It was a case that horrified the nation – a new-born only days old was found washed up on a beach in south Kerry, stabbed and left for dead. For decades since he has been known as one of the ‘Kerry babies’, and would later be called ‘Baby John’. On that tragic evening in 1984, a local man out jogging stumbles upon the body of the child, mistaking it for a doll at first but upon closer inspection Jack Griffin told the Irish times “deep down I knew it wasn’t”.
The Irish Times recounted how Mr Griffin discovered the body, “It was pink in colour, face downwards with black hair and I thought to myself, it can’t be a baby. I was trying to say to myself it was a doll, but deep down I knew it wasn’t, so I blessed myself.”
The alarm was then raised and Gardaí were called to the scene and the case begun. In context, this was rural Ireland, in the 80’s, where contraceptives were taboo, being a homosexual could get you arrested and women who gave birth out of wedlock were shunned from their communities.
It was a time where the nation worshipped statues, attended mass religiously, when there were no objections to the word of the law, and the Gardaí had the final word.
As is the story of Joanna Hayes and her family, it was simply a case of malicious conduct and the desire to put an end to a horror like this, quickly and quietly. Ms. Hayes was interrogated ruthlessly by the Gardai, she was coerced into signing a confession that has since been proven to be inaccurate and falsified. There were also the statements given by her family members, which were later dismissed as well. Joanna Hayes wasn’t a local to the area where the baby was found, but lived a shocking 75 kilometres away in North Kerry. She was pregnant around the time of the murder, but had given birth to child days before ‘Baby John’ was found, her child died at birth and was buried on her family farm. Yet, Gardaí were desperate to solve the case.
A tribunal into the handling of the case was established in 1985, which resulted in the mistreatment of Ms Hayes and questioned aspects of her personal and private life in intimate detail. The way in which the investigation and the tribunal were conducted is something that would not be seen or heard of today. Now some 34 years later, Gardaí and the State have formally apologised to Ms Hayes and her family, and are appealing for information in the reopening of this cold case. They are due to hold a press conference later today.
What is striking about this case is how one women’s tragedy was twisted and turned into a murder plot, while the identity of ‘Baby John’ and his biological parents is still unknown, and perhaps will remain unknown.
Having put this tragedy behind them, the local community is more likely to want to put this scandal to bed than fuel it even further. But today’s society has changed. Women are able to access abortion – albeit limited and/or abroad – most girls have access to contraception, whether it’s the pill, the bar, or other forms. The stigma surrounding sex before marriage has reduced, more women are waiting longer before settling down and having a family; a child out of wedlock isn’t as uncommon.
There is a definite reduction in the stigma surrounding these topics in our culture. There are now better ways to deal with a crisis like an unplanned pregnancy that weren’t available to mothers like Joanna Hayes in the 1980’s. Had there been these supports, had Ireland developed a more understanding attitude to this at the time then perhaps tragedies like the ‘Kerry Babies’, may not have happened.
Maybe the mother of ‘Baby John’, whoever she is, would have given him a better life somewhere else, with another family if she had the option, if it was possible.
Yet we cannot look back on the mistakes of our predecessors and say that is not how they should have lived. We don’t know the pressures of life at that time, or the power of the Gardaí and the law, how an innocent woman can confess to a crime she did not commit in order to spare her child and her family any more undue harm.
Today, we must look at how far we have come, and how far we have yet to go if we want to heal the wounds of our past. As journalists this will be a story that we will look back on in our careers and say it made history, it woke up a nation who had closed its eyes to the horrors of the past. All we can do now is hope that the real killer is brought to justice, and that witnesses come forward to help solve the cold case.
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