Review of Sexual Transgression and Scapegoats: A study from Modern Ireland and ‘1970-2005’ in Occasions of Sin:Sex and Society in Modern Ireland


This is a joint review of Sexual Transgression and Scapegoats: A study from Modern Ireland by Tom Inglis and Chapter Five‘1970-2005’ in Diarmaid Ferriter Occasions of Sin: Sex & Society in Modern Ireland.

Both of these pieces focus on changing attitudes in Irish society especially in respect to issues to do with sexuality and morality. While Diarmaid Ferriter provides a broader history of these changes, Tom Inglis focuses in on a specific case, the Kerry Babies Case, in the context of the dramatic changes that were occurring in Irish culture and society in the latter half of the 20th century. Through his analysis Inglis illuminates the tensions between church and state values and concepts of morality and the more secular concepts that were battling to the fore.

The beginning of Diarmaid Ferriter’s chapter helps to put the Kerry Babies Case into context. During the 1970s the Catholic Church began to feel besieged by issues such as contraception. An opinion poll in 1971 showed that while a majority of people (61%) were against the legal sale of contraceptives this majority diminished in the younger age bracket. 51% of men and 41% of women between the ages of 16 and 24 were now in favour of legal birth control. To many this was indicative of declining moral standards. The scene was set for a long lasting battle between conservative entities such as the hierarchy of the Catholic Church who desired to save Ireland’s ‘Catholic Soul’ and more liberal groups such as the Irish Family Planning Agency. The debates on contraception and later abortion proved to be highly divisive and raged on into the 1980s and after.

By 1984 and the Kerry Babies case, ‘the economic tide, on the back of which sexual freedom and increased sexual equality had been sweeping through the country, began to recede rapidly as Ireland went into recession. This coincided with the emergence of a new strident catholic morality. The early 1980’s saw abortion being made unconstitutional; a Catholic church led moral panic around the issues of morality and sexuality combined with a ‘purge’ against single mothers’.

Events that later became known as the ‘Kerry Babies Case’ began in 1984 with the discovery of a newborn baby boy stabbed to death on White Strand beach at Cahirciveen, County Kerry. A local woman, , who was known to have been pregnant, was arrested and she and her family confessed to the murder and the dumping of the baby. However, they later withdrew their confessions and instead asserted that Hayes’s baby had died shortly after birth and had been buried on the family farm in secret. Tests showed that the baby whose body was found on the farm had the same blood type – O – as Hayes and its father had. However, the baby on the beach had blood group A.

Instead of using this evidence to vindicate the Hayes family from any involvement with the death of the Cahirciveenbaby and as proof that the confessions they obtained had been bogus, the gardaí devised a range of theories to overcome the forensic evidence and substantiate the claim that Joanne Hayes had given birth to both babies. The main theory put forward by the gardaí was that Hayes had become pregnant simultaneously by two different men (through heteropaternal superfecundation) and had given birth to both children, killing the one found on the beach. The charges against Hayes were later withdrawn by the DPP but not before she was subjected to intense media attention and had her private life, as Diarmaid Ferriter saysdissected by an all male tribunal of inquiry’. Members of the Oireachtas Committee on Women’s Rights referred to the lines of questioning that Hayes endured at this tribunal as ‘mental torture’.

To explain these events Inglis relies on Foucault’s theory of disciplinary power, Girard’s concept of the scapegoat and Said’s notion of how ‘others’ come to be constituted as exotic.

Inglis relates the to Foucault’s theory of disciplinary power which contends that chance and power go together. According to this theory it was not a coincidence that Joanne Hayes was plucked from obscurity by the state and made infamous.

According to Inglis she was plucked from obscurity because she had dared to openly and defiantly transgress sexual morality as laid down by the church and state by having not one, but two babies out of wedlock.

As a result she was constructed into the archetypal ‘other’, the opposite of the good Irish mother, the acceptable image of femininity as perpetuated by the church and state through which good middle-class Irish women were supposed to define and construct their identity. Because of this, she needed to be rooted out, exposed as a deviant and punished for publicly resisting and challenging the sexual morality of the Catholic Church.

The second theory that Inglis discusses is Girard’s concept of the scapegoat. According to Girard ‘scapegoats are often constructed by persecutors who convince themselves that an individual, despite his relative weakness, is extremely harmful to society’. Following this theory Joanne Hayes became infamous not because of any particular crime she might have committed but because through her actions she ‘challenged the traditional Catholic habitus within which Irish male power had been created and maintained for generations’.

This can be related to Said’s notion of how ‘others’ come to be constituted as exotic. This theory holds that ‘the construction of identity . . . involves establishing opposites and “others” whose actuality is always subject to the continuous interpretation and re-interpretation of their differences from “us”. Through this process Hayes was constructed into a dangerous and deviant sexually transgressive women who become not just unacceptable but exotic. The pillaring of Hayes can be seen as part of a process that was intended to secure the identity of Irish women.

I do think that these arguments have merit as I do not think that the particulars of this case alone could have created so much outcry and upheaval. Joanna Hayes’s alleged crimes were not unique. Infanticide was not unheard of in Irelandbefore 1984. Nor was Hayes the first woman known to have had an affair with a married man or to have given birth to a baby out of wedlock. There were obviously greater issues at play here. It was the treatment of the case by the establishment rather then the case itself that made it unique.

From the very beginning the handling of the investigation deviated from the norm. The Garda Murder Squad became involved in what Nell McCafferty has called a ‘women hunt’ where women who had been or were suspected of being in broken romances or of having affairs were tracked down and questioned. They presupposed that the mother of a murdered child was likely to have been in some way sexually deviant. I think that this above all shows that the case had more to do with the establishment’s fear of a decline in morality rather then a straight forward murder investigation. The involvement of the Murder Squad in the search for the killer of the Cahirciveen baby was also very notable. As was pointed out before, infanticide was nothing new, so why did then Ireland’s elite detectives get involved in what under normal circumstances would have been routine murder inquiry?

That Hayes was even charged with the murder of the baby found on the beach was significant in its’ self because other then the fact that it was known that she had been recently pregnant there was nothing to connect her to this child. Even when it emerged that this baby was not even in the same blood group as Hayes and the father of the child found on the farm, it was not accepted that she was not responsible for its’ death. Instead the police embarked on a search for explanations that would overcome the inconvenient forensic evidence.

Taking these facts into account it is obvious that there were greater forces at play. As Inglis says ‘throughout the last half of the 20th century in Ireland, particularly the 1980s and 1990s, there were numerous site struggles were the forces of tradition clashed with those of modernization.’ ‘What happened to Joanne Hayes has to be understood as another site of the struggle that was taking place over the processes of informalisation and sexualisation of social relations and, specifically, women’s sexuality, fertility and domesticity.’

Similar themes are discussed in Chapter Five of Diarmaid Ferriter’s book. In it he traces of the development of the seismic shifts in that took place in Irish culture and attitude that took place from 1970 to 2005. Like Inglis he analyses ‘sites of struggle’ and what they said about Irish culture such as the battle for the legalisation of divorce and the arguments that took place over the legal age of consent for example.

While reading this chapter the phrase ‘the past is a foreign country’ frequently came to mind. From a modern view point it is hard to believe how issues such as contraception caused such division and controversy in the fairly recent past. I also thought that it was encouraging to see how the achievement of things that positively impacted on the lives of women such as the right to contraception, divorce, single mother benefit, the decline of church control over female sexuality etc. were achieved over a relatively short period of time.

Unfortunately it is also clear from the book that positive gains such as the de-stigmatisation of sex have come in tandem with negative things such as the early sexualisation of children and a rise in STDs for instance. It is also clear that women in Ireland have a long way to go to achieve parity with men. While the days of women being branded and castigated for having children out of wedlock are thankfully over, woman still suffer disproportionally from things like domestic violence, sexual abuse and discrimination etc. Women’s sexuality is also exposed to a level of criticism that men’s is not with labels such as ‘slut’ still being casually banded around.

Overall the most important thing I took away from these readings is that while women have achieved an incredible amount over the last few decades, these gains can not be taken for granted and the fight for women’s liberation must be waged with the greatest determination. Therefore the women’s movement is just as relevant today as it was forty years ago.