The Founding of the Presentation Brothers’ Schools at Birr in 1877; recollections of 1927 from J. Deering.
[Birr Historical Society meets again on Monday 4 December 2023 after a break of three…
The commencement of the new District Court in Offaly in January 1923 was an inauspicious time to start. The county was caught up in the civil war that it seemed neither side could win. The Free State (National Army) had taken all the cities by August 1922, but the fight was still going on in the hills, especially in the south. Neither Tullamore nor Birr was free of anxiety with shots fired on New Year’s Eve to remind people that the Republicans had not gone away. How could they forget? In January 1923 two men from Kilkenny were executed for possession of arms and robbery. Soon after five National soldiers captured with a body of anti-Government forces were executed – a courtmartial having found them guilty of treachery. Five from County Offaly were executed in January and early February. In the same month there had been an attack at Raheen in north Offaly – an ambush while soldiers were going to mass with at least one dead. Some of the neutral IRA were talking about ending the conflict and the press reported that Peadar Bracken ex Brigade officer, Thomas Ua Quinn ex Vice Commdt, and Martin Fleming, ex Brigade staff officer, had called a meeting of pre-truce ex officers of nos 1 and 2 Offaly Brigades IRA at the old Sinn Féin hall regarding the peace movement. Peadar Bracken would know the place well as he was involved in the ‘affray’ in 1916 where ‘the first shot was fired’ in that very hall in William/Columcille street, Tullamore.
We mention this because soon after Peadar Bracken was appointed as first clerk of the new district court in Tullamore. In Birr the court registrar was F.B. Kennedy who succeeded Henry Barlow. The Birr court was held on the 5th of January when solicitor and now District Justice, W. Meagher, of Templemore, occupied the bench and proceeded to administer law under the aegis of the Free State Government.
It was reported that member of the Civic Guard were on duty in the precincts of the court, the public of interested spectators, some of whom also occupied seats in the body of the court. The legal profession was represented by Messrs J. J. Kennedy, P. V. Loughrey, W. A. F. Barry, and M. J. O’Meara. The Registrar, Mr. F. R. B. Kennedy was in attendance with P. Deignen, a former Assistant Clerk of Petty Sessions affording some preliminary assistance in the performance of the duties of the office. There were a number of important cases but at Friday’s sitting the prisoners were remanded to a special court on Monday, when the evidence was fully gone into, and the four men returned for trial to the Quarter Sessions on 23rd. January, and bail being opposed in the case of three they were sent to Mountjoy. The Birr courthouse had survived attacks in June 1921 and August 1922 and its prison was still functioning.
The magistrates sitting at Kilbeggan in 1901 with Tullamore solicitors seeking a adjournment. ‘I wont forget you in the sweet by-and-by’.
Mr Loughrey and the New Order
Mr P.V. Laughrey, solr, said that it was the wish of the solicitors practicing in that court to extend a welcome to Mr Meagher, and to congratulate him, not only on coming amongst them in the capacity of magistrate, but also on the setting up and inauguration of the court. They were all familiar with the old saying “that the old order changeth” and, indeed, the change which had now taken place was a tremendous one. The law would now be administered in the aspirations of the people. They extended a welcome to him personally as well as in his capacity of Justice, and it afforded them great pleasure to see a member of their own profession come to preside over their court, where in he would always have every assistance the solicitors could give him, and they would endeavour to make his position as pleasant as possible. They would also like to extend their congratulations to the new Registrar, Mr. Kennedy. Mr. Loughrey and his brother solicitors [there was no woman solicitor in the county until 1932 and then only for one year] however, thought that they could not let this opportunity pass without making reference to Mr Kennedy’s predecessor. Mr. Henry Barlow, who had acted as Clerk of Petty Sessions for more years than any of them could recollect. This was in the form of the time-honored greeting and Meagher replied:
District Justice Meagher Replies.
Mr. Meagher, in replay, returned sincere thanks to the very kind welcome which had been extended to him personally, and he took the welcome not only as for himself but as an expression of loyalty to the Irish Government. He was sure they all regretted losing such an efficient officer as Mr. Barlow, who had now ceased to occupy the position of clerk to the court. He had been speaking to Mr. Barlow that morning and it was quiet evident that he took his retirement in the proper manner, recognising gladly that the time had come now when the reins of Government had been transferred into the hands of the Irish people [our italics]. With regards to the court, which would be held fortnightly for the presents, Justice Meagher believed he had been extremely lucky in being appointed for the Birr Tullamore Roscrea area.
Referring to the Civil Guard, Mr Meagher said that in Inspector Liddy he had in his short acquaintance satisfied him of this a most competent and efficient police officer. “I would, “the Justice proceeded, “like to let the people know that the Civic Guard are their friends and not their enemies. They were sent here to preserve the peace and property of the district, and I am sure they will perform their duties efficiently and well. In the old days of the British regime the R.I.C had always been considered the enemies of the people, and that force was looked upon as the weapon of a foreign power. There is no doubt that some members of that force went out of their way to become the weapons of that power. I must, however, say that in any case brought before me by the Civic Guard. I will have to be perfectly satisfied of the guilt of the accused. It is not like the judicial system under British rule, where the people who occupied the bench worked hand in hand with the Government and did a thing because they were made to do it.” Although he was appointed by the Government, the Civic Guard, as representing the State or Government, would have to prove all cases fully, and any suit which came before him would be tired in proper manner.
Poteen making seizure at Harbour Street, Tullamore, 1924: Peadar Bracken with cap, Judge O’Donoghue, the judge assigned to Tullamore for 30 years 1924-55 (bow tie) and in the centre Superintendent Woods. Yeast from a nearby bakery helped in the production. The picture also includes Sergeants O’Connor and Clyne. Finding a poteen still in the town of Tullamore caused a sensation. The case proceeded without any great upset and the judge greatly reduced the fines. James Rogers represented the state. A small world where everyone was known to each other and had met in different circumstances just a few years before.
In Tullamore a week later the drill was much the same. The courthouse had been destroyed by the Republicans on departing Tullamore on 20 July 1922. Here the new court was held in the gym attached to Charleville School. James Rogers welcomed the new judge ‘as a citizen of the Irish Free State and as a member of the Bar, on his own behalf, and on behalf of his colleagues, and he thought he might add on behalf of the people of Tullamore, and perhaps of North Offaly.’ He went on: ‘The creation of the Irish Government is itself the creation of the people’s Parliament, and this court is truly the people’s own court. Under the old regime, to be associated with the Government in any capacity, especially on the judicial bench, was to come more or less under suspicion and to lose the confidence and general respect of the people. The traditional attitude of the Irish People was founded really on National principles and instinct, and was a sort of subconscious protest against foreign rule. It was an unfortunate attitude of mind, and it was fatal to a true conception of the meaning of law. Luckily we have lived to see the cause, and the justification of all this removed. The setting up of this court here today brings home to the people the reality of the change, and when the present nightmare of strife has passed the Irish people will be quick to realise that the surest safeguard of their rights, liberty and property is to be found in full obedience to, and due observance of the laws of the country, and public opinion will be zealous in enforcing respect and reverence for the law.’ The Civic Guard had not yet established a presence in the town but that would come in April 1923.
James Rogers represented many Sinn Féin people in the 1916–21 period and was on the Free State side in the civil war. He had started his career in A. & L. Goodbody, Tullamore but interestingly his principal there, Lewis Goodbody, did not present the greetings to the new judge as would have been his right as a senior member of the local bar. Hoey had died in 1921 and Brenan was his partner since 1912 – thus giving Rogers (qualified 1907) the edge. Besides Rogers was a firm Free Stater and was appointed state solicitor in 1923 and county registrar in 1926. Rogers lived on until 1967 and was in court when his old client and district court clerk, Peadar Bracken, died in 1961. Strangely, no one thought to invite Rogers to the 50th anniversary celebrations in Tullamore in 1966. If he was not well neither was his name mentioned in dispatches. His long and valued service to Sinn Féin, cultural and education causes was forgotten. In the 1960s there seems to have been little cultural memory and less in the way of research.
James Rogers at his office in High Street about 1910-12.
The new Free State government had swept away the Dáil courts and the judicial experiments of 1919-22. The District Justice sat alone unlike the unpaid magistrates of pre-1922. The new Judge Meagher was one of six Clongownians appointed to the district court bench and it can be said that the counter revolution had truly begun. The civil war of June 1922 to April 1923 had put paid to the luxury of judicial experiment.
It should be mentioned that the Birr man J.J. Molloy was the first Offaly man to be appointed to the bench. His time was short as he died at the age of 46 in 1932. While one can speak of the counter revolution in Ireland from the death of Collins in August 1922 we should also recall the attitude of the magistrates bench to the likes of Molloy when he acted for the Birr vintners in 1914 who were objecting to early closing just when there was a large number of soldiers in the town. It was one of disdain so at least all that had changed. If not revolutionary the District Court has served the people and the state well and was in its form more novel than the higher courts.
The late Eddie Rogers, one of the great court reporters of later years.