Judge John Neilan, late judge of the district Court, no 9: a journalist recalls. By Declan McSweeney

The recent death in Roscommon of Judge John Neilan, at the age of 76, evoked many memories for me, of years covering his court cases for the now-closed Offaly Express (the print version).

While I joined the staff in 1988, I didn’t start covering courts on a regular basis until after the retirement of the late Eddie Rogers in January 1995. Eddie was legendary for his understanding of the judicial system over many decades.

On average, coverage of courts took up about 40% of the working week, with one day spent in court, and another checking records with the always helpful court staff, and then writing it up. Some weeks it could be even more, with special sittings being held to clear a backlog of cases.

Judge Aidan O’Donnell was the district court judge in my early days reporting, following Judge Connellan if I recall correctly, but Judge Neilan later took over. He covered a large court district, including Mullingar as well as Tullamore.

He was certainly not a man I would like to have been appearing before as a defendant, but while at times controversial, I felt he was a fair judge. He could, at times, be as tough with members of An Garda Síochána as with defendants, sometimes having a go at them if he felt cases were not prepared properly.

The late Eddie Rogers, journalist.

However, he also showed a bit of levity at times. I recall when Garda (later Sergeant) A B was giving evidence in a case and there was a misunderstanding about when she was to do so – Judge Neilan remarked “You;re not in trouble, not with me anyway, whatever about Superintendent (John) Moloney.”

When the latter remarked “She never listens to me anyway”, the judge responded “Maybe she’s right!”

He was at times critical of successive governments for not providing enough resources to courts, and clashed swords with then Justice Minister Michael McDowell on the issue. I recall my editor, John Whelan, dispatching me to Edenderry when the Minister was visiting, and instructing me to get a response from him, and sure enough the Minister gave a very conciliatory reply, paying tribute to Judge Neilan.

Judge John Neilan (centre) at a retirement party in December 2008 from the Offaly part of District no.9 court area. It meant he would no longer sit in Tullamore or Edenderry.

At times, Judge Neilan was accused of being prejudiced against immigrants, but I don’t think this would be fair. He was very strong about making sure that those migrants, mainly from eastern Europe, who appeared before him should learn English, and save taxpayers’ money on translation, but that did not translate into prejudice against individuals.

He did come across as lacking a knowledge of the outside world e.g. on one occasion, he asked the Irish wife of a Brazilian defendant if she could speak Spanish, unaware that Brazil was ruled by Portugal, while on another, he asked an Irish defendant who had returned from the Netherlands how he managed in a country where few spoke English, unaware that most Dutch people have excellent English.

At the same time, when he came across cases where it was clear that racism had been shown towards migrants, he did not hesitate to call it out e.g. on one occasion, he overheard a defendant make racist comments about a lawyer of Asian background, and reprimanded him over it.

On another occasion, when Garda C D prosecuted a local man for racial harassment of an American tourist of Hispanic background, whom he called a ‘refugee’, the judge reminded him that the Irish had gone to work all over the world.

Judge Neilan had very strong views on the abuse of alcohol and was reluctant to grant pub extensions. He showed anger over the impact of alcohol abuse in such areas as drunk driving, street violence and domestic abuse. He took a strong line on the latter form of crime, as well as on child abuse.

He was scathing of middle-class cocaine users, whom he accused of fuelling the gangland feuds in Dublin and other Irish cities.

I recall one occasion when he asked a female defendant if she attended the Catholic church or the Church of Ireland. When she replied ‘Catholic’, he asked her why she went to church if she was engaged in a feud with her neighbour, advising her to make peace with her.

Another case saw Garda E F prosecute a woman for harassing a neighbour whom she had called ‘gay’ and ‘paedophile’. Judge Neilan asked the officer if there was any basis to the ‘paedophile’ reference and he stated there was not. The man stated he was not, in any event, gay, but the judge made the point to the woman that she needed to accept gay people.

Judge Neilan, second from right, at a retirement party in December 2008 from the Offaly part of court area no.9.

The woman responded that she had nothing against them, that she had a gay son and two lesbian daughters. 

I recall rare occasions when cases were held in the judge’s chambers regarding child welfare or protection issues, and Judge Neilan ensured that the media were allowed to be present. He was, of course, judge during the period when the courthouse was renovated and sittings held in the GAA Centre.

There were a few times when the judge spoke individually to members of the press, there was one situation where I had to approach him on behalf of colleagues for clarity on what could be published on a child abuse case, and he was very helpful.

He was never too full of  his own importance – when told a defendant had written graffiti in Tullamore, he quipped “Did he write ‘Here’s to  you, Judge Neilan!'”

On another, when a woman was on the phone during a court case, and said “Are you still there?” to whoever she was speaking, the judge stopped a garda from intervening, merely remarking “Yes, and I’m still here.”

Overall, I feel he will be remembered as a larger than life personality. Ar dheis lámh Dé go raibh a anam.

Tullamore courthouse. Courtesy of Fergal MacCabe

Offaly History adds:

District Court Judges Tullamore Area (later no. 9)

1923-24            William Meagher

1924-55            Austin O’Donoghue

1956-61            Hugh G. McGahon

1961-64            Robert Joseph  Ō hUadhaigh

1964-64            Joseph McGrath

1964-67            Michael O’Callaghan

1967-71            Jim Sheerin

1971-87            W. A. Tormey

1987-94            Peter A. Connellan

1993-98            Aidan O’Donnell

1998- 2008       John Neilan      

Judge John Neilan was a contemporary of some of the senior solicitors in the Tullamore district. He qualified as a solicitor in 1968 and prior to his appointment to the bench was with the firm of Martin J. Neilan & Sons of Abbey Street, Roscommon. He was appointed to the bench in 1986 and was an outspoken defender of the independence of the judiciary and clashed on occasion with the Courts Service and politicians. Judge Neilan was presented with a gift to mark his twenty-one years on the bench in the course of a dinner organised by the legal profession in Tullamore in July 2007 marking the opening of the refurbished Tullamore courthouse. Judge Neilan retired from the bench in July 2010 on reaching 65 years. The Westmeath Examiner recorded the event:

The suddeness of Judge John F. Neilan’s retirement from the bench was greeted with a sense of shock in Mullingar District Court on Friday afternoon last as members of An Garda Síochana, legal profession, court service and the media paid glowing tributes to the man who has administered justice in District Court No. 9 for the past ten years. Confirmation of Judge Neilan’s decision to step aside was announced by Ms. Margaret O’Rafferty, Chief Clerk in the District Court office in Mullingar shortly before 6pm on Friday. A short time earlier, he had vacated the bench to hear a juvenile case in his chambers and this effectively proved to be the final chapter in a distinguished legal career. Ms. O’Rafferty in a brief announcement said that Judge Neilan’s retirement was effective from July 10 next but because he had leave to take, he was standing down with immediate effect. He did not wish to come back into the court as it could prove “too emotional”.Speaking on behalf of the Gardaí, Inspector Kevin Keyes said he wished to convey his thanks to Judge Neilan for the manner he dealt with members of the force during his time on the bench. He was held in the highest regard by his colleagues, said the Inspectro.Chief Supt. Willie Ryan conveyed his thanks to Judge Neilan on behalf of the Garda Commissioner, Fachtna Murphy and the entire Garda Division. “He had a lot of dealings with members of An Garda Síochana and always treated them with respect”.”We are indebted to Judge Neilan for ensuring that peace and justice was maintained in Mullingar over many years”,