PRINT October 1992


the Other Ireland

We see it often enough: revelations about the private life of a public figure escalate into full-blown political and media spectacles. It also happens, though, that “ordinary” individuals are wrenched from everyday life and projected onto a national stage, as if acting out some deeply repressed anxiety in the social psyche. What was it about narratives of sexuality in Ireland, for example, that earlier this year turned the private trauma of a 14-year-old girl into a crisis that convulsed the entire nation?

In January, a Dublin schoolgirl, pregnant after an alleged rape by a neighbor, sought passage to England for an abortion. Since a 1983 referendum had approved a constitutional amendment banning abortion, the Irish state forbade her to leave the country. The ensuing public protest threatened not only to bring down the government but also to undermine the new union proposed for the European Community by the Maastricht treaty, which included a covertly negotiated protocol enshrining the 1983 amendment. As it turned out, the Irish Supreme Court got both government and EC off the hook by ingeniously interpreting the wording of the amendment to permit abortion in certain cases. The schoolgirl was allowed to go to England, and public outrage was temporarily defused.

Had Irish opinion shifted so dramatically since 1983, when the public had affirmed the abortion ban? In the media coverage of both the abortion referendum that year and the vote rejecting the introduction of divorce, in 1986, discussion had been restricted to the “public sphere,” in the most state-centered and male-defined sense of the term. Television and radio debates of these issues followed closed “current-affairs” formats, showing “experts,” lobbyists, and representatives of the public arguing with all the finesse of medieval theologians. The kind of open-ended “phone-ins,” magazine programs, and talk shows (such as the controversial Late Late Show, the most successful show on Irish TV) that had given women a voice, and had ventilated sexual issues frankly, were explicitly barred by the government-appointed broadcasting authorities from joining the debate. As a result, women’s stories simply were not told, and the politics of the body were reduced to abstractions. When Irish people entered the polling booths in 1983 and ’86, they had been sheltered from discussion of the pain and lived complexities of the situations that give rise to abortion and divorce, and they voted, in both cases by a two-thirds majority, to support the constitutional bans.

No sooner was the abortion vote over than the stories erased from the media surfaced with a narrative excess hardly containable within journalism. Early in 1984, the body of a schoolgirl, Ann Lovett, was found at the foot of a statue of the Virgin Mary in a midlands town. She had died giving birth. In the acrid fallout from the abortion debate, Lovett had managed to keep her pregnancy a secret, even from those closest to her. Two months later, a jogger on a beach in County Kerry found a baby stabbed to death in a plastic fertilizer-bag. Under police questioning, a young, single woman, Joanne Hayes, confessed to murdering her child. Later, however, it proved that Hayes had actually given birth to a different baby, who was found buried in her garden. A government inquiry and several best-selling books failed to establish what “really happened” in what came to be known as the “Kerry Babies” affair. What Geoffrey Nowell-Smith writes of hysterical narrative forms seemed to apply to the unfolding of events in postreferendum Ireland: “The laying out of the problems ‘realistically’ always allows for the generating of an excess which cannot be accommodated. The more the plots move towards a resolution the harder it is to accommodate the excess.”1

It is striking how Irish cinema has picked up these traumatic episodes, discharging the excess that cannot be expressed in the language of the courtroom or of journalism. In a succession of widely different films—Joe Comerford’s short Waterbag, 1984, and his feature-length Reefer and the Model, 1988, Mike Leigh’s television play Four Days in July, 1984, Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s December Bride, 1990, Neil Jordan’s The Miracle, 1991, Gerry Stembridge’s docudrama The Truth about Claire, 1990, Gillies MacKinnon’s The Playboys, 1992, and, most effectively, Margo Harkin’s Hush-a-Bye-Baby, 1989—maternal narratives preside over the action, indeed constitute the enigmas of the plot. What is disturbing about many of the films is that they do not begin with birth but rather end with it. For some of the women in these movies, the question is not so much of life after death as of life after giving birth.

In a country where both church and state paternalistically police women’s bodies, it is significant that in virtually all these films (as in the stories of Lovett, Hayes, and now the Dublin girl), paternity is thrown in doubt. The father hovers in the background, or is adrift from the action, or cannot be identified at all. Both Tara Maguire (Robin Wright) in The Playboys and Sarah Gomartin (Saskia Reeves) in December Bride withhold the names of the fathers of their babies. In The Playboys, the jilted claimant (Albert Finney) is a police sergeant, an embodiment of state authority; it is as if the interrogation of Joanne Hayes has turned full circle, and the vulnerable single mother can now usurp the law of the father and, by extension, the patriarchal lineage of the state. Somewhat similarly, Sarah in December Bride rejects the advances of a clergyman. She also sleeps with two brothers on a family farm, destabilizing the figures of descent by which property in Ireland was traditionally handed down.

In Hush-a-Bye-Baby, a schoolgirl, Goretti (Emer MacCourt), from a nationalist community in Derry, becomes pregnant making love to her boyfriend, in a scene in which The Late Late Show, the program barred from discussing abortion in 1983, plays on TV in the background. Other subtle references to the referendum are threaded through the narrative: as Goretti breaks eggs in the kitchen, an antiabortion campaigner on the radio repeats a bishop’s statement that the most dangerous place to be in Ireland is a woman’s womb, and gets the rebuke that such “prolife” sentiments are little consolation to Ann Lovett. Later, Goretti stares at the sea in an Irish-speaking part of the country, as if trying to discover herself, in time-honored romantic fashion, through communion with nature. As the sequence opens, however, a blue fertilizer bag washes up on the beach. This incongruous detail is not just a problem of ecology: to Irish viewers it represents a return of the repressed—the Kerry Babies controversy.

The silencing of women’s stories and of marginalized voices during the referendum campaigns of the ’80s allowed Irish people to delude themselves that they were dealing with cut-and-dried issues. Since then, they have several times been exposed to the kind of harrowing narrative that brings home the futility of absolute interdictions—and in which, symptomatically, fathers lose control of the action. It is tempting to see such stories simply as individual case histories that put a human face on the impersonal abstractions of politics. But these charged “family romances” themselves operate politically, as alternative national narratives to the official discourses of faith and fatherland. The resurgence of this other Ireland was clearly signaled in the presidential election campaign of 1990, when a conservative government minister ridiculed the attempt of the left-wing candidate, Mary Robinson, to combine public life with motherhood. This masculine version of power cost the government the election: Robinson is now the first woman president of Ireland.

If there is a coda to this story, it has to do with the “return of the father.” Three months after the plight of the 14year-old rape victim attracted world headlines, Ireland was back in the international news. An American woman announced that the father of her teenage son was an Irish bishop. Their love affair had taken place in Kerry, not far from where the Kerry Babies episode began. This time, however, it was the father who had to account for his actions, and who had to acknowledge the story of a woman he had tried to silence.

Luke Gibbons is Lecturer in Communications at Dublin City University.


1. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, “Minelli and Melodrama,” in Christine Gledhill, ed., Home is Where the Heart Is, London: British Film Institute, 1987, p. 73.