BY MICHAEL NOLAN
The Proclamation of the Irish Republic issued by the 7 signatories in April 1916 made a Declaration.
“Until our arms have brought the opportune moment for the establishment of a permanent National Government, representative of the whole people of Ireland and elected by the suffrages of all her men and women, the Provisional Government hereby constituted will administer the civil and military affairs of the Republic in trust for the people”.
This part of the Proclamation, expressed in the most general of terms, is currently seen as part of the Nationalist Policy of breaking down English Civil Government and in its place, establishing an Irish Civil Government, and in particular the setting up of a form of court system to regulate legal affairs in the country. The proposal itself was not new in 1916, it had been proposed as early as 1905 in a speech to the National Convention by Arthur Griffith and repeated again in the subsequent Convention in 1912; after the rising in 1916, in the early days of 1919, the National Convention proposed the setting up of local Arbitration Courts. These were to be set up to exclude the British from any part in civil affairs and also to uphold the authority of the first Dail Eireann. The first Dail had met at the Mansion House, Dublin, on 21st January 1919 and began the process of issuing Decrees, one of which was to establish Arbitration Courts throughout the country; by May 1920, Rules for the Courts were established, again by Decree of Dail Eireann, but in effect, there was already a system of local parish courts set up along the Western Seaboard, in particular in Clare and Mayo – these were set up on an ad hoc basis without any formal legislative powers but had the wave of nationalism as its main support
THE OFFICIAL SINN FEIN COURTS WERE SET UP FORMALLY IN CLARE IN DECEMBER 1919
There had been an outbreak of serious agrarian violence in the West of Ireland from 1919 on which were dealt with in the local parish courts, set up initially to deal with the phenomenon of “cattle driving” and general defiance of the law. Apart from being an expression of nationalism, and as an alternative to the British Regime and its perceived unfairness, it provided a system of local/ peer oriented justice. The courts were run by local people, many of them Volunteers who acted not only as the local Constabulary (instead of the local RIC) but also held trials to deal with various matters which arose. The setting up and practice of the Sinn Fein courts had the effect of alienating the public from the established court system; so that, within a very short period of time, a network of alternative Tribunals was being used for the adjudication of disputes both civil and criminal. The public used them by virtue of a combination of persuasion, peer pressure, novelty, and fear.
POLITICAL EFFECT OF THE COURTS
To an extent, the Sinn Fein courts became recognised as the de facto administration of justice in Ireland. Lord Dunraven wrote to the Irish Times –
“An illegal Government became the de facto government; it administers Justice promptly and equally …”
Cope, the Assistant under Secretary in Dublin Castle, in July 1920, warned the Cabinet conference in London that “the Sinn Fein courts were doing more harm to the prestige of the (British) Government than the assassinations”
Their political effect was also noteworthy; apart from the point of view expressed by Mr. Cope, Lloyd George raised the issue of the Sinn Fein courts during the talks on independence.
“I shall have to tell them (the Irish delegation) that we, (the British Government) shall have to scatter these courts”. It is noted that Griffith and Collins agreed in the course of those discussions that “something would be done” but nothing more than this assurance was ever given and in effect, nothing was done. It will be seen that as a result of the Sinn Fein courts, many of the Justices of the Peace which had been appointed under the British Regime resigned their positions.
Civil cases were withdrawn by litigants from the ordinary Civil Courts, Circuit and High Courts and dealt with by the Sinn Fein Courts.
It is beyond doubt that the Sinn Fein courts were out of the control of the first Dail, notwithstanding that in August 1919, the Decree setting up the Arbitration Courts was enacted but no specific arrangement was set up by the Dail to put these arrangements into effect.
It should be noted that Clare was the only place where a Constitution for the Courts was drawn up and the courts operated on parish and district levels. In an effort to attempt to centralise and control the courts, it was not until mid-1920 that Austin Stack, the Minister for Foreign Affairs sent out a circular attempting to deal with administrative procedures of the courts. Ultimately as will be seen later on, the first Free State Government took steps to bring the courts under their control and set up the system of courts which we know today and ultimately led to the demise of the Sinn Fein courts.
WHAT DID THE SINN FEIN COURTS DO
It may well be asked what exactly did the Sinn Fein Courts do. What subjects were dealt with by them? The list is quite lengthy, as already stated, there had been an outbreak of serious agrarian violence and land disputes around this time and the resolution of such land disputes formed a major part of the matters dealt with; other matters were the return of property taken wrongly; the making good of damage to property or persons, the imposing of fines for assaults, robberies, and licensing offences.
This paper will look at the general reasons behind the courts, the matters dealt with by them, the parties who ran and organised the courts, the general locations in the West Clare area of such sittings in a line between Ennistymon and Kildysart, the prominent personalities in the West Clare area who ran these courts, some examples of the way things were run in the courts, the subsequent attempts to centralise them and their ultimate dissolution.
WHO WERE THE JUDGES? WHAT PERSONNEL COMPRISED THE COURT?
The setting up of Parish courts and District Courts, following the boundaries of the parish and county, was always likely to involve the local Parish Priest. Diarmaid Ferriter in a recent Irish Times review had this to say –
“Priests were generally Republican minded Sinn Feiners rather than IRA members; many of them were collectors for the Dail LOAN and had a strong presence in the Clare Sinn Fein Constituency Executive as well as in Galway.”
He goes on to say that 45 priests held office in the Sinn Fein party at constituency level in the year 1920. Many priests served as Judges in the Sinn Fein courts. That trials in Kilfinane in Co. Limerick were held in the Parochial house and Church sacristy. Even in cases where the priest was not a member of the local Sinn Fein Court, many priests refused to recognise the legitimacy of the British Courts.
In Kilrush, the curate Fr Moloney was a judge in the Ballykett court; while his superior, Dean McInerney the PP was thought to be a strong Unionist!
In her article in the Old Limerick Journal, Mary Kotsonouris had this to say:
“The Parish Justices were elected by a convention consisting of local and Trade Union representatives, incumbent Clergy, the Sinn Fein Club and the Volunteers; those Justices in turn chose a bench of 5 Judges for the next Superior Court which was known as the District Court”. She goes on to say that the fact that they were Priests did not insulate them from criticism by disgruntled litigants. She gives examples of a Priest Fr. Fitzgerald in Abbeyfeale being the subject matter of a complaint to Austin Stack, the Minister for Home Affairs, and in another case, Fr. Punch in Ballyhahill Co. Limerick was the subject matter of a complaint of prejudice.
Locally, apart from Fr Moloney, Matthew Bermingham of Ballykett was stated to be a judge in the Military courts; and in Kilkee, Fr (later Canon) Grace was also reported to have been a judge.
PRIMARY SOURCE – FR PAT GAYNOR
Closer to home however, we have the role of Fr. Pat Gaynor who, in his memoir, deals with his experience and knowledge of the Sinn Fein Courts in Quilty and Kilmurry Ibrickane.
(In this regard, I am indebted to Paddy Murrihy who drew the attention of Fr. Gaynor’s memoir to me.; also Paddy Waldron who described the experience of one of his relatives in the sinn fein court and who has supplied additional data about local courts; and Mary Fennell NT of Carrigaholt, who had information and statements in relation to her late father in law, Eamonn Fennell of Carrigaholt).
So here, at first hand, we have the recollection of a member of the Clergy who was involved in the Sinn Fein Courts throughout the years in question. He describes how a local P.P. Fr. Michael McKenna – who had served in the First World War in the British Army as a Chaplain in France,- was the Commandant of the Local Battalion of Volunteers and was responsible for control of Sinn Fein in the area; the President of the Sinn Fein District Court in Quilty was another Priest Fr. Charlie Culligan of whom we shall hear more later.
One of the first cases to come before the court, in July 1920, related to a dispute over a farm at Craggaknock near Mullagh owned by the McNamara family. As Fr Gaynor describes in his book
“Mrs. Dwyer, a talented Publican, had acquired the McNamara farm some years previously by letting the McNamara’s father run up bills in her shop, the bills, so it was said were mostly for drink”.
As described by Paddy Cotter to Paddy Waldron , Michael McNamara “was anxious for the drink” .After his death, his widow sued for the return of the 40 acre farm which had been acquired in lots, over a period of years by the Dwyers who had become the owners of the entire farm as a result; the McNamaras now brought their case before the Sinn Fein Court. After a hearing lasting for 2 days, some form of satisfactory settlement was arrived at (we are not told the precise terms which is a shame! But was believed to be the payment of £125 by Mrs McNamara to the Dwyers in return for which the farm was returned to her. However, it is understood that the basis of her claim was that the sale was not valid, as her consent to the sale was not sought; also that her late husband did not give her any of the proceeds, all of which had gone to the Defendant to pay for drink).
Enforcement of the decisions of the Sinn Fein courts were normally in the hands of the IRA volunteers. They were known as the IRA Police and in addition to performing such duties as summons serving, policing the courts, and enforcing the Decrees of the local courts, they were particularly strict on publicans, calling to their premises to endure compliance with the Licensing laws. So much so, that in Fr. Gaynor’s words “not even the most prominent members of the IRA or Sinn Fein could venture in for a drink after hours!”
In another case, he deals with a case of two men who had refused to comply with an Order of the Local Sinn Fein Court that they rebuild a wall they had wrongfully demolished. As they were in defiance of the court, the community needed to be shown that the Sinn Fein court was able to enforce its own orders and so they were sentenced to be banished to Mutton Island off Quilty for 3 weeks. Despite the best efforts of the local RIC Constabulary to rescue them from Quilty (where the men were fed by the Sinn Fein volunteers), the RIC were unable to gain access to them and accordingly they served their term of exile, thus the prestige of the local court was maintained. However most other matters dealt with by the local courts over which Fr. Gaynor presided were less contentious.
On the occasion of one court where he describes “four thirsty men” who had been summonsed to appear before the court for having broken into the old Atlantic Hotel in Spanish Point and stolen a half barrel of porter from the premises, their penalty was an obligation to repay the cost of the barrel and to repair the damage done.
MULLAGH CLOSURE ORDERS
He also gives examples of other orders made by him in his capacity as local Judge; he instances an order that he gave to the Publican Davy Walsh in Mullagh to close down his pub for a week for selling drink after hours – it was not so much the offence of selling after hours but his concern was that it might change his attitude towards trading after hours which, if detected by the RIC, Fr. Gaynor was concerned that they would possibly recognise the British Court if summonsed and which would lead to a loss of prestige for the Sinn Fein court.
Again, another order he made in Mullagh, that people attending fairs in Mullagh must leave the village by 4.00 p.m. lest they be prosecuted by the British Authorities either for being drunk or in case of the publican, for trading after hours. The reason was the same, to enforce the Writ of the Dail Court.
Another case in the Kilrush area was where a man was arrested by the Republican police and tried – he was convicted and sentenced to 3 or 4 weeks hard labour – which consisted of thinning turnips in Killimer!
There is also the description of the arrest in Kilrush of a man called Dunleavy who sold potatoes to the marines based in Cappa – he too was tried in Glenmore but was acquitted and released.
COMPETENCE OF THE JUDGES
Fr. Gaynor does not spare some of his colleagues on the Bench, in some cases for sheer incompetence, but in more serious cases for causing serious miscarriages of justice. He named Jack Dwyer of Kilrush, who was a member of the Sinn Fein executive, and also a member of the Sinn Fein District Court as well as being a Clare County Councillor. Fr. Gaynor regarded Jack Dwyer as not being very effective in his role as a member of the District Court, he describes him thus –
“quite useless… as a member of the District Court”
Jack Dwyer’s role as a member of the local Kilrush Sinn Fein court did not prevent him from breaching the Sinn Fein boycott on the Clare Champion when that August journal advertised Gallaghers tobacco (produced in Belfast) and to which Sinn Fein were opposed, not on health grounds but because they wrongly assumed that being a manufacturing entity based in Belfast, that it discriminated against Catholics, Gallaghers were one of the very few firms in Belfast who employed both Catholics and protestants.
Another judge, as described in a statement by Martin Mulqueen, was known as “Soldier“ Kelly as being ‘not much good’.
MISCARRIAGES OF JUSTICE
That the system was not in any way perfect, not least in the dealings with local land disputes, is also made clear by Fr. Gaynor. He cites two cases where a major injustice took place; In mitigation, Fr. Gaynor says that the President of the Court – who you will recall was Fr. Charlie Culligan, the local P.P, was absent on both occasions. In his absence however, the Sinn Fein Court, in the two cases which he cites, in majority rulings, ruled in favour of the local IRA Volunteer , and against the party clearly entitled to the verdict. In that particular case, the IRA Volunteer – described in a most sarcastic manner by Fr. Gaynor as a patriot and volunteer who gave no services worth mentioning to the cause – succeeded at the first hearing before the court. Fr. Gaynor however, jointly with Fr. Culligan, set out to set aside this perverse verdict but in order to do so, he had to dismiss the members of the court who had given the verdict and then to arrange to set up an alternative forum – which he called a “convention” – consisting of :
(i) The officers of the local IRA Brigade.
(ii) The officers of the West Clare Sinn Fein executive.
(iii) Other elected members.
(We shall see later the effect of the setting up of the new court).
In the second case, again concerning a claim to house and land, so egregiously unjust was the verdict issued in favour of a man called Connors, again an IRA Volunteer, that Fr. McKenna- who, as you will recall, had been a British army chaplain, and, on his return to Ireland, was later the O/c of the local Brigade, had Mr. Connors arrested and tried before a courtmartial comprised of the Battalion staff. At the time, Fr. McKenna was head of both the IRA volunteers and of the Sinn Fein Executive in the District. In the event, the Courtmartial sentenced Mr. Connors to a month in solitary confinement on Mutton Island. No sooner had that verdict been announced that Mr. Connors then applied to Willie Shannon who was the Brigade Chief of Police for West Clare (another section of the IRA) and without any notice to Fr. McKenna, to set aside the verdict and to enable Mr. Connors to evict the elderly owners from the house and land. As a result of getting the Order from Willie Shannon, Mr. Connors, with a number of Volunteers from Cooraclare, marched to the house in Mullagh where the elderly owners were residing and had them evicted. To resolve this particular matter, Fr. Gaynor had to call a convention of all the authorities serving under the Irish Republic in West Clare, namely the Brigade staff, the Sinn Fein executive, and further elected members, and the newly reconstituted court overturned the entire verdict and ordered Mr. Connors to vacate the house owned by the elderly couple, namely O’Brien. However, again Mr. Connors refused to budge when Fr. Gaynor went personally to Mr. Connors to enforce the Order of the court that he vacate; some days later, however, to show that he meant business, Fr. Gaynor organised a gun party to execute Mr. Connors and it was only when Mr. Connors saw this enforcement squad were arriving at his door, fully armed, that he fled from the house and enabled the O’Briens to be reinstated.
It was also decided that no more land disputes were to be decided on by Parish Courts and would have to be dealt with at a more senior level. Clearly, even among the members of the SF executive, there was concern that there was an absence of justice and fairness manifest in these types of cases at least; these were clearly very serious matters and threatened the good name of the Sinn Fein courts.
Most of the matters dealt with by these local courts over which Fr. Gaynor presided were far less contentious. Joe Hurley, in an article on Doonbeg Parish describes the sitting of the Sinn Fein Court in Caherfeenick, but its precise location is unknown. It often became necessary to change the location of the court at the last minute, due to the possibility of raids on that location by either the RIC or the Black and Tans. On the occasion of one court where, as he describes it, “Four thirsty men” were charged with having broken into the old Atlantic Hotel in Spanish Point and had stolen a half barrel of porter from the Hotel – the penalty imposed was for them to pay compensation for the items damaged and stolen on that occasion. Interestingly on that occasion, they were told to appear at the local Sinn Fein Court in Craggaknock but at the last moment had to change from that location (a derelict house in a field in Craggaknock) to a different location as there was at that time a crack down by the RIC and also the Black and Tans who were still trying at that time to close down the courts. They were constantly getting tip offs from Fr. Gaynors own parishioners about the location of courts, as Fr. Gaynor puts it in his book “West Clare reeked with spies”.
He also presided over a land dispute in Craggaknock involving a Justice of the Peace called Christy Kelly who was involved in a dispute with a neighbour a Mr. Curtin, again over land. Mr. Kelly was summonsed to appear before the Sinn Fein Court in the disused farm house in the field in Craggaknock; Mr. Kelly shrewdly tipped off the Police as to the location, the Police, Soldiers and Tans arrived, there was a shoot-out as a result of which Mr. Curtin was shot dead and another Sinn Fein member, Michael Crotty of Kilrush, was badly wounded. Michael Crotty was a prominent publican in Kilrush and later married the very well-known concertina player, known as Mrs Crotty. Shortly thereafter, Fr. Gaynor was himself arrested and jailed in in Limerick and that terminated his involvement in the courts.
KILRUSH AREA COURTS
In statements given by Martin Mulqueen (Ballykett) and Patrick Bermingham (also Ballykett), they identified a number of locations for the holding of courts in the general Kilrush area. They identify the following:
- Slatterys house in Ballykett
- Daniel “Dootsie” Grogans house in Gowerhass
- Brews house in Ballykett
Slattery’s house featured a case where as he describes in full of solicitors and barristers, and the presiding judge was Judge Davitt (is this Cahir Davitt who became a High Court judge some years later?) – this was a land dispute
The Glenmore hearing was an army case where a man was suspected of being a spy – this man was a teacher. The case was presided over by Tom McGrath of the East Clare IRA Brigade. In Patrick Berminghams statement he says
“the prisoner was found guilty and the right punishment was given “.
Later on, he states another teacher in Drumdigus national school who, he states was “the leader of the spy ring in West Clare“ was arrested, tried and sent home to Tipperary.
By way of sub-note at to the role of Fr. Charlie Culligan – who you will recall was the President of the Sinn Fein Court in Quilty – he apparently had a liking for alcohol and apparently it was felt that he was not as effective as he might be. He was later the subject of an internal Sinn Fein inquiry/court martial held in Kilmihil – the record in Fr. Gaynor’s book is that he was let off with a reprimand, and warned as to his drinking and forced to take the pledge.
The Poet Brian O’Higgins who lived in Carrigaholt, and who was a founder member of the Irish College in Carrigaholt in 1913 and subsequently the Principal of the College was also one of the founder members of the Sinn Fein Courts in Co. Clare. He was elected as Sinn Fein TD for West Clare, in December 1919. He presided over several courts held in Carrigaholt in 1919/1920.
Another member of the same court was Eamon Fennell, father of the late Jim Fennell, Publican, of West Street, Carrigaholt. Eamon Fennell was a former O/C of the 8th Battalion Clare Brigade and made a Statement to the Bureau of Military History in connection with his pension application. Eamon Fennell was born on 25th March 1885 in Carrigaholt, was involved in the 1916 Rising and was ready to take action on Easter Sunday 1916 until at 9.00 a.m. on Easter Sunday morning, he received Orders from Art O’Donnell of Tullycrine who had cycled from Limerick that morning with Orders to stand down. In his statement, Eamon Fennell described his involvement with the IRA volunteers in Carrigaholt from August 1917 onwards that the meetings were held in the Reading room in the village. He was subsequently arrested and on his discharge from jail, he said “I devoted a lot of my time to the work of the Sinn Fein and Arbitration Courts, as during 1920/1921, there was a considerable amount of disputes over land in the Carrigaholt area. These courts were always held in the old Courthouse. I acted as Arbitrator in a number of cases. The RIC had left Carrigaholt on 19th August 1920 after which the Barracks was promptly destroyed… (after they left) .. “The IRA and Sinn Fein Clubs there had to be responsible for law and order”. The location of the Sinn Fein Courts is understood to have been the premises recently known as Bidsie Brickes, used in more recent years by Finbar Murphy for his premises trading under that name.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
To a great degree, the Sinn Fein and local courts were autonomous, particularly in Clare and Mayo where they had well established rules of procedure and regulation. These had been established from 1918 on and generally worked satisfactorily, with the odd exception and occasional miscarriage of justice. However it was self-evident that sooner or later, there would have to be some centralised system of justice brought into being.
In August 1919, Dail Eireann issued a Decree establishing Arbitration Courts on a national scale; however no steps were taken to establish Rules of Procedure. Notwithstanding this, the Sinn Fein courts continued, but it is evident that there was concern at the lack of formality and control by any central authority. The newspaper reports in May 1920, that the Kilrush Circuit sessions were more or less abandoned when all the cases were either settled or withdrawn, leaving the Judge with nothing to do so that in effect, the Sinn Fein courts had taken over seisin of the court proceedings, leaving the existing Crown Courts with nothing to do.
On 29th June 1920, Dail Eireann decreed that Courts of Equity and Justice were to be set up and the Minister for Home Affairs was to establish courts having a criminal jurisdiction, in effect putting in place regulated and country wide structures – and strictures – which had not existed before. In August, 1921, Austin Stack as Minister for Home Affairs then put into place steps to enforce the Central administration of the courts. Notwithstanding those three steps, no effort was made to displace or replace the Sinn Fein courts in favour of the courts now set up by the various Decrees of Dail Eireann. The matter was further copper fastened by the passing of the 1922 Constitution of the Irish Free State so that by then, you had two parallel, Irish controlled, systems of justice. While the two parallel systems continued, there were several factors which led to the closure of the Sinn Fein courts. Unquestionably, one of them was the outbreak of the Civil War – where there was a split in the IRA volunteers between those pro-treaty and those anti-treaty; and, a second one, as described by Mary Kotsonouris, an executive decision had been taken by the Cabinet in 1922 to close down the Sinn Fein Courts. The dispute was exacerbated by the decision of Judge Diarmaid Crowley to make an order for Habeas Corpus for a political prisoner resulting in a dismissal of Judge Crowley by the Executive.
It appears clear that in October 1922, Dail Eireann issued a Decree bringing all the Sinn Fein courts to an end an d thus reversing the August 1919 Decree.
However despite the making of the Decree of October 1922, both sets of courts continued in parallel until eventually, a Judicial Commission was set up in 1923 which eventually ordered that notwithstanding the fact that there were 5,000 still before the Sinn Fein courts, they were to be dealt with under the aegis of the Judicial Commission.
Thus, Clare, which in effect had set up the Sinn Fein courts, also saw the very last set of cases dealt with by the Commission in Ennis on 23rd and 24th July 1925. Mr. Justice Meredith of the High Court sat in Ennis for those two days and dealt with all existing matters which were then in the list, to finalise the Sinn Fein courts in Clare. The merger were finally complete and thereafter, all proceedings were taken under the procedures laid down by the Courts of Justice Act 1924 thus establishing the validity and public recognition of the courts of the Irish Free State.
By way of footnote, it will be noted that all Judges mentioned up to now were male, there was a female Registrar in County Limerick, named Brigid Kennedy; however it was not until 1963 that Eileen Kennedy was made a Justice of the District Court, the first female to be appointed as a Judge – it is reported that her courtroom was “the most crowded for days, with people coming to witness the novelty to it all”.
The people’s Courts – Ireland’s Dail Courts 1920-1924 (Maguire, Hardiman and others).
The Dail Courts in Limerick (Mary Kotsonouris) old Limerick Journal, winter 1992.
Parish of Doonbeg Journal – Joe Hurley
Fr. Gaynor Memoir
The winding up of the Dail Courts 1922-1925 Mary Kotsonouris.
Retreat from Revolution – Dail Courts 1920/1924, Mary Kotsonouris.
Review – Irish Times 2015, Diarmaid Ferriter.
Statement of Eamon Fennell
Bureau Military History.
Statement of Martin Mulqueen , Ballykett,13th March 1971
Statement of Patrick Bermingham August & October 2006