Monday, February 02, 2009

Vale of tears, veil of silence

No flowers are laid at the grotto where 15-year-old Ann Lovett and her infant son died 25 years ago.

This does not suggest that yesterday's anniversary of their death is not mourned, that their loss is not privately marked.

The memory runs far deeper than that.

"I haven't spoken about it in the past 25 years. What makes you think I'm going to start talking about it now?" asked Ann's mother Patricia Lovett, quite reasonably, when contacted by the Sunday Tribune last week.

Politely, she then declined to discuss the matter any further.

It was a case that both engrossed and horrified the nation. In many ways, the tragedy that unfolded in the Co Longford town of Granard on that cold winter's night speaks for itself. Yet many questions about the teenager's 'secret' pregnancy still remain unanswered.

St Mary's Catholic church is built on a rise at the edge of Granard and overlooks the town. Behind the church, down a grassy lane, the grotto lies behind steel gates.

On 31 January 1984, Ann left school at lunchtime and went into the grotto on the hill instead of home for lunch, her usual routine. The day got gradually wetter and colder. A few hours later, three boys stumbled upon a scene they would never forget.

The boys were on their way home from school when they spotted a red schoolbag beside the entrance to the laneway beside the church. That's when they heard the moans.

They went to investigate and found the 15-year-old girl and her stillborn infant son lying alongside her. She was semi-conscious, bleeding and suffering from exposure. Beside her lay a pair of scissors used to cut the umbilical cord. Two hours after the grim discovery, Ann died at Mullingar hospital.

Glaring parallels

Today, the grotto is not well maintained. There is nothing to indicate what once happened here.

Two pairs of rosary beads have been placed around the neck of the kneeling statue of Mary Magdalene but one of its thumbs is broken off.

Under a canopy of branches, Magdalene is praying to a statue of the Virgin Mary.

The parallel between the religious symbolism and the event the grotto is best known for is glaring – a young, unmarried pregnant teenager giving birth in the shadow of a saint shunned for her own supposed sexual activity.

But in reality, Ann's choice of birth place may have been incidental. It's hard to imagine anyone willingly choosing this lonely, dark corner to bring a life into the world.

An inquest into Ann's death in Mullingar a few weeks after the tragedy returned a verdict of death due to irreversible shock caused by haemorrhage and exposure during childbirth. Contacted last week, the coroner in Mullingar who carried out the only public inquiry into the deaths, Dr Patrick Mangan, declined to discuss the case.

This unwillingness to talk about what unfolded here is shared by many in Granard, who feel the media have been intrusive and attached blame to the community.

The local tragedy became a national scandal at a time when the direction of Ireland was changing. Some blamed a lack of Catholic values in the young for what happened while others rejected this, saying Catholic repression forced a terrified pregnant teenager to give birth alone.

Divisive abortion referendum

Ann Lovett's death came just four months after the outcome of a divisive abortion referendum in which a two-thirds majority voted to enshrine the right to life of the unborn in the constitution, creating confusion over where that left the rights of the mother.

The death of mother and child became symbolic of the emerging clash between church and state.

The media spotlight was understandably glaring.

"The reason the community feels hard done by the media is because we didn't know she was pregnant," said a former teacher who taught Ann at Mercy secondary school.

"I was a young teacher, I had no experience of teenagers being sexually active at that age. It was a different time. The biggest sadness for the community is that we weren't given a chance to grieve or draw breath. We were accused of neglecting a child and had to defend ourselves immediately. Ann was a nice girl. She had plenty of friends and was your average teenager."

Reacting to the clamorous outcry that followed the tragedy, the Department of Education carried out an inquiry of sorts and became satisfied that school staff were oblivious to the teenager's pregnancy.

"There seems to be an awful lot more to that family background than we have known about," wrote then Fine Gael minister for education Gemma Hussey in her memoir, At the Cutting Edge: Cabinet Diaries.

"What happened was the most appalling tragedy. The poor child was unfortunate from the first day of her life."

Ann's home was on Granard's Main Street. Her parents Patricia and Diarmuid had eight other children. Though no family member has ever spoken publicly, it has always been denied they had any knowledge of Ann's full-term pregnancy.

Less than three months after the tragedy, the family were struck another blow when Ann's 14-year-old sister Patricia died. She took her own life from an overdose of a drug prescribed primarily for anxiety and blood pressure.

Diarmuid Lovett, who suffered from high blood pressure, had a stroke and died at the age of 54 three years later.

The Cavan man had owned a small pub, the Copper Kettle, now closed, which he ran from the family home.

'People suspected but no one knew'

Opinion differs in Granard as to whether anyone was aware of the teenager's pregnancy.

"I know that someone did say something to someone in the family that they thought she might be pregnant," said a prominent local man, who asked not to be named.

"That person was told 'to mind their own business'. People suspected but no one knew for definite. I remember she used to wear a big loose coat. There have been people blamed for what happened but there's never been any evidence. There have been allegations alright. No one wanted to talk about it much at the time and no one wants to talk about it now either."

About six months after Ann's death, rumours began to circulate that another local teenager around the same age had fallen pregnant.

One well-known man from the community felt compelled to approach the parents, the memory of the Lovett tragedy still fresh and painful. "Just the thought that it could happen again was terrible," he said.

"The parents genuinely didn't know. Sometimes you can't see what's in front of your eyes. But it was true. They went to Limerick, where the girl had the baby, and it was adopted."

Ann's mother Patricia is an active parishioner at St Mary's church in Granard and often acts as a eucharistic minister. She also volunteers in the local community centre with Sister Maeve Brady.

The nun is described by locals as Patricia's "guardian angel" because of how she has protected her from the media glare that ensued after the death of her daughter and grandchild.

Patricia's son Niall is the only one of her children who has remained in Granard, and is a well-liked handyman.

"The family has moved on, the community has moved on," Sr Brady told the Sunday Tribune.

"That's what every grieving family wants and needs to do."

'Chased out of town'

The Lovett family are respected members of the community, says town councillor Fintan Flood, and they deserve privacy.

"I would praise the mother and her son," he added. "It's hard to know if the result would be any different if the same thing happened here again. I don't think it would."

The town has collectively tried to shield the Lovett family from any further hurt, and journalists asking questions 25 years later are met largely with a hostile reception.

Locals who co-operated with a 1995 RTÉ radio documentary, Letters to Ann, brought severe condemnation on themselves.

"Some of them were practically chased out of town after they did that," remarked a local man.

Distrust of the media aside, the other reason locals aren't keen to discuss the case is out of respect for the family.

"Ann's mother Patricia is a saint. I don't know how she came through everything and she deserves to be left alone. She used to be a great reader of newspapers but she wouldn't even open one because of all the things that have been said," said another local man.

"She didn't have a great time with that man she was married to either."

Whoever the father of Ann Lovett's son was, his identity was never revealed. Some say it was a local man who left for the UK shortly after her death but later returned. Others have a different view.

The garda investigations eventually wound up with no real conclusion. Along with the Department of Education, the then midlands health board investigated and the matter was discussed at government cabinet level.

No findings from any of these inquiries have ever been made public.

"Why do you people keep dredging up old memories?" said a middle-aged man drinking in a pub on Main Street when asked if he's aware it's the 25th anniversary of the Ann Lovett's death.

His attitude best sums up the town's feelings.

"No one wants talks about that anymore. It's completely blocked out."

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The placing of an article hereupon does not necessarily imply that I agree or accept the contents of the article as being necessarily factual in theology, dogma or otherwise.

Sotto Voce

(Source: ST)


maureen said...

what is the point both of this article and of posting the article?

Anonymous said...

I can see the point! In fact I have heard from a source close to the family that Ann called into the priests house when she went into labour and the priest closed the door in her face. Apparently he knew that the baby's father was the girls father. He thought it would be best if the baby died. Ann's father then went on to abuse her younger sister who took her own life. To me the catholic church is a sick sex cult who have very cleverly made sex a taboo subject so that nobody can talk about what is happening to them. They are real sickos and I think that thanks has to go to anybody that highlights this.

Anonymous said...

i live in granard and there in no talk about this event at all,hushed up like many things,in 2004 another was found in a bin,not much made of this either,parents parading round town as if never happened.There was work being done on the secondry school and they found human remains,and yes you've guessed it nothing made of it,Who were these remains of people,nobody cared they obviously didn.t deserve a grave.There has not been one photo of anne lovett ever,totally forgotten,did this girl excist,and of course they all knew about her,a 15 year old girl walking round town 9 months gone impossible,its no wonder the town should be ashamed,the truth of it is they talked about the girl when she was alive,now they dare not speak her name.disgrace!