Sunday, April 20, 2014

Showdown with the Sheriff



The clipping above from the Daily Sketch shows the scene at an attempted sale of seized cattle at Dublin Cattle Market in the early 1930s. The bare-headed man in the middle was trying to bid, and according to the headline was 'manhandled by farmers'. The man in the hat at the top of the picture is my grandfather, James J Byrne.

Everybody later agreed that the Thursday morning of April 19 1934 was 'a quiet one' in Naas. Not least because it was the day after the annual Punchestown Races, and most of the town — indeed the county — probably felt somewhat depleted. As certainly was the local complement of Civic Guards, which had been on duty in force to manage the traffic and the goings on at the racecourse over the previous two days. It was a day to rest.

But around lunchtime, and 'like a bolt from the blue' according to contemporary reports, hundreds of people arrived 'by motor, trap and bicycle'. Later estimates would suggest that '70 or 80' cars parked on the streets of the county town in a short time. A count offered in subsequent court hearings figured that some 700 farmers had come to Naas in a well-organised and 'conspired' fashion. What then happened excited headlines of 'Wild Scenes In Naas' and 'Police Cordons Broken' and similar.

My grandfather, James J Byrne, was one of those farmers. He was also among the first to be arrested and brought to trial in a consequent series of court sessions. The record of evidence in those hearings is sometimes hilarious, but also reflects very serious political and economic issues across a nation which hadn't yet reached its age of reason, yet alone any maturity.

The whole episode echoed similar events which were happening all around the country, where farmers were refusing to pay controversial land annuities which dated back to the late 1800s when the British Government had issued loans to tenant farmers to buy out land. The new Irish state had negotiated a deal with Britain to honour payment of the annuities, but the de Valera government reneged on that, precipitating an 'Economic War' with Britain which crippled an Irish economy very much based on farming exports. At the same time, the government insisted on collecting the annuities for itself. Farmers resisted, and in turn were served with Sheriff's seizure warrants.

Back in Naas on that post-Punchestown April afternoon, the farmers streamed into the confined area of Basin Street and crowded up to the Pound behind the Courthouse, in which were five head of cattle. Sheriff's assistant James Walsh waited somewhat anxiously. With the street full, later arrivals climbed on walls and roofs, lamp-posts and any other street furniture they could find. By all subsequent accounts, they were in quite jovial mood, with lots of banter and wisecracking. My grandfather — at the time a councillor as well as a farmer and businessman — was among those who had come early.

A number of Civic Guards under the direction of one Superintendent Heron came to deal with the situation at the Pound. It seems that they came in for some good-natured heckling, but nobody was in threatening or fighting frame of mind. At two o'clock, Mr Walsh announced the opening of the auction for the five cattle, seized from a farmer named Farrell of Ballinagappa for non-payment of £12 land annuities to the Land Commission. He asked for opening bids in what he acknowledged was an 'unpleasant duty'. No bids were offered. When he repeated his request there were a few comments, such as 'put blue shirts on them and you'll get a sale', and 'there's no John Browns here' ... a reference to an abortive sale of cattle in Dublin some months before in similar circumstances.

In the end, Mr Walsh declared the proceedings closed, with no buyer. The reporter for the 'Leinster Leader' described how 'excitement then reached its highest pitch' and a section of the crowd broke through the police cordon and released the cattle. 'In less than a minute, the five animals were free' he wrote, then described how a 'wild excited crowd' drove the cattle through another police cordon, out of Basin Street and onto North Main Street, then were headed down the Sallins Road. The crowd, fired up by their success in blocking the sale, ran on with them, whooping and cheering, while the police who had been caught off guard tried to catch up. At Oldtown, the stampede was stopped by a line of police who had caught up, their batons drawn, under the command of Chief Superintendent Murphy.

For a time 'matters looked threatening' and 'opprobrious epithets' were flung at a plain clothes detective-sergeant, who was armed with his service revolver. These insults included a claim that the detective was a 'Broy Harrier' — a reference to the former anti-Treaty IRA men inducted to a 'Special Branch' by Fianna Fail-appointed Garda Commissioner Ned Broy. They were much disliked by the general populace, but especially by those who had supported the pro-Treaty side in the Civil War.

The detective, named James Kinsella, said later that he was on the point of drawing his gun when the crowd were admonished by some of their own, that 'we have nothing to say to the police'. These included my grandfather. Later in evidence, it was revealed by the Guards that he had been asked to intervene, as he was a 'very influential man in the county'. James J Byrne stressed the fact that the Guards were 'the custodians of the public peace, and should not be molested'. The crowd then turned, and headed back to town, bearing the Mr Farrell whose cattle had been seized, on their shoulders at the head of the procession.

During the melee, the cattle disappeared down Mill Lane, driven by a 'small party' of the protesters. Three were later recovered by Chief Superintendent Murphy at Digby Bridge, and the others at Osberstown. All were returned to the Sheriff's Pound, where they were to await a further attempt at sale over the weekend. Before everyone dispersed, names were taken by the guards of all those they recognised during what was to become known as 'The Naas Cattle Drive'.

The following Wednesday, James J Byrne, county councillor and proprietor of 'The Hotel' in Kilcullen, was one of nine farmers in the district who were roused from their beds at five in the morning, and taken to the cells in Naas. They appeared in the District Court later that morning on a charge of unlawful assembly, and were later released on bail. But not before their solicitor upbraided Superintendent Heron strongly for his actions in arresting the nine in the early hours and incarcerating them in advance of the court hearing. Mr R Coonan complained to the court that his clients were respectable farmers and all men 'with a stake in the country, and certainly not of the class that is likely to run away'. "They were taken out as if they were condemned criminals, and treated in a way that certainly is not in keeping with how they should have been in accordance with the law," he told Mr Justice Reddin.

The Superintendent responded emphatically that he was simply carrying out lawful warrants, and that more serious charges would be preferred against the nine at the next Sessions, and that others who 'were not available' that morning would also be charged. Justice Reddin remanded the defendants on personal bail of £100 each with two independent sureties of £50.

At the next hearing there were a total of 24 farmers in the dock. In addition to James J Byrne, they were R Brophy, Jigginstown; T Lawlor, Halverstown; C Corrigan, Clane; P Murphy, Carbury; P Cox, Windgates; M Higgins, Orielstown; Wm Ennis, Goganswood; J McDonald, Monread; E Robinson, Coolrearey; FB Barton, Straffan; PJ Kavanagh, Timolin; G O'Toole, Carbury; Jas Jackson, Kilcullen; P Daly, Naas; W McDonald, Ballitore; F & G Carter, Kilmeague; T Flood, Maynooth; H Fisher, Dunlavin; H Cogan, Ballitire; Ml Brien, Grangemore; Edwd Carter, Kilmeague; and N Kelly, Staplestown.

New charges were preferred involving 'conspiracy' to obstruct the Under-Sheriff in performance of his duty, and intimidation of those who had come to the auction to bid. The barrister employed by the prosecution, Mr W Black, described the scenes as 'a miniature rebellion with all the circumstances of terror and violence that constituted such in the eyes of the law'.

During the hearing, the Under-Sheriff made it clear that at no time had the crowd been hostile to him and that those in it had been 'in good humour' throughout. The Chief Superintendent, however, deposed that to his men those involved had 'adopted an independent attitude of hostility' to attempts to make them come down from their vantage points. He also claimed that when he and his men intercepted the crowd at Oldtown, they seemed to be 'possessed with hysteria' and were 'maddened and infuriated' and he saw some who were 'frothing at the mouth'. He added that it was 'the worst demonstration of malice and hatred I have witnessed for 20 years'.

The case was adjourned for two weeks. At the next hearing, the defendants had secured the services of Mr Fitzgerald Kenney, Senior Counsel and serving member of the Dail and a former Minister for Justice. Counsel subjected Superintendent Heron to a 'gruelling' cross-examination, including the following exchange.

Mr Kenney — Was this a terrible riot?
Supt Heron — I certainly say it was.
Mr Kenney — In this terrible riot, how many Guards were injured?
Supt Heron — None.
Mr Kenney — How many were struck?
Supt Heron — None.
Mr Kenney — How many stones flung?
Supt Heron — None.
Mr Kenney — Was there any act of violence?
Supt Heron — There was an unlawful act.
Mr Kenney — Answer my question. Was there a r-i-o-t?
Supt Heron — I was not there the whole time.

Other evidences were given and cross-examined skillfully by Counsel for the defence during that hearing, which was eventually adjourned. The newspaper accounts of the time show that, generally, the statements of the Guards were shown to be very much exaggerated when compared with other descriptions of the happenings of the day.

There were a number of further hearings in that summer of 1934 (during which my grandfather was re-elected to Kildare County Council, as a Fine Gael councillor; he had previously been elected in 1928 under the Farmers & Ratepayers League banner.), culminating with the judge's decision in late August to send the 24 men for a full trial at the Circuit Court, on charges of unlawful assembly. Among the details revealed in those hearings was the fact that the cattle seized had not belonged to the person on whom the Sheriff's warrant had been served, but to a relation. So the original seizure itself had been unlawful.

The trial came up for mention twice during the autumn and winter, in each case being adjourned at the request of the prosecution. In the spring of 1935, the State entered a 'nolle prosequi' and the case was finished. The court reporter for the 'Kildare Observer' noted that it was 'understood' that the fact the county was 'quiet' contributed to the decision to drop the case. The truth more likely was the realisation by the authorities that there was no viable case.

While the 'Naas Cattle Drive' provided fun on the day, and some real entertainment during the subsequent hearings, these affairs didn't always turn out bloodless. A similar confrontation in Cork on 13 August 1934 resulted in the the killing of a protester and the wounding of several others, by the Special Branch. It might well be that it was the intervention of James J Byrne and his friends at the moments when Detective-Sergeant Kinsella felt threatened enough to almost draw his own weapon which helped the Naas affair from turning into something much more serious.