Feeling the force of a conservative backlash

Sally Richardson reviews Truth, Power and Lies: Irish society and the case of the Kerry babies by Tom Inglis,UCD Press, £18.50 hbk

IT’S TWENTY years since the Kerry babies case erupted onto the public stage. It doesn't seem so very long ago - modern times, surely - which is why it seemed as though a medieval witch-hunt had burst in upon us in a sort of time warp.

But as Tom Inglis, a professor of sociology at UCD, explains, it was a time when the modernising forces in Ireland came up against a conservative backlash. The economy was in recession following a boom. The gains made by the women's movement had suffered a setback the year before when the anti-abortion amendment to the Constitution was passed. Increased sexual freedom and moves to make contraception more easily available were under attack from the Catholic hierarchy.

Joanne Hayes, a young single mother from Kerry, was caught in this backlash. Again pregnant by her married lover, this time she went into denial. Her baby died shortly after she gave birth in secret on the family farm. She was then charged with the murder of another baby, found stabbed to death on the strand at Cahirciveen, after confessions were extracted from her and other members of her family.

When the body of Joanne's own baby was found on the farm, the gardai claimed she must have had twins. Although the charges were dropped, a tribunal held the following year cleared the gardai of obtaining confessions by intimidation and branded Joanne Hayes and her family as liars.

Inglis examines the way in which control over what is perceived as truth is wielded and manipulated by those in power. Mere opinion, prejudice and subjective impressions can come to be regarded as established facts, if they are stated by the right people.

The witch-hunt metaphor was much in use at the time, and Inglis examines it in detail. By this time there was much more openness in Irish society about extra-marital sex, and women were no longer inclined to hang their heads in shame. The authorities, in an attempt to reimpose old mores and attitudes, branded Joanne as a deviant who had openly transgressed what they considered to be the accepted norms and limits of women's behaviour.

This private family tragedy thus became a public concern. Tom Inglis puts this complex story into its social and historical context and asserts the importance of retelling it. ”What has been handed down or given as established, absolute and unquestionable should be resisted and challenged,” he writes.

This episode reveals much about Ireland at that time and it needs to be remembered and reflected upon. Otherwise, he maintains, “we are in danger of repeating its mistakes.”  

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