It was, in the words of the Irish Examiner in January this year, one of the stories that changed Ireland. A 15 year-old schoolgirl Ann Lovett died after giving birth to a baby beside a grotto dedicated to Our Lady in the grounds of the Catholic church in Granard, in County Longford. Friends discovered her with her dead baby and she bled to death before an ambulance arrived to take her to hospital on January 31 1984.
I remember reporting from Granard on the day of her funeral, a time when the media were not welcome in this Midlands town. I got the cameraman to wait until after the funeral to get some pictures of the flowers covering her grave. No-one wanted to talk about the incident on the day but I did manage to get a radio news piece done from a public telephone box situated inside a local hotel. I tried to speak as softly as I could as I did not want those nearby to hear my report.
Although Ann’s death created huge public debate the only reference to her in the newly released National Archives documents is at the back of a file on the visit of US president Ronald Reagan to Ireland that year.
The Irish Times report from Fiona Gartland is as follows:
(The reference to Ann Lovett) “arises in letters from street poet Christopher Daybell to then Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald and Tánaiste Dick Spring about the death. Mr Daybell enclosed a letter to him from the Archdiocese of Armagh written in response to his correspondence, which is not on file. The letter from the Archdiocese, dated February 23rd, a984, said Mr Daybell did “a grave injustice to the people of Granard and particularly to the teachers” at Ms Lovett’s school.
“It is rather difficult to solve a problem that one does not know exists. Any priest could tell you of similar cases where children came to full-term without it being known to either their parents or their teachers.” It said “it was rather unfortunate” Ann did not “make it known even to her friends who might have been able to help her or did not seek medical assistance independently of her parents or teachers. Why she chose to keep her secret will never be known,” it added. “I think her sad death reflects more on her immaturity than on any lack of Christian charity amongst the family and people with whom she lived.”
The letter was signed by the diocesan secretary to the Catholic primate, cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, and noted the cardinal was absent. In Mr Daybell’s covering letter to Dr FitzGerald, dated March 3rd, he told the Taoiseach the girl’s death “coupled with” the letter from the archdiocese, had driven him “almost mad”.
“The letter goes beyond hypocrisy – that man in Armagh is incapable of feeling beyond the walls of his office and the great institution into which he has built his being,” he wrote. Referring to the description of Ms Lovett as immature, he wrote, “Why should she not have been so, at 15?” He also asked what assistance or intervention mechanism existed in Granard “apart from those elements which induce fear”. He included a poem he had written about the death.
In his letter of March 2nd to Mr Spring, he said it could emerge, “considering the hideous attitudes of men toward women in rural Ireland”, that Ms Lovett “was driven by forces other than those within herself”. “I await the result of the enquiry in a now cool anger, and hope that it will stiffen the resolve of your government on divorce and contraception,” the poet wrote.
Only one letter in response to Mr Daybell remains on the file. Dated March 8th, it is signed by the Taoiseach’s then private secretary George Shaw. It thanks him for his “further correspondence”, which he said would be brought to the Taoiseach’s attention. In a different typeface, someone printed ‘locate previous papers and put away'”. (end of article)
I could not find a copy of Mr Daybell’s poem. But I did find a very evocative work written in 1991 by another Dublin poet Paula Meehan and available on the web.
“The Statue of the Virgin at Granard”
By Paula Meehan
It can be bitter here at times like this,
November wind sweeping across the border.
Its seeds of ice would cut you to the quick.
The whole town tucked up safe and dreaming,
even wild things gone to earth, and I
stuck up here in this grotto, without as much as
star or planet to ease my vigil.
The howling won’t let up. Trees
cavort in agony as if they would be free
and take off – ghost voyagers
on the wind that carries intimations
of garrison towns, walled cities, ghetto lanes
where men hunt each other and invoke
the various names of God as blessing
on their death tactics, their night manoeuvres.
Closer to home the wind sails
over dying lakes. I hear fish drowning.
I taste the stagnant water mingled
with turf smoke from outlying farms.
They call me Mary – Blessed, Holy, Virgin.
They fit me to a myth of a man crucified:
the scourging and the falling, and the falling again,
the thorny crown, the hammer blow of iron
into wrist and ankle, the sacred bleeding heart.
They name me Mother of all this grief
Though mated to no mortal man.
They kneel before me and their prayers
fly up like sparks from a bonfire
that blaze a moment, then wink out.
It can be lovely here at times. Springtime,
early summer. Girls in Communion frocks
pale rivals to the riot in the hedgerows
of cow parsley and haw blossom, the perfume
from every rushy acre that’s left for hay
when the light swings longer with the sun’s push north.
Or the grace of a midsummer wedding
when the earth herself calls out for coupling
and I would break loose of my stony robes,
pure blue, pure white, as if they had robbed
a child’s sky for their colour. My being
cries out to be incarnate, incarnate,
maculate and tousled in a honeyed bed.
Even an autumn burial can work its own pageantry.
The hedges heavy with the burden of fruiting
crab, sloe, berry, hip; clouds scud east,
pear scented, windfalls secret in long
orchard grasses, and some old soul is lowered
to his kin. Death is just another harvest
scripted to the season’s play.
But on this All Soul’s Night there is
no respite from the keening of the wind.
I would not be amazed if every corpse came risen
From the graveyard to join in exaltation with the gale,
A cacophony of bone imploring sky for judgement
And release from being the conscience of the town.
On a night like this I remember the child
who came with fifteen summers to her name,
and she lay down alone at my feet
without midwife or doctor or friend to hold her hand
and she pushed her secret out into the night,
far from the town tucked up in little scandals,
bargains struck, words broken, prayers, promises,
and though she cried out to me in extremis
I did not move,
I didn’t lift a finger to help her,
I didn’t intercede with heaven,
nor whisper the charmed word in God’s ear.
On a night like this, I number the days to the solstice
and the turn back to the
center of our foolish dance,
burning heart of stone,
molten mother of us all,
hear me and have pity.
Also Christopher Fox Graham website