Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Athy's Republican Courts

Sometimes referred to as the Republican Courts or Sinn Fein Courts, Parish Courts were part of the Dail court system set up during the early part of the War of Independence. They were a precursor of the District Courts which today form an important part of the Irish court system. They were set up at a time when there was an already existing long-established court system. However, as the assistant Minister of Home Affairs claimed in January 1922: ‘the Republican Courts are the only legal courts of the Irish people.’ Land disputes were a source of much controversy before and during the War of Independence and one of the earliest acts of the first Dáil which met in January 1919 was to establish Arbitration Courts to deal with land disputes. These tribunals which depended for their effectiveness on all parties voluntarily submitting to the court were intended to be presided over by local clergy men. I have found no record of any arbitration proceedings in south Kildare. The Dáil subsequently approved a scheme to establish Parish and District Courts in May 1920. District courts were to be located in every parliamentary constituency and Parish courts in every Roman Catholic parish. Claims of less than ten pounds, minor criminal acts and ejectment proceedings in low rent houses were to be dealt with in the Parish Court. The new court was an attempt to replace existing Petty Sessions and like the Petty Sessions, would have three justices. Unlike the Petty Sessions those justices were to be elected by members of the local Sinn Fein club, Irish Volunteers, Trades Council and the Cumann na mBan. The presiding justice was expected to be a Catholic curate, and specific provision excluded any Parish Priest from occupying that role. I have identified three curates who served in Athy at that time, but there is no record of any of them presiding at a Parish court. Fr. John J. Byrne came to Athy in 1916, while Fr. Martin O’Rourke served as curate from 1908. Both were transferred to other parishes in 1923. Fr. James Nolan served as a curate in Athy from 1907 to 1924 when he retired at 56 years of age. The first local press report of the Parish Court in Athy was carried in the Nationalist and Leinster Times of 28th August 1920 under the headline ‘Republican Court in Athy’. It reported a land dispute between unnamed litigants where the parties were represented by solicitors who were also unnamed. The presiding Justice opened the proceedings by declaring ‘The Irish Republic is established in South Kildare’. One case involved a plaintiff from south Kildare who sought an order restraining several defendants from interfering with his right to lands at Newtown. It was resolved after a full hearing which ended with the presiding justice telling the litigants ‘shake hands now and be friends.’ The holding of a Parish or a Republican Court of necessity required Irish Volunteer members taking up the role of local policemen. Unfortunately, we don’t have any details of any of those involved. The power of the Parish Court to compel compliance with its orders can be readily gauged by the presiding justices remarks at that first sitting in Athy when he said ‘if anyone interferes with the plaintiff they will be brought before the court and it won’t be like being brought before the petty sessions. They will be sent out of the country.’ The next Parish Court report appeared in the local press on 10th September 1921. The court officials in addition to a number of solicitors were in attendance to deal with a number of cases. An Athy woman was awarded £3 compensation for trespass by two local men and the destruction of part of a crop of oats. Two orders for repossession of houses were granted, while a worker who sued a local farmer for £3 due for thinning turnips was awarded £2. Six weeks later the local newspapers for the first time identified the justices’ sitting as the Parish Court. Mr. T. Corcoran presided, possibly because the parish Canon Edward Mackey had directed his curates not to take a position on the bench. He was accompanied by Peter P. Doyle and Patrick Dooley. An interesting comment accompanying the court report claimed that the Republican courts ‘most effective work was done outside. Long standing debts given up as hopeless by some merchants have been squared by means of the Republican decrees ….. having the power of adequate punishment, the Republic courts will do much to right Ireland and to help to restore a better state of affairs.’ The last Athy Republican Court report which I have found was in the Nationalist and Leinster Times of 12th November 1921 when a local publican was summoned by the Republican police. He complained to the court that the Volunteer policemen refused to give their names when requested, a practice with which the justices expressed dissatisfaction. Jurisdiction of all Parish and District Courts outside of Dublin was withdrawn on 30th October 1922. On the establishment of the Irish Free State a court system was established under the Courts of Justice Act 1924.

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