Of the Law and the Legal Fraternity
"Now fore and aft keep hauling, and gathering up the clew,
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.
Till a wave of silver salmon rolls in among the crew."
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
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
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
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,
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
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
"He favours the tide; he doesn't go for the wind". "Then bad cess to the wind. We'll
"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,
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
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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