In years gone by the towns and districts of Ireland were under British administration and relied upon appointed Magistrates to dispense justice to those lawbreakers brought before the court system by local police. In the decades that Britain governed from Dublin most of the resident magistrates were retired officers from the British forces, who often had their own means of income and were part of the gentry class in society. It appeared to be obvious to the administration that there could be no better candidate for dispensing British justice to the Irish than an officer of the crown’s forces. Because he had been a former Captain of Infantry, Robert St. John Stevens was appointed to the vacant magistracy at Ballyskeagh, which he thought was a quiet, rural backwater.
The local tenants, labourers, and ‘scallywags’ had never liked their Resident Magistrate and were excited to here that he had been replaced by a younger man. They were keen, of course, to discover just how harshly this new Magistrate would deal with those lawbreakers brought before him. The local native Irish Catholic population was on the lower step of society’s class system, and many of them were involved in various criminal offences, both minor and major. So, on that first day of Robert’s court there was a large and inquisitive crowd of local people, who were waiting at the courthouse to see how this new Magistrate dealt with those brought before him.
With Robert comfortably seated in his judicial chair the court was called to order and the Clerk of the Court, a young Dwyer Patton, immediately stood up from his seat and declared, “We have only the once case before the court this morning, which alleges the defendant is guilty of house-breaking, public drunkenness, possession of illicit spirits, and of resisting lawful arrest by local police officers. The defendant is Richard Fearon, resident of this Parish, and better known to his neighbours and friends as ‘Dick Fearon’, and cross-summonses have been issued to both Mr. Fearon and his wife.”
The charges had been read out to the court and the packed public area anxiously waited for proceedings to begin, looking toward Philip Duffy who had the honour of beginning the case. It was Philip who rose slowly from his chair and announced that he had been appointed to defend Mrs. Fearon, and looking toward the new magistrate’s bench said, “I wish to impress upon this court that the offences that have been laid against Dick Fearon are very grave. This man drank a great amount of illegal spirits with friends before making his way home. These spirits, popularly known as ‘Poteen’, which are known to inflame male emotions and cause upset between man and wife. So, put out of his mind by the Poteen, Mr. Fearon came to his home, broke down the front door, and began to wreck all around him while terrorizing his poor, frightened wife. And, to make matters worse, when Sergeant Heaney arrived at the house to pacify Mr. Fearon, he refused to obey police instructions and physically resisted arrest. This man, therefore, has shown by his actions that he is undoubtedly a destructive menace that can threaten the peace of our community at any minute. Surely, not since the days when Viking warriors stormed our shores and ravaged our peaceful land has so much havoc been caused by a single individual? Not since those dark days has there been a time when gentle women like Mrs. Fearon are forced to suffer such a terror!”
During this opening statement by Philip Duffy, Dick Fearon had been fidgeting nervously as he sat in the prisoner’s dock, but these last words of Duffy’s statement caused his patience to snap. He suddenly sprang to his feet, his face red with anger, and immediately interrupted Duffy’s opening words to the court. “Holy God!” he shouted aloud in his anger. “Can a man not take a notion to tidy his own furniture? Can he not bring a cantankerous wife back into order when he feels the time calls for it? Jesus, man, are you telling me that the men of Ireland have been castrated by the law?”
Magistrate Robert St. John Stevens was not appreciative of Dick Fearon’s angry outburst and hammered heavily with his gavel to regain order. “Order!” he called out several times. Then, addressing the defendant, he told him, “You cannot disrupt the proceedings of this court in such a manner, Mr. Fearon. You will get your chance to speak, but if there is any repetition of this type of behaviour, we might just consider it to be contempt of court, and it will not end well for you!” Dick looked fiercely at the magistrate and sat down on his seat again, muttering some derogatory remark under his breath.
Duffy now continued with his opening speech and told the court, “You can just imagine how terrified Mrs. Fearon was, thinking that her end had come. She had been forced to watch all her lovely delph pieces smashed into a thousand small fragments, while her well-loved furniture was smashed and broken in front of her. On her hearth the alarm clock had been smashed and broken, and no longer able to awaken the house and allow Mr. Fearon to take his wife’s breakfast into her,” he added with a tone of sarcasm. “Can any of you even imagine how this poor, mistreated woman felt as she looked at her home, now wrecked beyond recognition.”
Again, Dick Fearon jumped up from his chair, red faced and very angry. “Holy Christ!” he exclaimed loudly. “Do you not know that there are more feelings in a bloody tombstone than there is in that woman?”
Undeterred by this outburst Philip Duffy turned away from Dick Fearon and continued, “Can I ask the court to simply consider the feelings of this decent, respectful, loving wife, and mother, who has had no less than three husbands.”
“Aye!” Mrs. Fearon now called out. “And, if please God, I will get myself another one!”
Duffy smiled at this comment, but he did not allow the interruption to disturb his train of thought as he spoke on. “Yes, gentlemen! Three husbands and ten children, six of whom rest peacefully in the family’s plot, while the remaining four are all distinguished members of the constabulary. This man, Dick Fearon, was once a model husband and father until he took to the poteen. He once would have done anything his wife asked, just to please her, but the ‘gargle’ changed him into the useless blackguard you see here today.”
It was Mrs. Fearon who now jumped to her feet and stared at Philip Duffy with eyes full of anger. She brought herself up to full size and, gritting her teeth, she said, “Hold on for just one minute! Who, in the name of God, do you think you are Philip Duffy, to have the gall to say that my husband is a blackguard? Let me tell you, gobshite, that my husband is one decent, hardworking man who has never had reason to call on the likes of you for any help!”
The magistrate, Robert St. John Stevens, was very irritated by Mrs. Fearon’s outburst in the court and, believing that things were getting out of control he began to bang his gavel and shout, “Order! Order!” When he had restored some order he announced, “Unless you all begin to behave in a correct and proper manner, I will have the entire court emptied, the guilty arrested for contempt, and this case will continue without you.”
“Ah, now, your honour!” Mrs. Fearon smiled, “Sure, a man like yourself does not expect a woman as upright as me to sit quietly while her husband is insulted before her very eyes? Well, I will tell you this! There is no way that I will listen to puffed-up gobshites, like that boy, say bad things against my man, as long as I have a tongue in my head!”
“Now, now, Mrs. Fearon! I must prevail upon you for a modicum of order,” insisted Robert, hoping that he would be able to quieten her a little. But Robert was a stranger to the ways of Irish women and did not realise just how determined she was to make herself heard. As she moved to stand up again Sergeant Heaney was concerned about what she might say in front of the court and put his hand over her mouth.
Mrs. Fearon was annoyed by Heaney’s efforts to silence her, and she struggled to get free of him. She succeeded when she nudged her elbow forcibly into the police sergeant’s groin and causing him to groan loudly as he crumpled to the floor. With a great deal of ‘tut-tutting’ she helped Heaney back to his feet again despite her anger with him. “By Christ!” groaned Heaney, “If you were my wife, I would stitch that mouth of yours closed!”
Looking him straight in the eyes she answered, “And do you think that I would be allowing you? It would not be just a nudge in the boondocks you would be getting!”
“That’s quite enough, Mrs. Fearon!” shouted a very Irate magistrate, who was determined to have his voice heard. “This is scandalous behaviour for any lady! You must learn to keep your unwelcome comments to yourself in this court! In short, Mrs. Fearon, shut up!”
“Aye, that will work,” Dick Fearon commented sarcastically. “Sure, you might as well tell a whale to whistle the ‘Foggy Dew’ or ask a Cavan man for the loan of a penny!”
“Mr. Fearon, you have been warned! Now, Mrs. Fearon you can come forward and give the court the benefit of your testimony,” said Robert, more calmly.
Mrs. Fearon tidied her dress and fixed her hat correctly on her head before she strode up to take her place in the witness box. “You are Margaret Fearon, better known to your family, friends, and neighbours as ‘Peggy’?”
“That’s right, your honour,” smiled Peggy confidently.
“You are married to the prisoner?”
“I am, may God forgive me,” she replied. “That lump of manhood is my third husband, and he is twice the bother of the two fine men who came before him. That man would drink the bit out, day and night if he could, and then stumble home at all hours of the night, all heated up and ready to fight.”
“Has he ever hit you in the past?”
“Hit Me?” Peggy laughed aloud. “Well dare he even lift his hand to me, for I would swing for him. They would have to dig me out of him, and I would make sure there wasn’t a part of him to be found. No. Dick knows better than attempt to hit me.”
“Well, could you please tell us what caused him to wreck the house on the evening in question?”
“Sure, wasn’t the blackguard drinking and gambling with his friends and when his money was spent, so was his welcome. He had no choice but to come home and some comfort in a bottle of poteen.”
“You were storing the bottle of poteen for him?”
But Peggy was not going to be caught out that easily and replied, “Sure, I didn’t know there was any in the house! I had closed and locked the door for I didn’t want him coming in and staggering all over my clean house, while I was in bed. I was in bed a good couple of hours when he began his hammering on the front door and calling me every vile name he could think of, but I stayed silent until he broke the door down!”
“Aye and tell them who was in the bed with you!” Dick Fearon called out.
“That’s a damned lie!” Peggy squealed at him.
“Wasn’t it himself that you were sharing the bottle with? You Jezebel!”
Peggy turned to the magistrate and told him, “That was his excuse for breaking down the door and wrecking my furniture and possessions, the thug. He was drunk and there was no other man in my bed. When he could not find anyone else in the house, he began to pull the house apart, shouting out for his bottle of poteen.”
“Did he find it?”
“Aye,” answered Dick. “I found it in the bedroom, beside the bed where her and her lover had lain and shared the bottle.”
“You’re a liar, Dick Fearon, and everyone knows it. Sure, the truth would choke you to tell it!” roared Peggy.
“It will hang you,” laughed Dick. “Sure, isn’t that why the sergeant is sporting the two black eyes I gave him for his romantic dallying?”
“The court is adjourned!” ordered the magistrate.
JW Nov. 2021