I can still vividly remember the first time I made an appearance as a Solicitor before a Judge in the local Courthouse. The avuncular sociable gentleman who presided over Athy District Court in those days was Judge Seamus Mahon who before his appointment to the Bench was a Solicitor in Tullamore. I was somewhat anxious despite the fact that I had spent my youth in Athy, perhaps because the setting was an unusual one for a local lad. I had spent twenty years out of Athy, the place where as a young fellow I had gone to school, played my football and did my courting, not necessarily in that order, before decamping for the inner regions of County Kildare, specifically Naas of the Kings.
For some people a Courtroom conjures up images of a world inhabited by Perry Mason and his ilk, complete with suave talk and witty repostes, which are so much a part of the American legal dramas. The reality of the Irish Court could not be further removed from the TV depiction of the American Courtroom scene. In the District Court the average Solicitor is burdened with nothing more lethal than a traffic violation or perhaps a public order offence. Not much scope in either for the devastating cross-examination or the telling aside with which TV legal dramas seem so handsomely endowed. Real life is always so much more mundane than anything ever subjected to the scrutiny of the camera, but nevertheless there is always the expectation and perhaps in some, the hope, that some scintilla of excitement might be instilled into the sparse legal proceedings of the Irish Courtroom.
To return to my first day in the Courtroom in Athy. I stood before Judge Seamus Mahon, who was an experienced and humane lawyer and the essence of kindness to the apologetic bumbling Solicitor who contrived on his debut to make his client not only feel guilty of the charge against him, but deserving also of the full measure of punishment which the law might impose. Judge Mahon however made allowances for the self conscious young Solicitor and contrived to save him and his bemused client from such an undeserving fate.
Seamus Mahon died recently, long after he had retired from the Bench. He was District Justice for Athy for approximately 14 years, during which time the Hole in the Wall gang and their younger compatriots the Crack in the Wall were alive and kicking in every sense of the word. The social problems posed by the members of these gangs were clearly identified, but somehow or other the authorities were not geared to dealing with them. It fell to the legal system to provide a deterrent against the continuation of anti social behaviour, and in the front line of that fight against crime was the local District Justice Seamus Mahon.
His understanding of the difficulties posed for victims of crime pre-dated the development of victim support groups, while those who stood charged with offences against persons or property were always assured of a fair hearing. This is as one would expect from a Judge of an Irish Court but somehow or other there always seemed to be an abundance of “fairness” when one argued or presented a case to the pleasant and even tempered man from the Midlands. Maybe it was his sociable qualities which made Seamus Mahon so willing to see the good in everyone, no matter in what circumstances they came before him. Such is the starkness of the Irish Legal System that those who appear before the Courts at the suit of the public prosecutor always seem stripped of their dignity and pride. Not so where those brought before Athy District Court were concerned for Judge Mahon had a convincingly pleasant manner which put litigants and witnesses alike at ease, thereby contributing hugely to the publics perception of the fairness and even handiness of the procedures at the local District Court.
Following Seamus Mahon’s recent passing fulsome and well deserved tributes were paid to his memory by Cyril Osborne on behalf of the local Solicitors, also by Superintendent Maurice Regan, the District Court Clerk and the presiding Judge Mary Martin. All acknowledged the generous spirit of the man whose demeanour on and off the bench endeared him to all with whom he came in contact.
I attended the removal of the remains to the Church of the Assumption in Tullamore and was charmed with the delightful interior features of the Church which was rebuilt following a fire some years ago. This was my first visit to Tullamore’s Parish Church and little did I know that within another few weeks I would return to it for yet another funeral. On the second occasion the funeral was for Peter Clancy Boyd, like Seamus Mahon a Tullamore man with links to the town of Athy. In Clancy’s case the connection went back forty years and first arose when his building company was employed to build a 36 house scheme for the local Urban District Council at Woodstock Street. This was the first of many building contracts which Clancy’s firm was to have with both Athy Urban District Council and Kildare County Council. The first contract was for the building of St. Dominic’s Park, one of the best housing schemes ever financed by the local Council. Peter Clancy or Clancy as he was known far and wide, was one of lifes gentlemen whose honesty and geniality belied a sharp business brain. He retired some years ago from the business he had founded and passed the reins of authority to his son Pat.
Mention of the Urban Council brings to mind that the centenary of the first meeting of the then newly constituted Urban District Council occurs on 2nd April next. The Chairman of the Council in 1900 was Matthew J. Minch M.P. who had occupied the same position on the Town Commissioners which preceded the Urban Council. One hundred years ago the town fathers were concerned with such “weighty” matters as the sale of unsalted butter in Athy’s butter market and the abatement of nuisances at the railway wall at the top of Leinster Street. The nature of the nuisance was not identified but the 15 members of the Council felt that the only solution was the removal of the wall with the two streets being brought to the same level. The wall remains in situ while the Councillors have long passed on. Over the next few weeks I will take a look back at the early years of the Urban Council and some of the controversies which engaged local politicians of a hundred years ago.