Wednesday 9 November 2016

Fifty Years of Belfast Life (1866-1916) part 19



I have referred to some of the lawyers connected with the Police Court in my time and after. I now come to the lawyers on the Bench. They were not so many, and I do not think that their limitations of legal knowledge limited their usefulness or effectiveness as magistrates. No doubt there are times at which a knowledge of law is necessary on the Bench; and it is well that at such times there should be a magistrate who knows the law, or a little. But in nine cases out of ten, and for the purpose of the ordinary routine of Petty Sessions work, an ounce of common sense is worth more than a pound of law. There were then, and I presume are still, magisterial handbooks — Levinge and Humphreys were the names and authors in my time — and these define the various offences, suggest the character of proof necessary, show the extent and limitation of punishment for each offence, so that he would be a poor magistrate, indeed, a mere simulacrum, if he could not learn from these volumes the scope of his powers and discretion. In my time we had magistrates who were lawyers — I am not now referring to R.M.'s, who, in my opinion, should all be lawyers — there was one, a most respectable and respected old gentleman, and a very kind friend of my own, who was a perfect terror to the officials. He was always searching for quirks and crotchets, and could never see the wood of fact for the trees of legal technicalities.

Mr. Edward Orme, R.M., and Mr. J. C. O'Donnell, R.M., were the two Resident Magistrates in my time. Neither was burdened with a knowledge of law, and yet, on the whole, no two men could have administered justice with more fairness. Mr. Orme was a retired army major, came from Connaught, and was a typical Irishman in his sense of humour and in his easygoing disposition and in his hatred of care or worry. Mr. O'Donnell was a Southern Irish squireen, full bodied and full blooded, who had gained his position as a Resident Magistrate, it was said, from the ability he had shown in the conduct of an important case that had arisen in the district in which he exercised local jurisdiction as a magistrate. How far he was ever trained in or for the law, I cannot say; but I will say this for him, he had a good general idea of the law, and combined with that a strong flavour of common sense. It was always to him and not to Mr. Orme we went in case of any legal detail that had to be looked after.

There was one thing both men had in common. They were Irishmen both. There was no sense of hurry or rush about them. With them time was made for slaves and not for Resident Magistrates or police courts. I remember the Court sitting often far into the day or afternoon, and when afterwards going over the work done my wonder often was how the time was spent. In addition to being easygoing, both magistrates were very considerate or polite, and would no more think of putting a curb on a solicitor than on the Chief Secretary. But minus the prolongation of the sittings to which as a clerk I naturally objected, life with and under these two magistrates was a delight. They were perfect gentlemen, and personally most kind and courteous. Mr. Orme was pre-eminently so, and his courtesy often extended to some of the occupants of the dock. I remember on one occasion when some old “ladye” — most of the female occupants of the dock in those days described, themselves as “ladyes” — in the witness-box had told her story in regard to the prisoner in the dock, the latter said — “She called me out of my name, and I struck her, yur Worship; but I am very sorry.” “Well,” promptly replied Mr. Orme, “the lady apologises; what more can she do?” I am not sure that she escaped punishment by reason of the apology, but at the same time tenderness was the badge of Mr. Orme.

As the rule was then and is now, one Resident Magistrate must be a Roman Catholic and one a Protestant. I need not say that Mr. O'Donnell was a Roman Catholic, but so far either was concerned they exhibited no sympathies. Mr. Orme imposed the usual fine of forty shillings and costs on a Protestant who cursed the Pope with as little hesitation as Mr. O'Donnell imposed the fine on a Roman Catholic who cursed King William. Of the two I think Mr. O'Donnell leant more to the side of severity than Mr. Orme, whose good nature and good humour were always conspicuous. I remember only one sentence of Mr. O'Donnell which I felt unduly severe. A gentleman well known in certain commercial circles was on his way to his office in the morning when in front of a certain public-house he observed a crowd. The barman had caught a rat in a trap, and he was having a field morning by getting some terrier to “worry” the rat on its appearance from the trap; This gentleman, who had strong humanitarian instincts, and thought that even a trapped rat should have a fair chance for its life, got indignant and struck the man with his cane. The gentleman was at once given in charge to the police, and marched to the court, which was sitting at the time.

The charge having been proved, Mr. O'Donnell sentenced the gentleman offhand to a month in jail, without the option of a fine. The gentleman was refined and courteous, and was in receipt of a good many hundreds a year as the representative of an English firm. He nearly collapsed as he was removed to the cell. During the day all the solicitors in court in turn made a pilgrimage to his cell, and he engaged them one after the other to get the sentence of imprisonment removed. Mr. O'Donnell was in a most virtuously law-asserting mood that morning, and he told each solicitor as he had told the prisoner at first, that he would show that in that court there was not one law for the rich and one for the poor. My heart bled for the gentleman who, while he may have acted wrongly and impulsively, had evidently humane feelings and sympathies. Mr. O'Donnell was in the habit at this time of calling me into his private room daily for chat and gossip, but I did not like to presume on that to put in a word for the gentleman. It was my duty to fill up the committals and get them signed, and on this day I kept them back in the hope that Mr. O'Donnell would send for me and give me a chance to say a word for the gentleman before he signed the committals. He did at last. “What do you think of what I did in that case?” he asked. “I do not think very much,” I had the boldness to reply. And I went on to point out that while it was all right that there should be only one law for the rich and the poor, the consequences of the punishment would be different. I pointed out that he would not have given a Smithfield rough more imprisonment than he gave this gentleman, and I pointed out that the imprisonment of a month in the one case would mean more than six months to the other, and in addition to destroying his health would ruin him for life, as it was doubtful if after imprisonment the firm would continue him in his employment. “There is a great deal in what you say,” Mr. O'Donnell smiled at last, and I was glad to see the smile. “Send for the gentleman.” And I did. Mr. O'Donnell then informed him that on reconsideration he had decided to change the sentence, and let him out on the payment of £10 to the Royal Hospital, which was paid, I got the case kept out of the papers, and none outside the court ever heard of the incident. I never was better pleased with myself than I was on this occasion. And I call attention to it as a sort of sidelight on the administration of justice, and not a bad sidelight, I hope, on Mr. O'Donnell, who was at heart a kindly and courteous gentleman.

There were riots that lasted several days during my police court period; but, strange to say, my memory is a perfect blank regarding them except as to one small personal one. On a Sunday afternoon I was paying a visit to the Southern part of the city, and found a large cordon of police drawn up at King Street and another near the Great Northern Railway. On my return I passed up College Square North without a thought of danger or trouble. As I got abreast of Christ Church I observed some one from Durham Street making wild gesticulations to me to keep back. I did not understand the reason for a moment, but on looking up Durham Street I saw a man at each of two entries in Durham Street with what appeared to be revolvers in their hands. I need not say I turned back, and as the evening was early dropped into the house of a friend in College Square. I found excellent company, and spent a very pleasant two or three hours; but when I was emerging I saw an angry crowd at the corner. I thought I would get out by the back way; but there were two crowds there, one at each end of the thoroughfare. I was then told that as my connection with the police court was known some of the rowdies of the district were on the lookout for me. I thought I would wear out their patience, and waited till about nine o'clock, when, all crowds and excitement had disappeared. I got home unmoved and undisturbed.

The majesty of the law was not upheld by Resident Magistrates alone in these good old easy-going days. We had borough magistrates, too, and a very decent class they were on the whole. John Rea, it is true, had not much respect for them, but then he had not much, respect for anything or anybody – not even himself. There were not so many of them as we have now ;and they had not the dignity of a city to cover them with glory; they were called borough J.P.'s. The authorities were more select and careful than they are at present — I do not speak of Belfast alone, but of the whole country. They did not, as for the last decade or two, send out into the highways and hedges to compel them to come in. There were county magistrates in those days as now, but then, as now, they considered themselves a class above the boroughs, and seldom, if ever, mingled with them, on the Bench.

They were, however, a very decent respectable lot of magistrates, and did their duty well and faithfully. A kind of rota was formed, and to certain magistrates were allotted certain days. Some of them attended regularly and did their duty. There was one thing that then impressed me, and impresses me still, with regard to the attendances of local magistrates. And that was the want of uniformity, not so much in the character of the decisions as in the fines or imprisonment. Some of them looked with considerable lightness, for example, on drunkenness or disorderly conduct, or even on assaultings of the police. On one day and with one magistrate the same class of offender would get off with a small fine or a caution, who on another day and with another magistrate would have the largest penalty or the longest imprisonment imposed.

We had some very fine, gentlemanly, cultivated men among the borough magistracy — I am only referring to those who attended the Court. There was Dr. Samuel Browne, R.N. (father of Dr. J. Walton Browne), a refined, courteous gentleman of dignity and fairness. There was Sir James Hamilton, who had become a knight in these days, who was one of the most cultivated men in the city, a graceful and polished speaker, and a most courteous gentleman. There was Mr. Wm. Bottomley, Mr. Elias Hughes Thompson, Mr. Jas. Alex. Henderson, Mr. (afterwards Sir) John Preston, Mr. (afterwards Sir) Robt. Boag, Mr. (afterwards Sir) Daniel Taylor, Mr. Philip Johnston, Mr. William Mullan, Mr. John Browne, J.P.; and many others. These were all most attentive to their duties. But there was one magistrate whom, above all others, I remember and respected. This was Mr. Samuel M'Causland, J.P. He was what might be called the handy man of the Bench. His place of business was near the Courts, and his kindness of heart and good nature were only equalled by his modesty. Many scores of times I was a court messenger to call him from administering his business in Victoria Street to administering the law in Town Hall Street. If the Resident Magistrates were late in arriving I was despatched for Mr. M'Causland. If a second magistrate was required to sit in some case that required two magistrates, “Go for Mr. M'Causland” was the order. I went, and Mr. M'Causland always came. To the end of his days I always entertained the greatest respect for this grand and kindly old man, who, when at an age that would have justified excuses from doing duty, was always ready to do his duty for Queen and country.

If I say there was little religion about the Bench in those days, I do not mean to suggest that religion was not as much respected as the law, but I do not think it was as prominent as a distinctive element as it is to-day. As I have said Mr. O'Donnell was a Roman Catholic and Mr. Orme a Protestant, and in this way balance was maintained, but I do not say that any prisoner or litigant was ever victimised or favoured on account of their religion. The majority of of the [reigist---------] doubt, were Protestants. But there where Roman Catholics on the Bench also, and some of them took an active part. Among these were Mr. Peter Keegan and his brother, Mr. James Keegan, who were in the wholesale whisky business, and very decent, fair-minded magistrates they were. There were also Mr. Bernard Hughes, Mr. John Hamill, and some others, who took their share of duty. I heard then, as I have heard lately, of packed Benches, but I could not honestly say there was very much of that in my time. If there was as little now I do not think there would be as much complaint as I have heard for some years past. And there were no Star-Chamber Courts in those days, but then there was no Mr. Birrell as Chief Secretary, and no Mr. MacSweeney as representing the partisan tyranny of the law as he did. They were really good old times for all concerned with the law, perhaps a little easy-going, but on the whole fair times, with a kind of rough justice that left little room for complaint.

To be continued...

From The Witness, 10th November 1916.

The "Man in the Street" was the pen name of Alexander McMonagle editor and manager of The Witness and Ulster Echo.

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