Thirty years ago today, a 15 year old girl died giving birth alone in a grotto beneath a statue to the Virgin Mary. The scandal shocked conservative Ireland and cast light on a darker side of Ireland. An Ireland where to be unmarried and pregnant was a deep shame to be kept hidden. An Ireland where girls were forced to keep children they didn’t want and couldn’t raise. An Ireland where the judgement of the Church was to be feared. An Ireland where narrow minded dogma was held above the suffering of women. An Ireland where Mary was no protection for many girls abandoned and neglected by society.
We know little about poor Ann Lovett and the horrors she went through on the 31st of January 1984. Her death was met with silence from her friends and neighbours in her town of Granard. Granard, County Longford is a typical small Irish town, dominated by a large church and the grotto is one thousands that litter rural Ireland. Nobody claimed to know anything about her, no one claimed they knew she was pregnant. Perhaps she was really good at hiding or perhaps people want to keep silent about the shame Ann had to hide from. This was an Ireland that would rather cover up an out of wedlock pregnancy than to openly deal with it. It has never been revealed who the father was. There is so little we know about Ann and what she went through as she spent hours in labour, painfully giving birth all alone with nothing more than a household pair of scissors.
She must have suffered so much.
She must have been so scared.
She must have been so alone.
Ireland was a different place back then. Contraceptive was still restricted to married couples only. The Church still censored books about sex and sexuality. Sexual issues were things to be covered up in guilt and shame rather than discussed. Unmarried mothers were treated poorly, their children seen as “illegitimate” and born in sin. Some were even sent to the Magdalene Laundries where they were stripped of their identities and dignity and forced into unpaid work. Their children could be sent to industrial schools where they were treated with incredible cruelty and sadistic beatings and unspeakable abuse.
Only four months before Ann died, a constitutional referendum was passed declaring that the “unborn child” had a right to life and all abortions were forbidden. Thousands of girls like Ann had their options taken away from them. As long as they were in Ireland, they had no choice. I wonder how she reacted to the shrill propaganda of the anti-abortion side? Was she terrified into keeping a child she couldn’t raise for fear she would otherwise be a baby murderer? Did the threats of God’s wrath upon those who went against Church teaching frighten this child herself, from seeking out help and taking control of her body? We will never know.
I wonder if she prayed to the statue above her. I wonder if she cried for help. Like all Catholics, she would have been told that in times of trouble Our Lady would help us. She would have been told, as we all were, that God was good, that he loved us and would save us. We have all been told the power of prayer, the miracles that can happen, the guardian angels that keep us safe. Yet when a dying girl was in true need, no help came. What desperate mental gymnastics must be made to defend a God that will leave a girl to die alone on a hill? What good is a God who won’t save the vulnerable? Maybe Ann’s prayers, like all of ours, are unanswered because there is no one at the other end. Perhaps we are praying and building statues to figments of our imagination that disappear like a mirage when we go to lean on them. Maybe in times of trouble we should go to hospitals instead of churches and not waste our time praying to a God that cannot hear us because he isn’t there.
Ann Lovett’s story is important not just for who she was, but what she represented. She put a human face on the suffering and repression forced onto thousands of women by the Church and an oppressive narrow minded society. There were many more women forced to keep children they didn’t want, forced to cover up the kind of sexuality deemed immoral and made to feel guilty for sinful sexual issues (which was all of them). The past is not something to be romanticised and the Church is not a place of love but rather a cold, wet, lonely hillside where a poor girl was left to die.
Update: After Ann’s death, people wrote numerous letters detailing similar experiences they had. Here is a compilation of some of these letters which tell a heart rendering story.