In connection with Police Courts, while nominally the police give them their names and find their duties, solicitors play a large part, and in my days of the Belfast Courts the solicitors not only dominated, but ran them. One would have thought that the courts existed for the solicitors and not the solicitors for the courts. And there was one particular solicitor who seemed to run the whole court — that was the late Mr. William Seeds. Mr. Seeds is was a quiet, mild, bland gentleman, who had a gentle face and manner, and in dress and style had more the appearance of a court missionary than a court practitioner. He represented the Corporation, he represented the police, he prosecuted the publicans, and in his private practice was solicitor for many of the publicans he prosecuted. He could get anything he waited from magistrates, clerks, police, or his fellow-solicitors; he had such a wonderful way with him. I doubt if he was as great a lawyer as some of his brother practitioners, but he could make money while they were sleeping, and the consequence was that he was regarded, and I think rightly, as one of the richest practitioners in the court. He could not have blustered if he had tried; but in his gentle insinuating way he could often secure more for clients than some of those who blustered and bounced more. The Resident Magistrates, Mr. Orme and Mr. O'Donnell, would have done anything for Mr. Seeds, they respected him so much and admired his quiet, gentle, confidential and conversational style of pleading.
In those days Thursday was set apart for the consideration of publicans' cases. I do not think that in those days the publicans had so many friends on the Bench as they have to-day; and certainly if they had they did not show themselves in the same numbers and form as they are said to do now. In the matter of the present time I cannot speak from personal knowledge, but only judge by what I read in the papers and what I hear of the proceedings. Many a time and oft I filled up from five to ten, and sometimes more, receipts for 10s 6d each for Mr. Seeds, which represented the costs accruing to him in the day for prosecution fees in the case of convictions, but I do not hear or read of as many prosecutions in a month, or even in three. Mr. Seeds had no salary, but only fees, for his police work. Many a Thursday there were as many as twenty prosecutions against publicans or spirit grocers for illegal selling either at prohibited hours in the case of the publicans or for consumption on the premises by spirit grocers, who, to my mind then, and to my mind still, were and are the worst sinners so far at any rate as evasions of the law are concerned. I do not suggest that any of the publicans in my time were unjustly convicted, for the majority were defended by three men as capable of finding flaws in summons or in evidence as, with all respect to them, the men of the present day — I refer to William Harper, “Paddy” Sheals, and “Andy” M'Erlean — and they would have raised protest if such had been the case. I do not remember that there were any complaints of unjust convictions — except, of course, that publicans complained of all convictions. There was evasive evidence, and evidence of evasions on the part of publicans, as there is at present, but it did not carry the same weight; the same evidence of publican and spirit grocer generosity in giving free drinks, but it was not believed so readily as it is now.
I have heard those who ought to know say that there is just as much violation of the law now as before, and that the police are inclined to be as watchful, but the chances of a rebuff from the magistrates are so great that they naturally are not so reedy to lose time or bring worry or trouble to themselves by promoting prosecutions. I do not say that the practice prevails at present, but I was told some years ago on the authority of one who had every reason of knowing, that the system of beating up friendly magistrates in publican cases was well known, if not absolutely recognised. That was that the friendly, or supposed friendly, magistrates were all numbered, by some authority, and that at certain hours of the morning such a telephone message as the following would be sent to a certain, place in the city, “27 and 49 here, send for 39 or 45” — my numbers, of course, are imaginary. As I have said, I am unable to say anything on this subject personally; but I heard so much on the subject a few years ago that I feel justified in calling attention to it. I can quite understand that it would be as easy for this to be denied as it would be for a publican or his assistant to say that he was in the habit of giving free drinks during prohibited hours. At that I will leave the publicans, their prosecution, and Mr. Wm. Seeds of the old days.
I gave above the names of three other police court practitioners who, in my day, and for many days afterwards, made the courts ring with their eloquence. They were all good, vigorous lawyers, and enjoyed extensive practices. They threw themselves heart and soul into the defence of their clients and could argue or ridicule, indulge in wit and irony as the case necessitated. Mr. Sheals shone in wit, Mr. Harper in subtlety, and Mr. M'Erlean in mythology, much of that he and I used to study rhetoric and classics together at Mr. Pyper's evening classes for several winters. I can never forget one case in which Mr. M'Erlean shone in this department at the expense of a local magistrate, many years gone to his rest, a very fine old gentleman, though it was many years before he forgave me for having let the case be reported in the “Echo.” In the course of the cross-examination of a witness, whom he wanted to confuse or confute, M'Erlean asked referring to the occasion of a certain incident, “Was Achilles there?” “Was Artaxerxes there?” “Was Agamemnon there?” and so on through a collection of classical names. The witness was at first confused, but said “No” in each case, after, of course, some hesitation. The unfortunate magistrate seemed “riled” at the apparent hesitation shown by the witness, regarding all the names as real, and never saw the game or the joke. Indeed, one of the clerks of the time told me that on leaving the bench the magistrate said he did not believe a word the man had sworn — he believed those men were there. The magistrate, after the publication of the report, never took his seat on the Bench again. An amusing incident occurred some time afterwards. A fellow-magistrate of his, who was commenting on the ignorance of this gentleman, said to me it was a curious thing that so-and-so, naming the magistrate, did not know the names of “them ould Roman fellows.” It will be noted, however, that the “ould fellows” were not Romans, but Greeks
I may say that, in these days the late James M'Lean, Alex, and Daniel O'Rorke, and others used to come in special cases to the court. The Messrs. O'Rorke were most dignified and gentlemanly solicitors, an honour to their profession; Mr. M'Lean had himself been a police court practitioner for many years, but on being called up higher as Sessional Crown Solicitor, leaving his son, then Mr. Jas. M'Lean, jun., afterwards Mr. Jas. M'Lean, R.M., to follow in his police court footsteps; he only appeared in important cases. Where any of these gentlemen were concerned there was always dignity and ability of the highest order.
And then there was John Rea, who made frequent descents upon the court in my time. I cannot truly say that dignity was the usual accompaniment of his appearance. It was generally the reverse.
When he turned up, as he did occasionally, there was a lively and exciting time between the efforts of the magistrates to stop the avalanche fury of his oratory, or the repetition of his slanders and libels, and his determination and ingenuity to make each interruption an excuse for a new and more vehement departure. Sometimes he would come down to defend a client, but more frequently to make harangues.
As I say, he had sometimes clients, but as often as not he sought the client and not the client him. When he was “charged” with a speech or armed for an attack on somebody he would drop into the Court, with some prisoner in the dock, man or woman, it did not matter He would ask, “What are you charged with? I'll defend you," and he did by forgetting the client till he thundered against somebody or something, everything and everybody, libelled magistrates and merchants, Town Councillors by the half-dozen; and then when he had discharged his duty to himself, remembered his poor waiting and wondering client, whom he often got off by sheer humbug or cajolery at the end. But he had got in his attack.
Some friends have suggested that I should tell them more about John Rea, but I am afraid to begin, lest, like himself, I might go on too long. He was one of the most wonderful men in his time, a genius in many ways, but sicklied over with an eccentricity bordering on madness, and seared with a malignity and venom that made him a public danger as well as public nuisance. He was educated at the Old Academy in the days of its founder, the late, and in many ways great, Dr. Bryce. The late Lord Cairns and he were fellow-pupils, and afterwards Dr. Bryce was often heard to say that of the two Rea was the more brilliant, but erratic and reckless, while the other was more plodding and practical. The result was seen in the career of the two men. Lord Cairns proved one of the greatest successes at the English Bar, having attained its greatest prize, the Lord Chancellorship, while the other died by his own hand a pitiful and painful failure.
I never heard Lord Cairns speak, but have read his speeches. They were all careful, well reasoned; solid, and somewhat heavy in their style, but they were great all the same. But in fluency and forcefulness of expression, in readiness of repartee, in quickness in seizing points and in oratorical style and tone. I do not think he could have surpassed or even approached Rea. There was nothing studied or stereotyped about Rea's speeches. I have often admired his adroitness and his brilliancy, and have heard from him, delivered on the spur of the moment, as fine and finished sentences, as any man could produce, while his happiness of phrasing and vigour, his scathing, and his aptness in applying names and epithets to his opponents was unparalleled. I admit, however, his best speeches were marred by his personalities, and his best arguments weakened by his venom. I admit also that the epithets and phrases, the venom and vituperation, that were amusing and even effective at the first, became wearisome and, nauseating by repetition. I had them all dinged into my ears for years, both in public and in private, in town and country, in his own house and in railway trains, until I was as eager to keep out of his way as the German fleet is to keep away from the Brutish fleet, or an Irish Nationalist to keep away from a recruiting sergeant. I give one mild example of his style. Referring to the late Sir Edward Porter Cowan, who was at the time Mayor of Belfast (but not knight), he described him as “the Ace of Heart Whig, soft-headed, but by no means hard-hearted, whisky-mixing Mayor.” The vituperative phrase did no harm to its subject then, and its repetition will do no harm to his memory now. I may say that Ace of Heart Whig and forgery Tory was his favourite form of reference to the local politicians of the time, according as they represented either.
But while he was brilliant as well eccentric, he was also vain, and could be as easily flattered as a child. If I made any adverse reference to him I was anathema; if I flattered him he was delighted, and I could keep him off or bring him to me at pleasure. On one occasion, some months before his death, I happened to please him and he called at the office on a Monday morning, telling me I had got on the right lines at last, and he would dictate an article for me. He talked for half an hour, and I pretended to take notes. He went away quite pleased, though nothing that he gabbled had appeared. He came the next two or three days also, and I went through the same process. This was getting monotonous, and was occupying the most valuable period of my day. So on Friday I went down to the Commercial News Room and wrote there, so that I would escape him. I arrived at the office about a quarter past eleven — we were then in Donegall Street — but I found my enemy had waited. We met at the door, and he said, “It's a nice thing I have to come here every morning to teach you your business.” I replied, “I did not send for you, and I wish, for the future you would attend to your own business and let me attend to mine,” “I'll have you in the dock, sir,” he screamed, and rushed into the “News-Letter” office, no doubt for what he called a stenographer — he was never happy in public unless he had one about him. About three-quarters of an hour afterwards a friend of mine rushed up from the Police Court to tell me I should go down, as Rea was abusing and blackguarding me all sorts: I went down, not from any anxiety, I was quite accustomed to it — but from curiosity, and remained quietly behind while he was accusing me of all the crimes and misdeameanours and all the contemptibilities of which any man could be supposed capable. I laughed, and came away quite happy, and I have no doubt he did the same. He had got the gall off his stomach, and was satisfied.
This is one out of many samples, and will give the reader an idea of the kind of man John Rea was when in one of his wild fits, which were frequent. All the same, I heard of his death with great regret. It ended an association, of a mixture of pleasure and pain for a quarter of a century. There was, however, at times a method in his madness. In one of my conversations with him, when he was calm and rational, he explained to me how he preserved his physical health, and he was a strong, fine, well-built man, with a handsome face, and many becoming characteristics. He kept himself well, he said, by careful attention to hot baths, beefsteak, and exercise. And then he added, “When I feel myself getting over-strung I go down to some court, kick up a row, get committed by the magistrate for a fortnight, and then come out of jail well rested and well strengthened.” Incidents of this kind happened frequently in his life, but I do not think on all occasions the provocations were always given for the reasons suggested. But it is a fact that they took place frequently, and I well remember one occasion; it was in the country. The magistrate had committed him for the usual fourteen days for contempt, but both he and his clerk seemed in a difficulty about making out the committal, so as to be sure there was no flaw in it. They were consulting each other and consulting books, while the prisoner waited. He knew the difficulty. “Give me,” said he, “a form and I'll fill the committal myself” — and he did, and it was admitted that even himself, with all his resourcefulness and ingenuity, could not find a flaw in it. Of such was John Rea, whose career was recalled to me when thinking over my Police Court days — and after.
There is just one incident with which I would like to conclude. It was related to me just the other day. On one occasion the late Thos. G. Lindsay, a member of the family that he had abused, slandered, vilified for the greater part of his life, appeared in the Newsroom in rather an excited state, and said to my informant, “I do not know what is going to happen. I met John Rea at the door. He came and shook hands with me, and said he apologised for all that he had said against my family.” This, my informant told me, was a few days before Mr. Rea took his life.
To be continued...
From The Witness, 3rd November 1916.
The "Man in the Street" was the pen name of Alexander McMonagle editor and manager of The Witness and Ulster Echo.