The Girl and the Grotto: Remembering and Forgetting in Irish History

Walking home from school on a frigid day in January 1984, two Irish boys came across a shocking scene: in a grotto at the local Catholic Church, alongside a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, lay the still bodies of a teenage girl and a newborn infant. The girl, fifteen-year-old Ann Lovett from Granard, County Longford, died later that day, and the baby, a male to whom Lovett had given birth, was deceased when authorities arrived on the scene.

How did a teenage girl end up giving birth alone on an icy winter’s day, in the open and exposed to the elements? How do these tragic deaths shed light on Ireland’s troubled past and present, particularly in terms of reproduction and women’s bodies? And why does it remain so difficult for Irish society to both remember — and forget — this case?

We don’t know much about that January in 1984. Ann, who likely had been concealing a pregnancy for months, was probably already in labor when she left for school that morning. While on her lunch break from school, she walked to the grotto and gave birth. In an Ireland that was still overwhelmingly and devoutly Catholic, maybe the grotto, with its statue of the Virgin Mary, was a place where Ann felt safe or sought peace. Perhaps she hoped to bring her infant into the world in the maternal embrace of the Blessed Virgin. We can’t know for sure, of course, because Ann is gone, but also because since her death the community of Granard has remained remarkably silent. Cahir O’Doherty remembers of the local response to the Lovett tragedy: “Locals would not speak to the press. Some criticized their silence as complicity; others felt it was their only possible response to the tragic circumstances of the case and the sudden invasion of the town by the world’s press.”

Photo of Ann’s Grotto (Irish Examiner)

In the more than 30 years that have passed since Ann’s death, we have come to learn little more about her or her family. Those who have spoken have consistently maintained that those in the area were ignorant of Ann’s condition in 1984. “It’s not that small a town,” remarked one Granard resident in 2014, “and we don’t all know everything about each other and we didn’t then either.”

The trauma and the silences surrounding pregnancy and birth in Irish history are not limited to the Lovett case. I have written previously about Ireland and the scandals surrounding its dreadful historical treatment of women’s reproductive autonomy.

But Ann’s death and the responses to it are unique for lots of reasons, and not least because they expose the complexities and contradictions of remembering, and forgetting, in modern Ireland. How do societies and nations commemorate horror, especially in relation to women’s bodies and reproduction?

Ireland is currently in the midst of a commemoration and memory boom, a “decade of centenaries.” As it marks the centenaries of the First World War, the 1916 Irish rebellion, and more, the state is investing an awful lot of time and money in the business of memory and monuments. As historian Emilie Pine writes, Irish society currently has an “‘obsession with’ … the past and remembrance in the Irish and Irish diasporic political and cultural landscape.”

That obsession, however, has proven less stalwart when it comes to official state recognition of the Magdalene laundries, mother-and-baby homes, symphysiotomy, or secret adoptions. Nowhere in the list of events commemorating the “significant events in Irish history that took place between 1912 and 1922” is any mention, for example, of the 1916 near death of Lizzie O, who became ill after consuming abortifacients to rid herself of an unwanted pregnancy.1

Although the Irish government apologized for its treatment of women in the Magdalene laundries and has promised to investigate recent revelations of infant deaths in mother and baby homes, there is no official monument for Ann or other girls like her. Plans for a memorial recognizing the survivors of the Magdalene laundries, meanwhile, seem to have become mired in administrative muck. There is a deliberateness, then, not only to what individuals, groups, and even nations choose to commemorate but also what they choose to forget.

Recently, some activists in Irish society have attempted to create a more public dialogue about the twentieth-century state’s (and Church’s) ghastly treatment of women and their reproductive bodies. They have, for example, gone to the government demanding compensation for childbirth horrors. They march on the streets for abortion rights. They organize and engage in activism to get Irish society to recognize that women who “stepped out of line” in the past were contained, imprisoned, isolated, and even thrown away.

March for Choice, 2015. (A Ryan/Flickr | CC BY-NC-ND)

The Ann Lovett case, however, remains half-hidden in the Irish conscience and national memory. Indeed, discussions of the tragedy continue to emphasize silence, ignorance, and denial. Recent newspaper articles, for example, advertise titles including “Ann Lovett: Silence that Will Never Be Broken” and “Forgetting Ann Lovett.”

As is often the case in Irish culture, artistic depictions of historical trauma lead the way in demanding acknowledgement and remembrance. A case in point relating to the Lovett case is Paula Meehan’s astonishing “The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks” (1991), in which the poet assumes the voice of the Blessed Virgin at Ann’s grotto. It reads, in part:

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.

Meehan’s haunting words indict not only the Church and the “town tucked up in little scandals” but also the entire nation. They also, however, suggest that Lovett is remembered, at least by a feminine divine power. Moving forward, perhaps Ireland will do more to push out the secrets of its past into the daylight, where they can be examined, recognized, processed, and commemorated.

Further Reading

Ferriter, Diarmaid. Occasions of Sin: Sex and Society in Modern Ireland. London: Profile Books, 2009.

Inglis, Tom. Truth, Power and Lies: Irish Society and the Case of the Kerry Babies. Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2003.

Maguire, Moira J. “The Changing Face of Catholic Ireland: Conservatism and Liberalism in the Ann Lovett and Kerry Babies Scandals,” Feminist Studies 27, no. 2 (2001): 335-58.

Pine, Emilie. The Politics of Irish Memory: Performing Remembrance in Contemporary Irish Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Notes

  1. Crown Files at Assizes, Clare, 1916, National Archives, Dublin. Return to text.

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