AN OLD MURDER “TRIAL” AT CLONMEL IN THE DAYS OF JUDGE NORBURY
from “The Nationalist” Newspaper
In the year 1821 the times in Ireland, particularly in the county of Tipperary, were very disturbed, several murders (including landlords) having taken place. This gruesome year, with the object of carrying out some Government business of importance, I was ordered to visit the south of Ireland. I arrived about one o’clock on the 24th March at Clonmel, and having engaged my bed and ordered dinner, decided on going into the court-house, which was close at hand. It occurred to me that I would see how business was conducted in an Irish court-house, and that perhaps I might be fortunate enough to be present at the hearing of a “sensational case. On going into the court-house I found the hall, which is a large one, crowded by military and police. Observing a smart-looking police sergeant, I addressed him, telling who I was, and expressing a wish to be accommodated with a seat in court. “The court, sir,” he said, “is just now very much crowded,” as a murder case of great importance is being called ; but as the grand jury are now discharged, I will be able to procure you a seat in their gallery.” With the sergeant I entered the gallery by a large winding stair. Here I was afforded a full view of the court and all that was passing. The court itself I found not a large one. It had a fine judicial seat, occupied by the Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, Toler (Lord Norbury). There were other galleries, one in front of the bench, the others at each side, with a large dock in the centre, having a large iron railing around it.
Just as I took my seat, the case of the King against James Driscoll, for the murder of Charles Baker, a large landed proprietor residing near Cappawhite, was beginning. After several jurors were ordered to stand aside, and others challenged by the prisoner’s attorney, the jury was sworn, and the prisoner given them in charge. The prisoner was a smart-looking fellow, some twenty-eight years of age, with a determined look. He pleaded “Not guilty.” The court itself was over-crowded. Great excitement was visible everywhere.
The counsel for the Crown, Mr. Scott, stated the case, giving an alarming picture of the state of the country. There were, he said, murders – awful murders – of frequent occurrence, and the present case was one of the worst. Unless the strong arm of the law was able to meet and crush such fearful deeds, juries and judges doing their part, there would be no living in the country, as law and order were unhinged.
The first witness called merely proved the finding of the dead body. The next witness proved seeing the prisoner and a person named Jack Crowe together on the evening of the murder, close to Mr. Baker’s residence.
A great scene was then witnessed in court. A witness was presented who proved too many for judge and counsel. I never before or since saw or read of such a clever fellow: These Tipperary people are, no doubt, a strong and active race.
John Crowe, the prisoner’s former friend, was called to the witness table, having turned king’s evidence. He came forward amidst intense excitement. After being duly sworn, and having given his name, he was ordered to sit down. At this moment the court was as still as the grave .
Mr. Scott, Crown Counsel. – Witness, your name is John Crowe.
Witness made no reply.
Counsel.- Why don’t you answer my question?
Court. – Answer counsel’s question, sir.
Witness. – My lord, he has put me no question. He appears to know my name. He says it is John Crowe, and so it is.
Counsel (a little confused).- You are living close to the prisoner at the bar.
Witness made no reply.
Counsel.–Why don’t you answer my question?
Judge (sharply) – Why don’t you answer counsel’s question
Witness – Counsel put no question. He says I am living close to the prisoner in the dock, and so I am, as every one in court can see. (There was great excitement in the court at this answering.)
Court – Don’t you know sir, that counsel means when you are at home?
Witness – I don’t know what is passing through his mind. I only know what is passing through his lips, and he has addressed me in the present tense. (Sensation in Court)
Counsel – What is the prisoner?
Witness – He is a man.
Counsel – Does he earn his bread by the sweat of his brow?
Witness – that is a queer question – Does he earn his bread by the sweat of his brow? I suppose the sweat on his brow was produced by the use of bread r other food (Great commotion in court, and cries of “Bravo, Crowe”)
Counsel.- Does he earn his bread as a farm labourer?
Witness .- I don’t believe he earns any bread. But I will tell you what I believe and know – he earns potatoes and milk, the common food of the country, three times a day. (Court awfully disturbed.)
Counsel.- You are, I believe, a friend of the prisoner?
Witness.- So you say.
Counsel.- Do you remember 20th January last?
Witness.- I do.
Counsel. – Were you in his company that night ?
Witness. – For a time.
Counsel. – Near Mr. Baker’s house?
Witness. – So you say.
Counsel. – Was the night a bright night?
Witness. – Well, at this distance of time I can’t positively say. After the occurrence, and while the matter was fresh in my memory, I stated it all truly and honestly in an information, which I swore before Mr. Jordan, and if you read that I will swear to every word in it.
Counsel.- I am reading, sir, from your information.
Witness.- No, sir, you are not – you are reading from a brief, made of my information by some clerk. I don’t know what he has written in your brief, I want my information.
Court (to the clerk of the Crown).- Get the information.
Clerk of the Crown. – We can’t find the document in court.
judge. – Let a search be made for it in the Crown office. I will return to court in half-an-hour.
After the adjournment, the judge addressed the clerk of the Crown. – Have you found the missing information ? Clerk of the Crown. – After a most careful search, it is not forthcoming, and no one can account for its missing .
Judge (horrified). – Here is a nice business! So great a miscarriage of justice I never witnessed or heard of.
Crown Counsel. – I will ask your lordship to withdraw this case from the jury in order that it may be again be brought on. There is some foul play .
Judge – I can’t do that; the jury have been regularly empanelled. The prisoner has been put to plead ,and given in charge, and several witnesses examined. Owing to some misconduct in the Crown office the prosecution has fallen through. This is the most remarkable case I have ever had before me. The approver or Crown witness have made a laughing-stock of the court. Let the prisoner be discharged. (Great applause in Court.)
Judge (to Witness) – Where did you go to school? You are the smartest chap I have ever had before me.
Witness: As for school, my lord, I might say I never went to school. At school all I learnt was my letters. I got an old spelling-book, and after much trouble I came on in spelling words, and then I got an old grammar and stUdied it, so as that I got to know some of its meaning.
Here the court broke up in confusion, and I left with a vivid memory of a most notable official fiasco, on the first muRder “trial” I witnessed in the capital of gallant Tipperary.
Taken from My Clonmel Scrapbook
Compiled & Edited James White
Second 1000 ; Published E. Downey & Co., Waterford ; 1907 ; No. ISBN