The Avondhu - By The Fireside
TWO ‘DANGEROUS LUNATICS’
The Petty Sessions were the precursors of the District Courts as we know them today and an Act of Parliament in 1851 set out what was basically to be a court that was reasonably convenient to ensure attendance was possible. Keep in mind that such an arrangement might not have suited everybody in a world where transportation was far from what we know today.
If one had no mode of transport and had to walk, then five or six miles to and from where a court sat might be quite an ordeal for someone living in rural Ireland. The nearest I can think of in modern terms is when we have to arrange an NCT test for our car, the actual location may not be that near us and getting to the test centre and back may take quite a sizeable chunk of time out of our day.
There was a petty sessions’ court for Rathcormac and Mitchelstown but it’s on Fermoy that I’ve concentrated for the year 1916. Hopefully, what follows will give a flavour of what was going on in the town and surrounding areas in terms of ‘law and order’.
The examples are taken from the Petty Sessions Order Book, a record of the parties involved as complainant or defendant. In a number of cases the complainant was the State, in some guise or other, e.g. “The County Council of the County of Cork” as it was noted, or “The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children” or, as in many cases, the local RIC Sergeant or Constable. On occasion the complainants and defendants were members of the public seeking their day in court.
The fact that Fermoy was a garrison town is also reflected in the petty sessions where the odd deserter was before the court with the order generally being that he be handed over ‘to military escort’. With stores and equipment of various kinds needed for a large military establishment like Fermoy, opportunities for theft were bound to present themselves.
An example of the latter is the case where four individuals from Fermoy appeared in October, 1916 charged by the complainant, RIC Inspector Lewis of ‘having come by’ a number of items in contravention of The Army Act 1881. These included, among others, “1 sheet, 1 boot brush, 1 piece of canvas, 2 horse rugs, 2 brown blankets, 2 blue blankets and 2 brushes.” The witnesses, Sergeant Coldback and Colonel Bird would indicate that these items were taken from the army barracks. Of the four cases, one was withdrawn, two were ‘dismissed on merits’ and one resulted in a conviction. The penalty was a fine of £1 with a shilling in costs to be paid within twelve days or in default ‘to be imprisoned for fourteen days without hard labour’.
There’s something of a copycat element to this case as it would appear those from Fermoy may have known that four days before their actions, on September 26th, a number of Kilworth residents, male and female tried to relieve the army of similar items: “1 pair canvas slippers, 1 pair drawers, 2 pairs khaki trousers, 1 haversack, 1 waterproof sheet, 1 hairbrush.” Those involved may well have considered themselves fortunate and vindicated as there were only two convictions, with fines of 5 shillings and 2/6d.
A slight digression here. Noted specifically under “Particular of Order or Dismissal” were options open to the court: Dismissal with or without costs; Ejectment, in the case of a tenant found guilty and the most intriguing of all, “If to be Whipped, whether in or out of Prison.”
It was not until 1948 that whipping was officially abolished in the UK. In the case of children in Ireland, the Children’s Act (perceived at the time as a most enlightened piece of legislation) allowed for ‘reasonable chastisement’.
Technically, despite corporal punishment being banned in schools from 1982, ‘reasonable chastisement still applied to children in industrial and reformatory schools until the Children Act 2001 became law.
Back to the petty sessions in 1916 Fermoy. The inevitable ‘no light on your bike’ cases surface as well, outlined as follows in the case of a man from Coolmoohan and another from Ballard who was caught by the watchful RIC Constable Shanly of Araglin and charged as follows: “did cause to be used a vehicle on the public highway between hour after sunset and one hour before sunrise, to wit 8.00pm without having a lighted lamp attached to said vehicle.” Both were convicted and fined one penny with two shillings and ten pence in costs.
The same Constable Shanly had a Kilworth man in court, who having been found intoxicated in Flynn’s pub in Kilworth “being requested by a Constable of the RIC to quit such premises, did refuse to do so.” A fine of one shilling was paid in court. A less favourable outcome resulted in the case of a woman of no fixed abode ‘not giving a good account of herself’, who was committed to Cork Female Prison for two calendar months ‘and kept to hard labour’. Another man, guilty of assault was bound to the peace and ordered to be of good behaviour “towards the king and all his lawful subjects.”
Two unfortunate men were determined to be “dangerous lunatics - suffering from delusions” on the witness statements of family members. One had threatened to attempt suicide by cutting his throat and the other had attempted to kill his father with a file. Both were “committed to Cork Lunatic Asylum … and detained there until removed therefrom or otherwise discharged by due course of law.” A very vague sentence in ways and probably meant that people determined to be ‘lunatics’ often spent many years in asylums without treatment; a practice older readers would be aware of happening to some of their unfortunate neighbours even into the latter years of the twentieth century. The fact that a petty sessions could hand down such a draconian, open ended sentence suggests less than an enlightened view of what we term ‘mental illness’ in today’s world.
Noted regularly is “The School Attendance Committee of Fermoy” charging a number of parents with not having their children attend school in accordance with the 1892 School Attendance Act. One case had a fine of one penny levied with costs of four shillings, and if not paid within seven days then sentenced to a week in Cork prison ‘without hard labour’. Very much a slap on the wrist but obviously still a conviction and a pretty severe penalty if the penny wasn’t paid.
Space restrictions have meant a number of other interesting cases cannot be alluded to here, but perhaps an opportunity will arise in a future edition of The Avondhu. Reading through the various cases, even the samples shown above, gives one an impression of the daily lives of ordinary citizens appearing before the court over a hundred years ago.
Some things have changed in a hundred years but other aspects, in terms of those appearing in court today, are depressingly familiar in terms of the array of charges noted and the outcomes that result. Human nature at its worst, best and often its sorriest.
(Noel Howard’s book, Tears, Tragedy and Terror – The Notorious Mount Cashell Divorce Case of 1876, will be published in 2023)