Birr Courthouse, 1803-2013, part 2.

This is the second part of the article on Birr courthhouse. It was held over from last week to allow for an article on the 100th anniversary of de Valera’s visit to the county. 

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John Wright, a Birr newspaper editor with conviction,  was a reporter on many trials in Birr courthouse from the 1870s up to his death in 1915.

6 030400 John Wright, Birr.
John Wright, editor of King’s County Chronicle

Wright, who purchased the King’s County Chronicle from the Shields family in 1872, continued as editor of that newspaper until his death in 1915. He also wrote of Birr courthouse in his useful reference work, the King’s County Directory, published in Birr in 1890, and reprinted by this writer under the aegis of Esker Press in 1989. The book is available from Offaly History bookshop at €55 with less than forty copies in stock.  John Wright loved his ‘model town’, as he called Birr, and regularly reported the coming of the judges at the assizes, changes in the constabulary and other official gossip. All would have been well for him in his ‘model town world’ were it not for the Birr Catholic nationalists spoiling things and seeking to exert influence in local politics and land ownership. Birr Catholic nationalists had the Midland Tribune and John Powell to look after them from 1881. It was Powell who was instrumental in securing the Martyrs’ memorial in 1894 to commemorate the Lusmagh-born Michael Larkin, whose mother later lived in Mill St., Birr and died there in 1899. The Martyrs’ memorial was erected at the end of the Main Street close by to the old Castle Street and the new Brendan Street. At the northern end of the town was ‘the bloody duke’ in Cumberland Square. The obelisk was erected in the 1740s by grateful upholders of the Protestant settlement after the Treaty of Limerick and happy to see off any Jacobite threat to the Hanoverian succession. ‘The duke’ was taken down for his own safety in 1915 and never replaced despite much talk and ink.

Wright must have been looking at the Cooke drawing of the courthouse in the 1826 edition, or the new one he had done for his 1890 book and it got him thinking about all the famous trials in the Birr courthouse. John Wright had the old files of the Chronicle to hand to read of these trials (some of these back issues are now in the local history section of the county library, having been donated by James I. Fanning and collected by this writer and the late Anne Coughlan in the 1980s. At that time they were in a shed in Emmet Street.

Wright went on to describe Birr courthouse as

‘A plain structure of no particular colour’

1 Birr courthouse 1826 from Cooke
Birr courthouse, erected in 1803, from Cooke’s history (1826)

Different people may be affected in various ways by seeing this production [drawing of Birr courthouse]. To some it may be necessary to mention that the picture illustrates the edifice wherein are held the Parsonstown Quarter and Petty Sessions, and are held a portion of the short-term prisoners, too. Numbers already know this, but with conflicting emotions. One may remember it as the hall in which he won or lost his lawsuit. Another has become acquainted with it through having visited it to be fined or confined, or to behold a fellow-creature’s distress or wickedness. Every Friday and at the Quarter Sessions people flock to it, not that its architectural proportions are unduly fascinating or its internal decorations super-elegant, although Rd. B. Sanders, C. E., the County Surveyor, merits unstinted praise – but that the uncertainties of the law will always continue to attract what is morbid in human nature. There it stands at the end of the town leading Tullamore – wards, a plain structure of no particular colour. To the spectator facing it the wing opposite his right hand, nearest the end of the town, contains the palais de justice; that on his left, nearest to Cumberland square, being the house of detention, with the residence of Mr and Mrs Platt, the Bridewell Keepers – the centre recess being a mere hall with a stone floor, and overhead a room wherein the Grand Juries consider the bills.

[Chairman and Judges]

This barrack-looking building came into being in the beginning of the nineteenth century; but for years previous to that there had been an Assistant Barrister for the King’s County, Henry Doyel [Doyle from 1797] who doubtless held his Courts before that in the Market House, and who died in 1803. He was succeeded by Thomas Clere Parsons, Barrister-at Law, brother to an ancestor of the Earl of Rosse, and who held the office until his death in 1825.[He was brother to the second earl.] Since them the chair at the Quarter Sessions has been occupied by several learned wigs, each of them with an individuality of his own. There were John Gibson, William Peirce, Mr. Barron, Sir John Howley, who next presided at Nenagh, subsequently H. P. Jellett, J. C. Neligan, J. Adye Curran, and then the present County Court Judge, Gerald Fitzgerald, son of the late Lord Fitzgerald, who – i.e., his lordship – died last October and was the only legal peer from Ireland who sat in the House of Lords. . .

[The Widow Kerley case in 1822 and Chairman Parsons unseated temporarily]

In 1822 a controversy cropped up, trivial in itself, but of widespread consequences. One Minton sued a widow Kerley [was she later the Crottyite of a surviving pamphlet? We have a copy in OH.] for five shillings for labour; and a decree, being given, was issued for the debt and costs, without limiting the latter. Whereupon her cow was seized and she had recourse to an appeal, but the order not having been returned by the convicting magistrate, it was adjourned to the last day of the Sessions. Upon this adjournment the justices retired to their room, and by resolution condemned the Assistant Barrister, who believed that a Justice could take an appeal against an order without a communication from the Justice who had made that order. They further resolved to call a meeting of their body to appoint a new Chairman; and a pamphlet was written [not known to survive] to prove that Mr Parsons had no locus standi to be Chairman of their Quarter Sessions. Consequently, at the following October Sessions, there assembled as numerous a meeting of magistrates as was ever seen in the King’s County. But the joke was this, the humble litigants who had caused all this stir settled between themselves. However, upon meeting, a request was made that the former resolution should be withdrawn; and it was proposed by Colonel L’Estrange, and seconded by Mr Pepper, that the business should proceed with the usual Chairman. In opposition, Colonel Atkinson proposed, and Mr Palmer seconded, that the Earl of Rosse should be appointed, but the Colonel’s motion, after a stirring scene, was eventually carried, and hailed with loud cheering by the immense crowd that had congregated in the streets.

[Enter Crown solicitor Cooke]

5 030423 Thomas Lalor Cooke, Birr Historian
Thomas Lalor Cooke, Birr solicitor and historian, died 1869

Some years after Mr. Parsons’ death, an important change in judicial procedure occurred. Previous to 1830, prosecutions at Quarter Sessions in Ireland were promoted only by the complainants themselves no matter how serious the offence. This being found objectionable, the Government determined to try the experiment of having the criminal cases prosecuted by an officer of the Crown. The King’s County has the distinction of being first selected for this new departure, and Thomas Lalor Cooke, solicitor, known now as Birr’s historian, and father of the late William Antisell Cooke, and grandfather of the present W. T. Cooke, had the honour of being appointed the first Sessional Crown Solicitor in Ireland. [Cooke died in 1869, a forgotten and frustrated man it seems. Six years later a new edition of his book was published with the help of his notes added to his 1826 volume and published by his son, also a solicitor, William Antisell Cooke (d. 1882). The 1826 volume with its manuscript amendments is now in the Birr Castle Archive/Rosse Papers.]

[John Gibson stepped out and in again]

In 1836 there was another remarkable incident. A section of the magistrates took exception to the decisions of John Gibson, the chairman [1836-9], regarding the voters’ list and in October, at George Dooly’s hotel, in Cumberland Square (now transmitted to his son, Henry Dooly, the industrious clerk of the Parsonstown Union), they on the first day of the Crown business walked in procession to the Courthouse, where they passed a resolution putting Colonel Lloyd into the chair. Mr. Gibson doffed his wig and took a seat on the bench, but not in the chair. The business then proceeded in the usual way, but with the Colonel as chairman. This unusual proceeding caused Lord Morpeth, Lord Lieutenant, to ask for an explanation; but nothing further was done until the next Sessions when on the motion of Col. the Hon. J. C. Westenra, seconded by N. FitzSimon, M.P., Colonel Lloyd was moved from the chair; and on the motion of Mr. Bennett, seconded by Mr. French, Mr. Gibson resumed his former functions.

[John Adye Curran, headed up the preliminary investigation into the Phoenix Park and was rewarded with a seat on the bench, for more on him see Legal Offaly (2008)

John Adye Curran [1883-6, and again from 1891 to 1914, so Wright’s sycophantic remarks written before the judge’s return to the county would have done him no harm] was a well-known figure in Parsonstown, as Chairman of the Sessions, who will long be remembered as no less courteous than firm, and as a gentleman distinguished in his honourable profession for the services he has rendered to Queen and country [a reference to his investigations of the Phoenix Park murders and successful prosecutions]. It was during the time that a notorious civil suit came on in this court, viz.: –Barnwell v. Barnwell, which, though it involved but a few paltry pounds – fewer still of which ever returned to either client, all being swallowed up in law costs-seemed as interminable as the famous case in Dickens’ Bleak House, and in the course of which J. J. Kelly, solicitor, Parsonstown, was, by Mr. Curran’s order, suspended from practice in the King’s County Quarter Sessions’ Courts for refusing to lodge certain moneys in Court. When County Court Judge Gerald Fitzgerald succeeded to the chair, he had the case twice re-tried before him, and he settled it on the second occasion, his verdict being in favour of Mr Kelly’s client, and of course the solicitor was invested with all his former privileges, receiving at the same time the amende honorable from Mr Curran.. .

The present Chairman [1889]  G. Fitzgerald, enters heartily into every case, and is able to grasp the situation. To say that he is impartial is below the mark, as no Irish Judge requires an encomium of that description – . . . . We hear, moreover, that in private life he possesses much of the milk of human kindness.

[The Powell Plan of Campaign at Broughal prosecution and large drafts of police brought into Birr, April 1889]

Amongst the many episodes of the Court, perhaps not the least regrettable is one which was enacted in April, 1889. We allude to the appeal of John Powell, proprietor of the Midland Tribune, against a sentence of three months with hard labour, on a charge of intimidation. On the estate of Christopher Banon, of Broughal Castle, some of the tenants were affected with the common failing of refusing to pay rent in obedience to orders from certain leaguers, who actually demanded the dismissal of the agent. Before Toler R. Garvey accepted the agency many of the tenants had not paid the unfortunate landlord a penny of rent for several years – the League Journal [the Midland Tribune] says nine years. But when the law was put in operation they settled. For this they were held up to League obloquy by the local League censor [John Powell, editor of the Tribune], and the result was a Crimes Act prosecution in January, 1889, before J. T. McSheehy and G. D. Mercer, R.Ms, at the conclusion of which the defendant was sentenced as we have said, and committed for seven days for contempt of court besides, the contempt consisting of a retort to the Bench that he “treated with contempt a sentence which had been determined on before his case had been heard at all.” That unappealable seven days Mr. Powell underwent in Tullamore, but his appeal was brought against the heavier penalty in April. On the first occasion the town was proclaimed under the Act against the assembly of turbulent gatherings, and large drafts of police were brought in to prevent disturbance. The Courthouse was filled, including galleries, sides, and every spot, several priests being among the audience. The Judge concurred in the order of the Court below, but reduced the sentence to two months in default of finding bail, which he refused, and after being five of six weeks in Limerick Gaol, he [Powell] was liberated owing to the state of his health. [Powell died prematurely in 1901, by then he was vice-chairman of the King’s County Council.]

[Murders of Scanlon and Clutterbuck, a silver tankard for Dooly’s Royal Arms Hotel]

In other days, too, people collected in masses on the same spot, as, for instance, when, sixteen years ago, the preliminary enquiry was going on in the case of an aged farmer from Killenaule, and his son, who were so often remanded in connection with the shocking murder of the son-in-law, Scanlan, on Sunday afternoon, the 13th September, 1874. In the same Court, Laurence King, jun., who forfeited his life, was under examination for the murder of Lieutenant Clutterbuck, of the 5th Fusiliers, on Saturday evening, the 8th of July, 1865. The inhabitants manifested praiseworthy eagerness in searching for the body and sifting out the suspected criminal, who, as it turned out, was the man whom the ill-fated gentleman had engaged to row his boat in the Brosna. George Dooly, Cumberland Square, placed all the resources of his hotel and stables at the free disposal of the authorities, and otherwise assisted with an energy that called forth the greatest admiration; and to mark their sense of services, the officers of the garrison made him a presentation of a valuable silver tankard, bearing a suitable inscription, which this justly esteemed and most benevolent member of a sterling old family in Parsonstown still possesses in cherished remembrance of the donors who thus had marked their gratitude and accompanied their souvenir with a written communication signed by the Commanding Officer, Ross.

[Dr Boeddicker and the Clutterbuck ring]

A couple of years ago a thin old-fashioned gold memorial ring was found on Oxmantown Mall, at the residence of Dr. Otto Boeddicker, Assistant Astronomer [ a German who departed Birr in 1915] who we understand, still has it, he not being able to find any of the owner’s representatives. It bears the inscription “Mary Clutterbuck, obit, March 1738-9.”

[Murder of Mackay by Jubey, see an earlier blog by Stephen Callaghan]

More than twenty years before that time, the same corps was stationed in Birr, and one of its officers was murdered from a feeling of ill-will due to a private imagining that the men were too strictly drilled. A soldier of the same regiment, George Jubey, who was afterwards executed, was a prisoner for the murder of his Adjutant, Robertson Mackay, who, at the age of 38, was shot dead on parade in the Barrack Field, on 11th August, 1843. Over his remains there is a monument erected by his brother officers in the old churchyard mourning his fate and bearing tribute to him as a good soldier.

[The unsolved murder of sub-constable Brown near the Birr courthouse with a gun the property of the intriguing Sandys Dugmore of Broughal]

Again, there was a tragedy within a few yards of the Courthouse. A member of the Parsonstown Constabulary was shot dead from Kieran Egan’s shop-door by an assassin who has escaped discovery. The unfortunate policeman was Sub-Constable Edward Brown, who had just left the public-house on Saturday night, the 12th August, 1882. With another Constable he was returning home, when a shot was fired form the door, striking him in the back and piercing the lung. A pistol was afterwards found in K. Egan’s yard, the assassin having thrown it away in his flight. It was afterwards identified as the supposed property of Captain Dugmore, from whom, it was inferred, it had been purloined. A number of arrests were made of countrymen form the Cloghan district; but although there were several remands by J. T. McSheehy, R.M., and a verdict of wilful murder was returned by Coroner John Corcoran’s jury, the murderer escaped detection.

[Elections in the Birr division in the 1880s and the end of Conservative power]

There were other scenes, as may be brought to mind at the mention of the names of Westenra, Bernard, Hennessy, and the ever-popular Sir Patrick O’Brien. The young, however, can only call to memory the pollings in the contest waged by Henry Vincent Jackson; or at the elections during the shrievalties of W. T. Trench and W. K. Marshall, when Captain Wellesley Bernard gallantly twice fought in the Birr Parliamentary Division under the extended franchise in 1885 and 1886. The odds were a long way for Bernard C. Molloy, and the issue was never doubted. Nevertheless, the excitement from midnight till the early dawn by the crowd outside, while the votes were being counted by Under-Sheriff Richard Bull’s staff, can hardly ever be effaced from the memory of those who on that weary night waited in impatience for the declaration of the poll. That last election will be a memorable one should the prediction come true that long years will roll ere there is another such contest in the same place for the honour of representing what is expressed in these beautiful words- “The free and independent electors of the Birr Division of the King’s County.”

Exit now the Courts Service.

The scene is set 123 years after John Wright’s ramblings on the old days in Birr Courthouse. The chorus is drawn from the legal profession, court officials and police of Birr, in mourning at their loss. The chronicle based on that provided by Wright’s arch enemy, the Midland Tribune.

The time is a week before Christmas 2013, being the third anniversary of the arrival in Ireland of emissaries from the European Central Bank, Frankfurt. The place an Irish country town once described as ‘umbilicus hiberniae’.

‘Very Sad And Bad Day’ For Birr [the recitative]

Past and present judges, gardai, solicitors and court officials gathered in Birr Courthouse on Monday last for the last sitting of the court. It was described as being ‘a very sad and bad day’ for the town and its environs when Birr District Court held its last sitting on Monday. The last day of criminal proceedings in the old courthouse on Townsend Street were held on Tuesday December 10th [2013] and the final day of civil matters was held on Monday of that week.

On Monday afternoon, a group of about 50 people gathered to express their feelings and reminisce about times past. Among them were former Judges of Birr District Court, Jim O’Sullivan and Michael Reilly, Superintendent Martin Cashen, Sergeant John Mahon, and a number of solicitors practising and retired. The gathering was organised by Birr solicitor Bernadette Owens [now a judge of the district court].

Tom Enright, Solicitor [father of the Offaly bar ( as was his townsman Adam Mitchell) and a former TD, senator and councillor] began the speeches and said this was a very sad occasion and ‘an historic day for Birr. There has been a courthouse in the town for four centuries,’ he continued, ‘since the early 1600s when a Sessions House was located in Market Square, where the County Assizes were heard, during which the death penalty was sometimes handed down. . .’