Cahersiveen, Ireland — At the edge of an Irish village lies a cemetery nestled between lush hills and the craggy shores of the Atlantic. Under an umbrella of iridescent clouds, Catherine Cournane makes her way toward the back plots.
She meanders past the grave of her mother, two brothers and a cousin. She visits them often here in Cahersiveen’s Holy Cross Graveyard. But on this day, she is here for someone else.
It has been two days since Catherine last tended his grave and at the headstone, she sees fresh chrysanthemums. Their yellow and orange petals have weathered the pelting rain and wind. Catherine wonders who left them there.
Other babies are buried at Holy Cross and their loved ones look after them. But Baby John has no one.
So, Catherine took on the task of looking after the grave. She felt compelled to make sure Baby John rested in peace. He deserved that, Catherine thought, after the ugliness that had surrounded him.
She was in high school when Baby John died 34 years ago and she had helped carry his tiny casket to the graveyard. She was there when hundreds of schoolchildren stopped off to pay their respects with prayer after school. She joined the children when they burst into spontaneous song at the infant’s grave.
In Ireland, it wasn’t unusual for a community to gather around a loss of their own. But Baby John’s funeral was different.
Catherine did not know who the baby’s parents were. No one did. Still, no one does.
His three-day-old body had been found on a rocky stretch of beach on the outskirts of town. He had been strangled and stabbed 28 times.
But what Catherine does know is this: A baby was laid to rest on a spring day more than three decades ago and nothing would ever be the same again.
The sordid saga that unfolded would shake Catherine, her community and her country. And it would force Ireland to confront the bitter truth on how it treated its women.
In spring of 1984, Catherine was 15 and living at home with her parents and six brothers and sisters in Cahersiveen. The town’s 1,300 people had the good fortune of residing on a stunning spit of coastal land in southwest Ireland’s County Kerry that felt like the edge of Europe. It very nearly is.
Back then, everyone knew one another and if they didn’t know someone, they’d at least know of them. Police stopped residents for missing lights on bicycles but rarely anything more.
That was until Baby John.
A runner had discovered the newborn’s body on the beach and the gardai, as the Irish police are known, called Catherine’s father to the scene of the crime. Tom was an undertaker and Catherine had been surrounded by death all her life. But she took notice that night.
Tom christened the baby with water from a nearby freshwater stream. He named him John and placed him in a tiny casket. Catherine stared at it on the back seat of her father’s car. It was the smallest she’d ever seen.
She knew the circumstances of the baby’s death. She knew the police were hunting the killer; that they suspected the baby’s mother.
A couple of weeks passed. Then, one afternoon, as daffodils were beginning to break through winter soil, Catherine cycled home, down familiar lanes, to find two men waiting for her in the sitting room.
They were the police and Catherine knew exactly why they were there.
Do you have a boyfriend? they asked Catherine.
Do you know anyone who does have a boyfriend?
They asked if any of those women had been pregnant and if Catherine had heard any gossip about anyone having an affair with a married man.
No, she replied.
Catherine nearly fainted from the gardai’s questioning. She thought of herself as a “good girl,” and her mother did too. The police had brought fear into their home.
But in 1984, fear was the norm in Catholic Ireland.
Although a referendum a decade before had drastically reduced the Church’s political sway, its patriarchal weight still came down on aspects of society.
The Church crafted the curriculum for nearly all state schools and sex education was practically non-existent for girls like Catherine.
Her only exposure to sex was a box of condoms a relative once brought home as a souvenir from England. She kept the contraband hidden away, and included one as a gag gift for a friend’s birthday. When her mother found out, she got a wallop.
Condoms required a prescription and birth control pills were available only to married women if they were able to find a doctor to prescribe them.
Women found themselves raising smaller families than their mothers’ generation; yet Ireland still held one of the highest fertility rates in Western Europe. In decades prior, unmarried women who became pregnant would disappear “on holiday” for months. More likely, they were sent to church-run homes to deliver babies that would be given up for adoption, a practice for which the Church has apologized in recent years. The last mother and baby home only shut its doors in 1996.
The women would return home to silence. No one dared to ask questions.
There were few ways out for women who felt stuck in oppressive marriages; divorce was illegal and would be so until 1996.
Irish women had little say over their bodies. The state was in control. It was in this environment that the Baby John investigation unfolded.
At Catherine’s home in Cahersiveen, the gardai pressed on with questions.
How could you be coming to talk to me about this? she thought. My God, I’m only 15 and I haven’t done anything.
After Catherine, the police moved on to the next young woman. And then the next. They were interrogating nearly every woman of childbearing age on the Iveragh peninsula.
Brigid, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, was one of them. She was 24, single and working in a neighboring county. One weekend, she returned home to Cahersiveen to visit her parents and found the police waiting.
She has never forgotten the way one of the police officers examined her body. She felt his eyes burning through her.
She had never taken any chances and would never have become pregnant. Her parents raised her in the Church and she knew pregnancy before marriage would have amounted to a death sentence. She’d seen the fate her aunt suffered after becoming pregnant out of wedlock. Her aunt was thrown out of the house and never seen again. She had, like so many other Irish women, been erased.
At the time, the line of questioning young women like Brigid and Catherine experienced was not so shocking. Irish authorities were pushing back against significant gains made by women’s rights groups including the abolition of a law that prevented married women in civil service from working as well as campaigns for equal pay, equal rights and access to contraceptives.
None of it sat well with conservatives who saw the advances as a threat to Ireland’s traditional way of life.
A backlash was evident when over a million people welcomed Pope John Paul II to Ireland in 1979. To some, including Mary McAuliffe, a lecturer at University College Dublin, the Catholic leader’s teachings that contraception was immoral, divorce was unconceivable and a woman’s role was at home played a part in reversing some of the gains women had made.
In 1982, a schoolteacher was fired after becoming pregnant out of wedlock with a married man; two years later, Ireland’s Supreme Court ruled children born out of wedlock had no succession rights.
In September 1983, a referendum was called to constitutionally ban abortion, already illegal in practice.
Church and state blurred into one, culminating in anti-choice rhetoric, including a comment from a County Galway bishop who reportedly said the most dangerous place for a baby is in the mother’s womb.
The abortion referendum passed with a two-thirds majority and the Eighth Amendment to the Irish constitution provided the unborn with an equal right to life as the mother.
Women lived under pervasive fear. Shortly after the Eighth Amendment was passed, a 15-year-old girl, Ann Lovett, became pregnant and died in a grotto. She had gone there to secretly give birth, under a statue of the Virgin Mary.
Lovett died around the same time police were interviewing Catherine, Brigid and scores of other women in the Baby John case.
Soon the police had a suspect. Her name was Joanne Hayes.
Joanne had given birth to a boy the day before Baby John’s body was found on the beach.
She delivered her child alone on her family’s farm in Abbeydorney, a tiny town less than two hours’ drive from Cahersiveen.
Joanne lived on that farm with her infant daughter, mother, aunt and siblings. She worked as a receptionist in a newly built gym in nearby Tralee, where she met the father of her children, Jeremiah Locke.
The relationship was far from typical. Jeremiah was married and had children from another marriage. And even though abortion was illegal in Ireland, adultery was not.
Still, Joanne concealed her pregnancy from her family and coworkers. It was, like the relationship, an open secret.
By the time Joanne went into labor, the couple had broken up and Jeremiah was no longer by her side when she gave birth. It’s not clear if the baby was stillborn or whether he died soon after. Only Joanne knows.
What is known is that she was a grieving mother who wanted to keep the ordeal to herself. Quietly, she buried her son in a field at her family farm.
But Joanne needed medical care and checked into a nearby hospital.
The Baby John investigation was going nowhere and after the police saw Joanne’s name on a registry of new mothers, they pursued a theory connecting her to the murder that, court documents would later show, was “inexcusable.”
She was brought in for questioning by detectives. For most of Joanne’s life, the gardai had earned an intimidating reputation. Just a few years before, Amnesty International had published a report alleging “systematic maltreatment” of suspects, including “oppressive methods of extracting statements.”
Joanne told them she could prove she was not Baby John’s mother and pleaded with them to take her back to the baby’s grave. But the gardai refused and threatened to throw her in jail and her daughter in an orphanage.
Intimidated and scared, Joanne relented and told the police what they wanted to hear: she had killed Baby John and disposed his body at sea. Her family went along with the falsehood.
The truth would take more than three decades to surface.
As the police pressed on, Joanne was moved from jail to a psychiatric hospital. There, she finally convinced police to recover her baby’s body at the farm. The police now had two dead babies to account for.
They bandied about the idea of “heteropaternal superfecundation,” a medical anomaly suggesting Joanne had been pregnant with twins by two different men.
But Joanne’s blood work proved she couldn’t have been Baby John’s mother. The police were forced to drop the charges.
After the charges were dropped, Joanne and her family reported allegations of police abuse, both physical and psychological -- but the findings of an internal police investigation were inconclusive.
Public outcry prompted a probe into the gardai’s behavior but that quickly devolved into a trial of Joanne’s womanhood.
For months, Joanne and her family’s private lives were put on public display at a tribunal, with scores of male officials taking turns to assassinate her character according to the court documents.
A legal team showed maps where Joanne and her lover had been intimate; a doctor detailed the size of Joanne’s birth canal; male psychiatrists aired their opinions on her personal character. One even said that Joanne didn’t appear to be guilt-stricken enough at the death of her own child.
The judge ordered sedation for a visibly upset Joanne and in this state, she took the stand to testify.
Joanne’s sole consolation was that from her tragedy grew support from women across the country. They rallied outside the court and sent Joanne yellow roses as a symbol of solidarity. They wrote letters and cards to her, detailing their own stories of suffering.
The support was solace for Joanne but justice eluded her.
In 1985, the tribunal absolved the police of wrongdoing. The officers central to the case were all eventually promoted.
But those officers never apologized.
She returned home to Abbeydorney and shrouded herself in a cloak of privacy. For 34 years, she has lived there, out of the limelight.
Baby John’s killer was never found.
For all these years, Catherine has carried the story of Baby John with her. At his grave, she dreams of the life he might have lived. Or not.
If contraception had been readily available, maybe he would have not been born at all. If society had allowed for a more open conversation about sex, he might still be alive. Maybe he would have grown to have a family of his own.
Catherine thinks about her own family.
She raised an 18-year-old daughter in a home without taboos, one that celebrated women. She raised her to become a woman no one would dare mess with.
Catherine wanted to make sure her daughter never experienced what she had.
She’d lost her innocence the day her father brought home Baby John’s body. She was shocked when she learned about Joanne and how she was treated, though, looking back, she realizes it was that moment that cemented her commitment to women’s rights.
Catherine never forgot that the blame in the Kerry babies case had fallen on a woman. No men were ever at fault.
Irish society has seen significant social changes since then. The Church has lost much of its moral authority, rocked by cases of scandal, sex abuse and the discovery of a mass grave of babies born out of wedlock in Tuam.
The small ripples of change that feminists won in the 1970s and ‘80s have since swollen into waves of protest on Ireland’s shores.
In 1992, the landmark X Case made it legal for Irish women to travel abroad for abortions, adding the threat of suicide as grounds for abortion.
In 2013, Savita Halappanavar died of sepsis after being denied a termination of a miscarrying fetus in a Galway hospital, prompting the government to pass a bill allowing abortions when a woman’s life is in danger.
And in January, 34 years after Joanne was wrongfully accused, the police finally issued her a formal apology. They admitted that DNA conclusively ruled that she could have not been Baby John’s mother. They also announced they would reopen the Baby John case.
But for Irish women like Catherine, none of it is enough.
No apology or monetary compensation, she believes, could ever make things right for Joanne.
Catherine realizes that Irish attitudes have changed. Still, she knows many people in Ireland remain reluctant to talk about the Kerry babies saga. And the tribunal transcripts remain restricted to the public.
“It’s about time for Ireland to wake up and shake itself and say this was wrong,” she says.
Catherine says she was too naive, too powerless then to realize she might have been able to put an end to what has been described as a “medieval witch-hunt.”
Brigid has come forward on her own volition and Walter Sullivan, the detective leading the new investigation, says it’s standard protocol to go back to everyone. That could include Catherine.
The police won’t comment on the case, except to refute the notion that only women are considered suspects. O’Sullivan says the renewed probe focuses on DNA samples that might help identify Baby John and his parents.
For many women here, a familiar pattern is again unfolding.
Ireland is again calling a referendum on abortion. And the pope is again scheduled for a visit. Only this time, his visit will come after the vote.
And this time, Catherine is certain Irish women are more aware of their rights than before.
They will have a chance to voice their opinions when they cast their votes in a May 25 abortion referendum, hailed by many, including the prime minister, as a critical step for women’s rights in Ireland.
While her nation stands poised to make history, Catherine spends her time in Cahersiveen, with her daughter and her ailing father. At 88, he has grown frail and is no longer able to look after Baby John’s grave.
The headstone has been destroyed several times and Catherine and her family are fearful that new interest in the Baby John case will once again bring trouble.
On this misty afternoon, Catherine plucks weeds poking out of the gravel, cleaning the grave as though it held one of her own.
Ireland apologized to Joanne Hayes but Baby John never found his peace, Catherine believes. And without a fair investigation, he will never have that peace. She feels fairly sure the baby’s real mother still lives nearby. She hopes that woman can one day come forward without shame or fear.
"Our community is still dealing with a dark secret of the past,” she says.
The only way to move forward, Catherine believes, is to absolve the mother.
Then, perhaps, Baby John will be able to finally rest.