As a child of the 1980s, when I think back to that era, I have nothing but fond memories. Questionable haircuts and clothes aside, I think of She-Ra, dancing to the theme song from Ghostbusters in the front room of our old house as a tiny tot. I think of perms, shoulder pads, WWF wrestling, Glenroe, Where in the World, playing with my cabbage patch dolls, watching Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Back to the Future, The Goonies and being happy.
Holding my mums hand, playing with my dad, watching Knight Rider with my brother and simply being a child. The 80s has been brought back into popular culture recently thanks to the likes of Stranger Things and Stephen King’s IT which have successfully tapped into ripe, much loved nostalgia, showing us only the good things about the decade we loved.
What I don’t think of, when I think about the 1980’s, is the oppressive and backward nature of society and how it treated the women of this country.
I don’t think about how unmarried mothers were viewed with scorn, hatred and suspicion. I don’t think about how a young woman in Kerry was maligned, harassed, singled out, made to confess to a horrific crime she didn’t commit and ultimately vilified as a ‘Scarlet Woman,’ because she’d had a baby out of wedlock.
This is not the 1980s of Stranger Things. This is not the bright, happy, funny, decade I grew up in.
I’ve never felt as if I was a second class citizen. I grew up knowing and feeling that I could do anything. I finished school, I went to college got a first class honours degree, did an MA, again got a first class honours degree and wrote the best thesis in the country on the topic.
The world was my oyster. It has never felt anything but open to me.
But when I sit down and think about Ireland and how it has treated women in my lifetime, that’s not the case.
How can it be that 34 years ago, Joanne Hayes, the young woman at the centre of the so-called Kerry Babies case was treated so unjustly?
I’m both angered and terrified in equal measure that a woman could be treated in this way.
But when I think about this country and the huge changes it’s gone though in a short space of time, I can see my rose tinted view of the past is skewed.
For example, it was only in 1985 when contraception could be sold without a prescription.
The thoughts of that are so alien to me, it’s almost funny.
But it goes on and on. Homosexuality was only decriminalised in 1993.
Same sex marriage only became legal three years ago.
The 8th Amendment is on the precipice of being put to the people.
It’s easy to say times have changed, but that’s not enough. It’s not a get out of jail free card. It doesn’t nullify what happened.
But when I think about it, am I really surprised? Because three words sum up the attitude of society.
The Magdalen Laundries.
Religion and the state conspired to punish, malign, torture and abuse the unmarried woman of this country for decades.
So why am I surprised that Joanne Hayes was treated in this way? Because it shows to me that the systemic degradation of women in Ireland was endemic.
34 years ago she was singled out and made to fit a crime.
She was seen as a ‘harlot’ who’d had a baby with a married man. ‘Unscrupulous’, ‘immoral’, the epitome of ‘The Scarlet Woman’… so a group of men decided she had to have carried out this horrific crime. ‘She had to have stabbed her infant baby 28 times and dumped it on a beach,’ right? Because if not her, then who? Who else could be so evil?
They even went so far as to choose an extremely rare scenario to explain the fact that the baby found on the beach and the baby buried on her land had different blood types – ‘Heteropaternal Superfecundation,’ whereby twins in the same womb can have two different fathers. It is by all accounts a very rare event.
But of course, she was a ‘harlot’ so this was the only explanation right? Sure she slept around didn’t she? She was pregnant around the same time. It HAD to be her!
But it wasn’t.
What they all lost sight of was that this was a 24 year old woman, whose baby she had with a married man Jeremiah Locke, had been stillborn. The infant was buried on the family farm. That might seem odd and we may have questions about why it was done, but imagine the circumstances and how women who had babies out of wedlock were viewed at that time.
Can anyone imagine how that felt? What was her frame of mind? Apart from the obvious and very personal complications of having a child with a married man in 1984, but what about the grief of losing her baby? She was dealing with all of that and with judgement from her family and inner circle of friends and community, but then to have every facet of her personal life and her sexual history plastered all over the papers for the world to judge? To be forever known as this ‘Scarlet Woman.’
Until, 34 years later, the government of your country decides to apologise.
Sorry we ruined your life. Sorry we painted you as a whore and a murderer.
Too little, too late.
And as for Baby John?
I think he’s been lost in all of this.
A tiny baby murdered so violently.
What of him? What of his stolen life, his sad legacy and so many unanswered questions.