The Irish state has a long history of failing and persecuting women. The arrest of a couple in connection with the Kerry Babies case has reopened memories of how one woman, Joanna Hayes, was mistreated by the state and of the pervasive culture of misogyny in its institutions.
After the discovery of a baby’s body in 1984 in Caherciveen, Co. Kerry, the Irish state began what Nell McCafferty called a “woman hunt”, in which the Gardaí targeted unmarried women in the area who might have had unwanted pregnancies. Joanne Hayes became the focus of this police trawl.
After a “heavy gang” of Garda detectives was dispatched to Kerry to extract confessions, Joanne and her family signed statements implicating her under extreme duress.
When it was later proved that Joanne could not have been the mother of the deceased baby, the Gardaí persisted in prosecuting her.
Subsequently, a special tribunal chaired by Judge Kevin Lynch was set up to assess the Gardaí’s investigation. This itself turned into a witch hunt of Joanne Hayes, while whitewashing the Gardaí’s role.
Lynch allowed police to pursue a line of inquiry that came straight out of a medieval inquisition, with Joanne Hayes questioned about her use of contraception, her sexual experiences and even her menstrual cycle. She broke down in tears repeatedly and required medical attention while giving evidence.
The tribunal concluded that the Hayes family willfully and freely gave false statements to the Gardaí. It also stated that they perjured themselves when talking about Garda ill-treatment. Joanne and the Hayes family were declared responsible for their own mistreatment, while Joanne was vilified by the Gardaí and the judge for her sexual history.
Echoes of Joanne Hayes’s treatment could be heard in the use of a teenager’s underwear to discredit her during a 2018 Cork rape trial. The defence lawyer told the jury “You have to look at the way she was dressed. She was wearing a thong with a lace front.” The man was acquitted soon after.
It is not surprising that women in Ireland do not feel supported or believed by the justice system. A new report by UCC and the Cork Sexual Violence Centre has found that 57% of victims of stalking and harassment did not report it to Gardaí. The study “suggests that negative experiences of reporting to An Garda Síochána outnumber positive experiences although it should be noted that some of the negative experiences pertain not to the gardaí themselves but to issues with the prosecution/court processes. Quite a number of respondents criticised limitations in the law”. Respondents to the study also reported victim-blaming by Gardaí and that Gardaí downplayed their claims.
In 2020, the Irish state finally apologised to Joanne Hayes. But they still have not uprooted the deeply sexist culture in the judicial system.