The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Sex, lies, but no videotape

Book review

Truth, Power and Lies:
Irish Society and the Case of the Kerry Babies,
By Tom Inglis, pp. 304.
Dublin: University College Dublin Press: 2004. 30 euro.

Seaghán Ó Murchú

Applying sociological theory and 'thick' description, UCD sociologist Tom Inglis investigates the April 1984 scandal of the 'Kerry babies' when two dead newborns were found, one near Cahirciveen and the other across the bay, near Slea Head on the Dingle peninsula. Gardaí blamed unmarried Joanne Hayes, who had just given birth; she and her family became targets of media attention, legal and medical debate, and moral censure. Inglis demonstrates that Hayes represented a modern woman challenging traditional Catholic mores of the 'long nineteenth century'. One of the babies found near the bay was hers, the second child she had born to a local married man. Why she chose to continue with a second pregnancy, to reject contraception, and perhaps to act as she was accused of and confessed to-the murder of her just-born child-motivates Inglis' academic research. His work here follows logically earlier books, Moral Monopoly: The Rise and Fall of the Catholic Church in Ireland and Lessons in Irish Sexuality.

In the first chapters, Inglis examines the situation by reviewing witnesses, forensics, and testimony from the Hayes family and neighbours. Oceanographers, psychologists, pathologists, and the Murder Squad all entered their opinions. What had at first seemed an easily solved murder unravelled when claims of superfecundation were charged-that Hayes bore twins by different fathers, since the two babies found bore different blood types. This extremely rare occurrence, according to prosecutors, strengthened Hayes' unnatural sexual degeneracy. Inglis displays how the Tribunal Report can be read as 'an innovative piece of ethnographic research' into the conflicts between the state and the family, rural and urban Ireland, and Catholic and secular morality in the 1980s.

Inglis analyses these conflicts while never resolving who was responsible for the deaths of the Kerry babies. He takes the incident as an example of a witch-hunt, in which powerful forces shaping perceptions of honor, shame, and permissible behavior manipulated this still mysterious incident into a symbol of the collapse of Church control over Irish women. The concept of Pierre Bourdieu's habitus—'the automatic predisposed way' in which everyday events are interpreted as right or wrong—informs Inglis' appraisal of how customary mores of sexuality, farming, Catholicism, and the repression of individual choice eroded within the Hayes family. He takes unmarried Joanne's decision to raise a daughter fathered by a married man and her predicament after again becoming pregnant by him as a microcosmic articulation of the forces beginning to undermine Catholic morality but, for Joanne in 1984, changes arriving before the secular model now prevalent could replace an outmoded model of behaviour with a fully liberalised one based on individualism and refusal to conform to traditional expectations.

The role of the body assumes importance for Inglis' interpretation of Joanne Hayes' liminal position. Inglis claims that within this then twenty-seven-year-old woman's choice, a clash of two ideologies occurs: fitness vs. fasting, self-indulgence vs. self-denial. Joanne worked at a gym in Tralee. His exploration of her cultural tension provides the most innovative portion of his thesis. 'She began to express herself in an urban society in which she was not so well known. At night she went home to a family and a traditional way of life in which notions of self, desire and pleasure had a long history of denial and repression.' Eschewing jargon, Inglis succeeds in presenting Hayes as not only a pawn played by legislative and coercive entities, but—albeit to a limited extent—a young woman increasingly trusting that rewards invited by her own actions and promised by a Westernizing hedonism could sustain her within her chosen, single motherhood.

While less innovative in his exploration of the concepts of shame and pride, Inglis brings in Edward Said and Michel Foucault to bolster his analysis of the manipulation of power by the capital city against a marginalised coastal region. Greater attention by Inglis to the role of local pride in 'the Kingdom' and the reaction of cosmopolitan Dublin to the actions of those from long-stereotyped Co. Kerry would have strengthened this section of his book. For Blanket readers, of note should be how Inglis adapts Bourdieu's competing notions of public and private honor, symbolic and cultural capital to the struggle between traditional and modern Ireland, as he examines the impact endured by the local gardaí when pitted against the determined anti-subversive agencies developed by the Dublin government in the 1970s and 1980s against terrorism. Inglis demonstrates how the 'heavy gang' within the detective force could build a confession analogous to the producer or editor of a documentary film. Reality, as the Hayes family discovered after their own confessions were manufactured—in Inglis' view—could be whatever the stronger and louder culture desired it to be. For Joanne Hayes and her family, the results of resisting this pressure proved disastrous.

In closing, Inglis acknowledges the culpability shared by sociologists. Academic analysis, he cautions, tends too easily to assume that the educated clerisy knows better than the untutored masses how the common folk should act according to sanctioned theory. Conversations recorded become rarified discourse. Lecturers speak for the people rather than listen to those whom they record. Inglis, in Truth, Power and Lies, seeks an alternative to conventional academic production. He cautions that scholars must listen to people's stories and not so quickly or cleverly interpret narrative from a 'designated, symbolically legitimated position' by which intellectuals 'actively participate in symbolic domination.' The mythic appeal of the Kerry babies' demise outlives the short-lived and still puzzling end for the two infants. Addressing his Irish audience, Inglis muses how 'despite attempts to turn the country into a mature, modern, liberal democracy, we were caught up in telling stories about death, sacrifice and mothers, and cleansing society of unruly bodies and transgressive women.' The death of the babies, after closing Inglis' pages, endures as mysteriously as a half-understood legend from family rumor or faerie lore, in its settings of shore and farm, implements of hairbrush and kitchen knife, and in the open-ended, unresolved fate of the scapegoated protagonist.

(Edited from a review for The New Hibernia Review 8.4 forthcoming, 2005.)




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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
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Index: Current Articles

28 January 2005

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Saor Eire Again
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Sex, Lies, But No Videotape
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The Danger of Securocrats
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Criminality Accepted as the Norm
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The Rapture
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Holocaust Revisited
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