The courts of assize in King’s County/Offaly in the years from 1914 and the last assizes of July 1921. By Michael Byrne

The administration of law in Ireland in 1914–19 was pervasive with petty sessions’ courts across the county in the smallest villages and towns. These were attended to by paid resident magistrates and on a voluntary basis by local gentry and merchants, both Protestant and Catholic, who had been deemed suitable by Dublin Castle for the conferring of a commission of justice of the peace. After 1916 it was becoming a doubtful honour and many nationalists, including P.J. Egan of Tullamore (chairman of the town council 1916-24 and managing director of a large business), resigned the commission when the War of Independence in 1919-21 intensified. The country had been subject to the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) since 1914 but it was not much invoked in Offaly before 1916 and the civil courts of petty sessions, quarter sessions and assizes (usually held in Tullamore, but often held in Birr from mid-1916 to 1921) continued in the county. The Sinn Féin courts will be the subject of a later blog.

The assize judges arriving at Tullamore courthouse, possibly in 1914. Courtesy of Offaly County Library.

The changes at local level in the practice of law, especially as regards local government work, had come, not in 1923-4 with the new courts, but back in 1899 with the implementation of the Local Government Act of 1898. Locally, this saw a shift in power to the new county councils and away from the grand juries and county lieutenants. The grand juries lost their local government functions at that time and the road presentments were taken over by the new rural district councils on behalf of the county council.

The county court judge, John Adye Curran retired in December 1913. He had served in the county since the early 1890s and while he had the reputation for not suffering fools it might have been a case of the devil you know. He was, of course, the subject of fulsome praise and presentations on his departure. Curran was strict as was seen in the ‘bullock for the road’ land trespass cases and the Ormond Hunt Club stoppage cases.[i] Had he been around to have carriage of the Geashill Cattle Drive perpetrators in late 1914 (including one Peadar Bracken) it might have been worse for them even with the guilty plea entered in Dublin by the men’s counsel, Patrick Lynch, later to feature as de Valera’s opposition in the 1917 Clare by-election. In the Geashill case over five hundred men assembled to drive cattle off grazing lands on Lord Digby’s estate. Headed by two bands, they marched four deep armed with sticks to the lands of Ballydownan, from which they proceeded to clear off cattle and sheep belonging to a Mr Cavanagh.[ii] It was Drummond who succeeded Curran and in at least one case he must have caused considerable unease to the government and that was his condemnation of the police handling of the Tullamore Incident or ‘affray’ when the matter came before him as malicious damage and compensation claims in October 1916. He retired from the bench in 1918 and died in 1921.[iii]

Judge Curran before his retirement in 1913.

      The courts were not busy with serious crime in the years before the war and in 1914 acting judge, Patrick Walsh, gave the usual congratulations on the absence of serious crime at Birr quarter sessions in January 1914. The following week it was Tullamore where there was some work for the Bar before Judge Walsh. The business comprised 83 Civil Bills, 29 of which were defended; 9 Ejectments; 1 Remitted Action; 3 Crown Cases; 2 Workmen’s Compensation Claims; 1 Testamentary Civil bill; 2 Equity Civil Bills; 6 Notices of Motion in Equity cases; 1 Civil Bill in Lunacy and 1 Land Commission case.[iv]

     At the quarter sessions in Tullamore in April 1914, Richard Bull, the under-sheriff of the county, and who had been busy in the 1880s with court seizures and auctions, presented the white gloves to newly appointed Judge Drummond with a welcome extended by Lewis Goodbody of Tullamore and by barrister Ernest Julian who died at Suvla Bar in 1915. The white gloves were to denote no serious crime at both venues, ‘for the first time during thirty years both ends of the county had been free from crime’.[v]

The courthouse and jail about 1910.

      In the meantime, it should be said that the assizes continued to be held at Tullamore, or later Birr, twice each year with the same formulaic ceremonies that would carry on until 1921, albeit in the latter years with a massive military presence. In February 1914 the visiting justices, Holmes and Maloney, were received on arrival by the first train at the Tullamore railway station by Sir Andrew Armstrong of Gallen Priory, the high sheriff. A guard of honour of constabulary was drawn up and arms presented. Then followed the drive in the sheriff’s carriage to the time-honoured lodgings of J. A. Tarleton, Charleville/O’Connor Square to robe and then back to the courthouse for what was a light calendar. When the house was pulled down in 1936 for the new technical school this little ceremony, so symbolic of doing the King’s justice, was recalled.[vi]

In July 1916 Mr Justice Cherry, the Lord Chief Justice (1914-16) told the grand jury at the King’s County assizes that their duties were light. On hearing Michael Reddy Irish Parliamentary Party MP for the Birr division of the county (since 1900) speak on behalf of the thirty-one men involved in the Cloghan Cattle Drive (the men not being legally represented) Cherry gave six men terms of two months each, which was lenient. Apparently, Cherry generally ‘erred towards charity’. He told the grand jury they had only one other case, a canal lock-keeper’s family row. As to the Tullamore affray of March 1916, ‘owing to police entering the building to search for arms’, Cherry said he considered it an isolated case and that there had been no other disturbance in the county.[vii] This was confirmed by County Inspector Crane of the RIC who wrote in his year-end report for 1916 that, excluding the Tullamore affray,

The general condition of the county was, on the whole, peaceable and orderly during the year. The unrest which had prevailed in portions of the county, due to cattle driving, practically ceased. Only one cattle drive occurred [near Cloghan] during the year, but as thirty-one persons were made amenable – six of them being sentenced to imprisonment and the remainder bound over to keep the peace – no further attempts in that direction were made. A few cases of partial boycotting occurred, but very little intimidation.[viii]

No less than the new Lord Chief Justice, James Campbell (who succeeded Cherry), a hate figure for nationalists, commented on the crimeless state of the county on his first visit to Tullamore in July 1917. Over the previous twelve months he had noted that lesser or insignificant crime in the county was down by a figure of 300 offences, from 1,975 to 1,547. There had, he was pleased to note, been a substantial decrease in intemperance.[ix] This was something that would have pleased his political master Lloyd George and the temperance society in Tullamore and was assisted by the government’s war-time liquor production and sales restrictions. There was even better news in March 1918 before Mr Justice Ronan. He commented at the assizes on the state of the county and it was generally quiet. The number of cases of drunkenness was again down. In 1916 it was 589, in 1917 it fell to 213 or down by 314. ‘I have not seen anything like this elsewhere, but I am told a shilling a glass of whiskey may have contributed to this very great reduction.’[x]

      It was the same in 1919 with a light calendar of matters to be heard and suspended sentences for those engaged in the Rhode labourers’ strike, all of whom pleaded guilty. This included some who would give endless trouble to Toberdaly landowner, Beaumont Nesbitt, a few years later. Inspector Crane was able to assure the judge that the county was peaceful.[xi] By the March assizes of 1920 crime was up with Mr Justice Gordon (presiding in the crown court) telling the grand jury that where there had been twelve specially reported cases in 1920 now there was twenty-eight and that twenty-two of these had gone undetected. He noted reluctance to inform the authorities in the public interest. There had been burglaries, the stealing of arms and three cases of the firing into properties. The police thought this untypical conduct for the King’s County and would pass away.[xii]

When Ronan was back in July 1920 it was different. The judges had travelled from Dublin by motor as presumably their guard of soldiers was unacceptable to the railway men. Now, said Ronan, there was no law, no order and no punishment for crime. The number of specially reported cases had risen to 155. This included nineteen cases of arson.[xiii] The courthouse in

Tullamore was taken over by the British military in January 1921 and the assizes of March held in Birr and in July at Tullamore.

W.E. Wylie (1881-1964)

Judge Wylie, on his appointment in 1920. From a signed portrait in Offaly Archives. He was the last assize judge to sit in Offaly, ending a tradition provided for with the setting up of King’s County by the colonists in 1557.

Judge Wylie, one of the youngest judges ever to be appointed, had the job with his colleague, Serjeant A. M. Sullivan, of presiding over the last assize court at Tullamore in July 1921. Sullivan was appointed a commissioner for the assize for the Connaught circuit (King’s County was part of this circuit for a short time) and was not a high court judge.[xiv] Now, instead of a triumphal parade to Tarleton’s house at O’Connor Square, the judges were met at the railway station by a military guard of honour with a pipers’ band. Extraordinary precautions were taken for their protection. A number of armed police had travelled with them on the train and military and police were numerous. Those entering the courthouse (already in possession of the military since January 1921) were searched. Gone was the great gathering of landowners many of whom owed their wealth and power to the plantation settlements. Of the thirty-seven (or twenty-nine, reports differ) grand jurors summoned only four attended and these from Clara and Tullamore being E.H. Browne, James Perry Goodbody, Reginald Goodbody and Patrick Egan. Of the sixty-four petty jurors called only five attended. Those who had not sent a written excuse were fined £10 each for failing to attend. Wylie, possibly with an eye to a new government in Ireland, proceeded to lecture those present on the need for every man to do his duty, or what he considered his duty to himself and to his country.[xv] But the many absent grand jurors could hardly be faulted as there was no work for them to do either on the criminal or civil side. In place of the mounted police to escort the judge to his residence was elaborate military security to protect him as a representative of the crown. Only the previous month the Pearson brothers had been shot dead at Cadamstown while attacks on the constabulary were commonplace. Mr Barry, acting as sub-sheriff, went to offer the white gloves but Wylie refused saying we don’t take them at this assizes. Judge Ronan had the same experience at Nenagh. Here there were no cases to be heard notwithstanding some 201 specially reported offences including seven homicides.[xvi] When Lord Justice O’Connor was at Nenagh in March 1921 there were only three bills before the grand jury notwithstanding 861 crimes reported as against 43 for the corresponding period in the previous year.[xvii] At Longford assizes in March 1920, Mr Justice Dodd attended with the assistance of the military and police, and with elaborate precautions taken for his safety. In his court all was black comedy when he was presented with white gloves to mark the absence of crime in the county.[xviii] At Mullingar the story was similar at the Lent assizes of 1921. Here Lord Justice Ronan and Mr Justice Gibson accompanied by armed guards were met at the railway station by military and police with soldiers stationed on all adjacent bridges. Ronan told the grand jury there was no criminal business but that the returns from the police showed a very different story. The number of reported cases the previous year was 30 and now it was 71 including murder, arson and armed robbery.[xix] Compensation claims and licensing would continue at the lower courts.

Serjeant A.M. Sullivan

Acting assize judge in Tullamore (civil side), Serjeant Sullivan, July 1921.

Serjeant Sullivan (1871–1959) was equally scathing of the white gloves, but unlike Wylie he was an implacable enemy of Sinn Féin and never regarded de Valera as fit to govern. In his Old Ireland memoir (London, 1927) Sullivan described the Lloyd George overtures to de Valera in June 1921 as taking murder by the hand (and not by the throat). He described his time as a Lords Justice of the Assize at the time of the Truce and how the first manifestation of the ‘surrender’ was the withdrawal of the guard from the judges’ lodgings in Sligo. Sullivan had reason to be concerned. There had been two attempts on his life in 1920 and his house at Rosscarbery was burned by the IRA in April 1921. By the end of 1921 Sullivan had removed to England and the counsel for Casement in the 1916 treason trial practised in England until his return to Ireland in 1949.  By contrast Wylie was reappointed a high court judge when the courts were reconstituted in 1924.

So it was that the last assizes held in the King’s County on 4 July 1921 was a very tepid affair when contrasted with those of the previous 300 years.  Within a week the Truce had come into effect and the county was relatively quiet until civil war broke out the following year. In just a little over a year the bench on which the last two assize judges had sat would be a smouldering ruin. The courthouse, jail and barracks in Tullamore were burned by the Republican IRA in Offaly in late July 1922 in a show of destruction that was so unnecessary and led to the loss of the county’s records. The building was replaced in 1927 at a cost of almost €30,000.

TKI, July 1920. Judge Ronan was the son of a Cork solicitor and Judge Pim was from Dublin. Both were appointed in 1915 (Ball, Judges, ii, 384-5).

Conclusion

So how was the local legal landscape looking by the end of 1923-4? The immediate change was structural with the destruction of the county courthouse, closure of the county prison and burning of many constabulary barracks and courthouses across the county. The higher courts hardly changed at all save for nomenclature and high court judges on circuit were not very different to the old assize judges. The new circuit court judge in Offaly, John Wakely, had been a county court judge under the British regime. It was at district court level that a real transformation could be seem in that the new justices replacing the resident magistrates were likely to be Irish and Catholic and gone were the unpaid magistrates drawn largely from the landowners and merchants. As to the landowner magistrates it could be said, they had lost both an empire and a role.

Wylie’s address in Court, July 1920 from KCC

[i] Byrne, Legal Offaly, p. 161.

[ii] KCC, 19 Nov. 1914. The Tribune put the number at over 1,000 (MT, 19 Nov. 1914).

[iii] Byrne, Legal Offaly, pp 159-68.

[iv] King’s County Chronicle, 15 Jan. 1914, 22 Jan.1914

[v] King’s County Chronicle, 3 Apr. 1914. Bull resigned in 1920 and was succeeded by Lieut. Frederick F. Barry (MT 31 Jan. 1920).

[vi] KCC, 20 Aug. 1936; MT, 16 Nov. 1937, For many years a feudal mansion, Tarleton House, occupied the site. That mansion, which was likewise “the judges’ lodging,” seemed impregnable, but it has gone the way of many such in modern Ireland, and its graceful outline and cut stone beauty are now only a memory. The very face of the landscape is rapidly succumbing to the revolutionary changes of the age, and nowhere is this more evident than at Tullamore.’

[vii] DIB, vol. 2, pp 484-5, entry by C.J. Woods; Midland Tribune, 15 July 1916.

[viii] Brendan Mac Giolla Choille (ed.), Intelligence Notes, 1913-1966, (Dublin, 1966), p. 207.

[ix] Tullamore and King’s County Independent, 7 July 1917.

[x] Ibid., 9 Mar. 1918.

[xi] Tullamore and King’s County Independent, 5 July 1919.

[xii] Midland Tribune, 6 March 1920.

[xiii] Ibid., 3 July 1920.

[xiv] ILT & SJ, 9 July 1921, p. 169. Sullivan was better known as the principal counsel for Casement in the famous treason trial and for resigning as a bencher in 1956 following moves to have him stripped of that honour and disbarred for matters connected with the Casement brief. For a useful summary of Sullivan’s career see Ferguson, King’s Inns barristers, p. 304 and p. 305 for the list of ‘detractors of Serjeant Sullivan’. Sullivan, the last serjeant, died in 1959. Arising from his work as an advocate (not as a commissioner of assize) he narrowly escaped death in Tralee in January 1920 – the shot singed his eyebrow. See ILT & SJ, 17 January 1920, p. 17.

[xv] ILT & SJ, 9 July 1921, p. 170; Midland Tribune, 9 July 1921. The security situation was similar when Justices Moore and Samuels attended at the March assizes but there were more grand jurors including Judge Wakely, then a county court judge and Offaly landowner – Midland Tribune, 5 March 1921.

[xvi] King’s County Chronicle, 7 July 1921 and 14 July 1921.

[xvii] King’s County Chronicle, 17 March 1921.

[xviii] Foxton, Revolutionary lawyers, pp 181-82.

[xix] Midland Tribune, 5 March 1921.