people — you could never see them harming anybody. They were certainly no match for the seasoned gardaí and murder squad detectives who questioned them and who were accustomed to dealing with hardened criminals.

Joanne, a receptionist at Tralee Sports Complex, was small and slightly built and always looked vulnerable and tormented in the witness stand as she tried to deal with relentless cross-examination from experienced legal eagles, implying she was a woman of “loose morals’’.

Joanne spent five tearful days giving evidence and being ruthlessly questioned.

But back to that day in Tralee mentioned at the outset. She became upset when Martin Kennedy, barrister for garda superintendents, suggested to her she was not in love with her married lover, but “you still allowed intimacy to take place on your first date”.

He also put it to her she had no intention of allowing the child to live after it left her body. “That’s untrue,” she answered, all the time gripping a miraculous medal in the cusp of her hand.

Joanne Hayes with her sister Kathleen(L) arriving for the hearing at the Kerry Babies Tribunal. 1985 Photo: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

Joanne Hayes with her sister Kathleen(L) arriving for the hearing at the Kerry Babies Tribunal. 1985 Photo: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

As she became visibly more distressed, her replies were barely audible. She then pleaded with Judge Kevin Lynch, who was presiding over the tribunal: “Please, sir, can I go? Please sir…” He agreed to an adjournment and she leapt from the witness stand. A doctor was called to attend her. But when she returned to the stand a short time later, Mr Kennedy continued the same line and tone of questioning.

Incredibly, Judge Lynch did not intervene, and her treatment led to protests by people from her native Abbeydorney and feminists from around the country who travelled to Tralee. Bunches of flowers also started to arrive at the tribunal building for Joanne and her family.

Indignation was voiced by human rights activists, some priests and other concerned people, with poet and Trinity College academic Brendan Kennelly likening the surreal situation to “a medieval witch-hunt with the victims burning at the stake and the crowd dancing around the fire”.

It’s moot whether the Kerry Babies Tribunal was a watershed in Irish society and an event that led to social change. There’s no doubt, however, that it strengthened the case for women’s rights and boosted campaigns for more liberal social legislation and the general availability of contraception, for instance.

And one thing is certain — no woman would ever again have to endure what Joanne went through in a public forum.

One woman and her family suffered terrible injustices at the hands of the State, which came across as cruel, merciless, and totally lacking in human compassion. The €2.5m in compensation for the Hayes has come very late and, you might ask, does any money pay for the humiliation and suffering they have gone through?

After the tribunal, Joanne returned to private life and has since maintained her silence, shunning the limelight and refusing numerous requests for media interviews over the years.

This article was first published on December 18, 2020.

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