Judges Accompanied to Assizes by Armed Convoys, 1920-21

From the Belfast News-Letter, 2 July 1920:


Practically all the judges going out on circuit in the Irish Summer Assizes yesterday travelled by motor car, in view of the possibility that they would be held up if they journeyed by train. At every assize town armed judges and police guarded the courthouse, and armed escorts in motor lorries accompanied some of the judges.

The North East Assizes opened at Trim, County Meath, and both Lord Justice O’Connor and Mr Justice Gordon, with their registrars, travelled by motor car from Dublin.  Outside the courthouse a detachment of the South Wales Borderers was drawn up, and other troops were on duty within. Addressing the Grand Jury, Lord Justice O’Connor said general observations as to the state of the country would serve no public advantage.

Westmeath Assizes were opened at Mullingar by Mr Justice Kenny, who was accompanied by Mr Justice Dodd.  There was only one case, an assault on a farmer by disguised men.  Mr Justice Kenny, however, stated that there was starting and enormous increase in the police returns of reported cases. He need not deliver a homily on the present deplorable state of the country.  Matters were at such a crisis that it was idle and futile for a judge to do so.

The judges at Tullamore journeyed by car, being escorted by soldiers, and Lord Justice Ronan told the Grand Jury that there was no law in the county.

The Lord Chief Justice Moloney and his brother judge travelled to Wicklow by car.  Military detachments patrolled the streets and escorted the judges to the courthouse, while the police – those armed having arrived by motor and unarmed by train – guarded the courthouse.

In many cases the barristers also travelled by motor car, and on the Munster and North-West Circuit wigs and gowns were not taken, counsel appearing in court in ordinary garb.”

There had been a change of plan on the part of Lord Chief Justice Moloney, who had been expected to travel to Wicklow the previous evening by the 10.10 train from Harcourt Street. According to the Dublin Evening Telegraph, about twenty minutes before the departure of the train a special first-class carriage had been coupled to its engine for the accommodation of the judge and his party.  There was no sign, however, of his lordship, and the train, with a full complement of passengers, left at the usual time.

On completion of the Assizes later that month the judges returned to Dublin by train, escorted to the station by military cyclists.  Armed police travelled with them in the train.

Meanwhile the Freeman’s Journal of 22 July 1920 reported that on the opening day of the Galway Assizes letters had been received by Mr John Curran, car-owner, Prospect Hill, whose carriages had been employed by the judges for many years, warning him that he must not drive British Judges.  Mr Curran initially ignored the warnings, and his carriages conveyed the judges to and from the Court on Monday and Tuesday.  When on Wednesday night a group of masked men called at his house and gave him final warning that he must not convey the judges, he thought it better to withdraw his services.

What a difference from the Londonderry Assizes earlier that year when Mr Justice Gibson and Mr Justice Dodd had arrived in Derry by the morning to be received on the platform by the County High Sheriff, City High Sheriff, Under Sheriff and a guard of honour of the First Dorset Regiment! Thirty men of the RIC were drawn up in two long lines and on alighting their lordships were received with the customary salute, with the fine brass band of the regiment playing the British Anthem and each Sheriff had their own horse-driven landau with coachmen and footmen in liveried costume.

A lot had happened in between, and some of it even involved the Bench.  In May, controversy had erupted when Mr Justice Samuels, in a speech delivered to the Protestant Orphan Society, declared that it was essential that the Irish Education Bill – objected to by Catholics – should be passed into law and that anyone alleging that it imperilled religious freedom in any way could not possibly have studied its provisions.

A judicial colleague, Lord Justice O’Connor, was so excised by Samuels’ comments that he saw fit to pen a letter to the press criticising what he described as a deliberate taking of sides on a political issue, thereby breaching the sacred tradition that the judiciary should not embroil itself in political controversy.  The letter ended:

“What would be thought and said of a Nationalist judge who got upon a public platform to espouse the rights of small nations to self determination or who called a statesman by the name of imbecile for forcing upon the country an Education Bill repugnant to it, and thus adding one more to the sources of angry discord in our midst? Yet such a departure from a great and useful tradition would differ neither in kind or degree from that of Mr Justice Samuels in the Gregg Memorial Hall.”

Remaining detached, however, was easier said than done when even the likes of Judge Wylie, prosecutor of 1916 rebels, were being removed from tramcars by revolvered Black and Tans! Not to mention an unprecedented increase in criminal compensation claims to the extent that the presiding judge at the 1920 Letterkenny Quarter Sessions was provoked to remark that surely Sinn Fein could not be blamed for everything.

Pending Treaty negotiations provided some relief, and when Mr Justice Dodd attended the Londonderry Assizes of July 1921, he travelled there by the traditional means of railway.  The 1st Dorset Regiment and thirty men to of Royal Irish Constabulary, were on the platform to meet him for the customary salute and the full Sheriff’s equipage of landaus, liveried footmen and coachmen in blue cloth frock coats with striped vests, white busk breeches and coats in blue kersey were again in attendance. 

Eschewing such pageantry, his brother judge, Mr Justice Gordon, chose to arrive unofficially after spending a few days at the seaside – and, in so doing, to miss the end of an era.  There would be no more Assize trips from Dublin to Londonderry.  With partition pending, the appointed date for the establishment of the new Supreme Courts of Southern and Northern Ireland loomed large on the horizon and there would be no place in the new system for many of the judges mentioned above other than as part of the smaller portion of a divided legal system.

‘Nolumus Mutari,’ the motto of the Benchers of the Honorable Society of King’s Inns, was about to be subjected to serious challenge!

Image Credit: National Library of Ireland

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

Irish barrister sharing the history of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland, and other Irish courts.

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