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Page 5 of 15
Of the Law and the Legal Fraternity
"Now fore and aft keep hauling, and gathering up the clew,
Till a wave of silver salmon rolls in among the crew."
Mention of "scant croppings by the sea" triggers a recollection of Billy Melly. Mr. Sean D. O'Hanrahan, D.J., and the passing parade that constituted Ballyshannon District Court, held monthly in the Courthouse on the Mall, a strictly functional, scantily furnished building, consisting of one main, high ceilinged courtroom, wooden benches more like church pews for spectators, one central table running lengthwise down the centre, shared by both defendants' and plaintiffs' solicitors, a raised wooden bench occupied by the court clerk, the aforementioned Joe Phillips, and a second, higher, raised bench on which sat His Honor, District Justice O'Hanrahan.

O'Hanrahan was a man made for the times. He was a trimly built figure, a well-groomed, grey haired man, birdlike, peering down from his bench, looking over the top of his glasses at the faces staring up at him from below. Patience was his predominant trait, that and a deep desire to temper justice with mercy. No matter how long it took to unravel the intricacies of trespass, right of way, riparian rights, public nuisance, bicycling without lights, careless driving, dangerous driving, driving without a licence, that time he gladly took. If he was not satisfied that he had a grasp of all aspects of a case, when all the evidence had been tendered, cross-examined, and re-examined, if it was a police matter it was not unusual for him to attempt to elicit from Sgt. Pat McGovern every known fact about a defendant's character. If a solicitor objected, fearing too great an exposure, back would come the well-known reply, "Sergeant, it may not be evidence, but it is (pause for effect) information. Please proceed." Whereupon the Sergeant would proceed to deliver a homily on the character of the poor individual in question, seed, breed, and generation.

Billy Melly's case was a simple one, grazing his cattle on Finner Sandhills overlooking Tullan Strand, where there wasn't enough decent grass to feed a goat let alone a small herd of cows. It was brought under the Cruelty to Animals Act, the enduring legacy of Irish animal rights activist pioneer, Humanity Martin of Mayo.

In an effort to find some mitigating circumstance, O'Hanrahan asked Billy, "Why would you do such a thing? Didn't you know your animals were starving?"

"You're right, Your Honor", said Billy, "but look at the view they had!"

Nobody could argue against that. The Sandhills fronted the broad sweep of Donegal Bay, and the broader sweep of the Atlantic Ocean itself, all the way to Newfoundland and other foreign parts.

Poor District Justice O'Hanrahan was obliged to impose a stiff fine, fine view or not.

One of the court's habitual customers was Mary King William, whose proper cognomen has no bearing on the story. Mary enjoyed a small monthly pension, and her manner of enjoyment was such as to enrich the tills of publicans, and thereafter to declaim at length, standing on the sidewalk outside. "Creating a public nuisance" was the legal term for her offence, and on her regular monthly appearances in court District Justice O'Hanrahan would deliver a lecture to Mary, accompanied by the minimum fine of five shillings.

Everyone had a soft heart for Mary, including the unfortunate Garda Siochana whose turn it was to arrest her in any given month. Then came a month when, for Mary, disaster struck. District Justice O'Hanrahan had fallen ill, and in his place sat a temporary replacement, a Mr. Justice Manus O'Nuanain, all the way from Dublin no less. Dark haired, dark eyed, dour of countenance, the man had no knowledge of Mary's place in the local justice system.

"Fine, twenty shillings. Next case."

No lecture, and a fine four times the usual amount. Twenty shillings was a big sum in those days, particularly for an unfortunate with a fondness for "a wee drop".

All the spectators were dumbfounded. The Sergeant himself was dumbfounded. The solicitors at their table were dumbfounded. But Mary King William had the last word. Stricken to the quick, she swept with royal dignity to the courtoom exit, turned, and in a highly audible voice proclaimed, "Sergeant, that's me arse of a District Justice!"

O'Nuanain, despite his visage, must have had much of the milk of human kindness within him, for he chose not to hear those immortal words and the subsequent slamming of the courtroom door.

Poaching was another offence that occupied much of the District Court's monthly docket. There was poaching by rod and line, poaching by line alone, baited and set for hours at a stretch, poaching by gaff patiently wielded for hours overlooking a promising pool, and, once in a while, the setting of nets by licensed estuary fishermen above or below the geographical limits set by the Ballyshannon Board of Conservators.

This was one area that was a hold-over from pre-independence days. Much of the fishery, on river and lake, was still in private ownership (read Planter or Protestant), and on the Erne this was reflected in the composition of the licensing authority, and, coincidentally, its chief water bailiff and assistants. The fishermen, in particular the licensed net fishermen, had retained their unbroken affinity, through Patrick, with Peter, the Big Fisherman himself. In other words, they were Catholic.

Commercial net licences were expensive, and each year each boat crew had to pay the licence fee before they could wet a net in the water. With their previous season's earnings exhausted, a custom had grown up whereby money for the licence fees, for new or repaired nets and whatever else was required, was advanced by a number of the town publicans to the fishermen.

It made business sense. Each individual boat crew patronized the public house whose owner had advanced that year's start-up money. Long and weary hours of setting and hauling nets created great thirsts, and after selling their catches at quay side to the two competing buyers, the fishermen would wend their way to the public houses of their respective patrons, and there might "sit with pipe alit, and many a joke and yarn". It was a hard life. Some boats might have a good season and amply cover their costs. Result, happiness for crew and publican alike. Some boats might have all the bad luck in the world, and their crews face a winter of deprivation. Result, misery for fishermen and publican alike. But, good or bad, there was always the threat of the bailiffs to be met and, with luck, overcome.

If a bailiff happened to spot a boat with net out beyond the prescribed limits, a defence had to be established, and where better to begin its construction than that evening in the patron's public house? It could be days before a credible tale, buttressed by believable facts, and supported by common knowledge, might emerge, and then be taken to a chosen solicitor to plead in front of District Justice O'Hanrahan. Meanwhile bailiff and solicitor for the Board of Conservators were likewise engaged in preparing for successful prosecution.

The most common defence was based on wind and tide. A net laid out legitimately within legal limits could well be carried up estuary or down estuary with the rising or falling tide, and what written bylaws of a Board of Conservators could override the work of nature? Of course, if, and only if the net, for some reason had been cast outside the limits in the first place, and beached outside them, and the bailiff could establish this with supporting evidence, it was a different matter. The supporting evidence was usually supplied by an assistant bailiff. Then it was the word of the crew collectively against the word of the two bailiffs.

Where exactly were the bailiffs standing when they observed the hauling in of the net? Line of sight was a tremendously important factor. Was it broad daylight, dusk, dark, misty, foggy, raining, cloudy, ebb tide or rising tide?

Then there were the intangibles. District Justice O'Hanrahan, who lived in College Street, could be assumed to know whether it was a good season or a bad season for the fishermen and, strictly as information, not evidence, might even be told whether the boatmen charged had covered their expenses or fallen into debt for another year.

It was not unknown for a case to have a full-scale dress rehearsal, a moot court, in some snug or back parlour of a pub, its weak and strong points debated and argued over by men who had seen a score of similar cases tried before the same District Justice over the course of the years.

"He likes this", or "He likes that". "Well, by God, let's give it to him the way wants it."

"He favours the tide; he doesn't go for the wind". "Then bad cess to the wind. We'll drop it."

"He's very partial to the dusk. He knows how hard it is to see 'between the lights' ". "Well, dammit, aren't we lucky. Sure it was the last net of the day. I couldn't be sure of my own mother fifty feet away".

And so it would go until the actual drama was played in front of the adjudicator, O'Hanrahan himself.

If it was a win there was a celebration. If it was a loss there was a wake of sorts, and celebration or wake was held in the pub. It was another way some publicans made money.

District Justice Sean D. O'Hanrahan contracted phlebitis, and after serving many years and becoming an institution in the town of Ballyshannon, was obliged to move to less onerous duties in Dublin where he served out his remaining years on the Bench. He was sadly missed by all classes, rich and poor, a decent man who truly tempered justice with mercy.

For a town of its size Ballyshannon had a good handful of solicitors, Peace Commissioners, bailiffs, policemen, and customs officers, and of the latter, Willie Allingham, the pre- Raphaelite, and Thomas McCann, later to become Thomas MacAnna, the dramatist and Abbey Theatre producer, more anon.

In the thirties and forties the local Bar was comprised of Capt. William Ramage, a bantam-cock figure, "ready to fight with his own finger nails" as the expression went; Mr. P. E. Rogers of the Rock, elderly and stooped, white-haired and balding, a quiet inoffensive creature who seemed to annoy Capt. Ramage just by appearing in court; Mr. Sweeney, B.A., LLB, whose offices at the top of Main Street housed the monthly meetings of the Ballyshannon Board of Conservators, and whose principal clerk, Harry McGhee, was also clerk to the self-same board; Edmund Pierce Condon, who lived on The Mall, one of the better residential streets; and in later years a younger man, Pat Britton, who entered public life and served as a county councillor for a number of terms.

Edmund Pierce Condon was a tragic figure. He lived with his mother until his middle years, and then married a lady from Dublin or some other far away place, who never acquired the knack of small-town living and remained a stranger all her days until she left town after her husband's sudden death.

Condon was a hook-nosed, fiery eyed, red-faced man in his forties, hair thinning away from his forehead, a man who developed a Saharan thirst after his marriage, the quenching of which added to the red capillaries in his cheeks and proboscis.

He was an avid angler and railed freely against the wholesale disruption of the salmon fishery that he foresaw with the coming advent of the Erne Scheme. Determined to do something about it, he decided to form an anglers' association whose object was to make representations and forward petitions to the Minister and Department of Fisheries in the capital city, Dublin. Notices were duly published, and a founding meeting called to launch the campaign.

It was raining, a wet, heavy, soaking rain the night of the inaugural meeting, and that might have explained the poor attendance, which consisted of Edmund Pierce and two reporters, Hugh Daly of the "Democrat", and myself for the "Vindicator". But Condon's enthusiasm overcame the absence of an audience as he invited Hugh and myself into the back snug of the only public house that graced The Mall, and there proceeded to propose a motion to establish the association, which was carried nemine contradicente; another motion, passed unanimously, to appoint himself Chairman, and then a list of 14 or 41 resolutions which he had had the foresight to draw up in advance, all of which were carried without a single voice raised in opposition.

By tacit consent neither the "Democrat" nor the 'Vindicator" mentioned the lack of attendance, but did give full coverage to the content of the resolutions, which were forwarded to the Department of Fisheries where they kept a score of civil servants busily engaged, some reaching retirement, before the task of researching, briefing the Minister, and drawing up answers, was completed. For all I know there may be some still working their way through the last of them.

That was the most effectively run meeting Hugh and I ever attended, and if a ball of malt appeared on the table once or twice during the course of it, sure the proceedings only ran smoother. Various answers from the Department to various resolutions provided copy for ages into the future.

Whatever the reason, Edmund Pierce, of whom much had been expected in his early days, was found some years later with his feet dangling just a few inches above an overturned chair in a shed in the garden of his house on The Mall. "While the balance of his mind was disturbed" was the obligatory and charitable finding.

It was a phrase with which Hugh Daly and I were to become very familiar during the years we worked together. At a distance of forty years I can well remember Hugh, on days that were odd, sultry, low leaden-clouded days, remarking, "It's just the sort of a day for a hanging", and even now a shudder runs up the base of my neck remembering how often, by four o'clock in the afternoon, we would hear that some unfortunate had hung himself in a byre down by Ballintra, or Rossnowlagh, or Laghey, or thereabouts, and we had to report the subsequent inquest. To complete the story, and to avoid assymetry, there was a certain balance achieved, and nowhere more marked than in the self-inflicted departure by gunshot of poor Harry McGhee, a big, bluff, friendly man, the aforesaid clerk of the Board of Conservators. It would be nice to think that in some afterlife Harry McGhee and Edmund Pierce Condon are fishing peacefully together in some extra terrestrial stream abundant in salmon and trout, free from bailiffs, fees, licences, and all the other travails of life on this planet.

The following by Donagh MacDonagh (1912-1968), son of the poet and patriot, Thomas MacDonagh, has the real flavour of the times about which I write.

A Poaching Song

When God created water He must have thought of fish
And said, 'Let there be salmon to lie on Adam's dish!'
So he created Adam, for salmon must be caught
And flies too he created, and then of rods He thought;
So trees grew straight and slender, and Adam learned to fish
And thanked the Lord each evening for the brightness on his dish.

But who created bailiffs in a dark hour of the night?
Not God, Who loves good fellows and taught fish how to bite,
Not God Who has created the peaceful flowing stream,
The salmon ripe for taking when he leaps for joy in Spring.

A wise man, Fion MacCumhaill, caught a salmon for his tea
That lived on nuts of knowledge, dropped from a knowing tree;
He cooked it and he tasted and knew all men could wish
And wise men ever since then sit by a stream and fish,
But men unwise and evil, prompted by vicious greed,
Forbid good men their pleasure in doing this good deed.

Let others praise the herring, the tunny, trout or whale,
Give me the noble salmon with lightning in his tail;
To monarchs leave the sturgeon, the carp of golden hue--
I'll snare the silver salmon, and share the dish with you.

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