7 January 2010 Edition
Remembering the Past: Green Street - Two centuries of political trials
BY MÍCHEÁL Mac DONNCHA
GREEN STREET Courthouse in Dublin is no longer to be used for trials, thus ending a two-century history during which hundreds of republicans stood in its dock, some of them facing execution and many receiving long prison sentences.
Since 1972, Green Street was the venue for the no-jury Special ‘Criminal’ Court but its history stretches much further back.
The building was opened as a court in 1796 and members of the United Irish Society were among the first to be tried there, also as so-called ‘criminals’. In September of that year, John Robb, printer of The Northern Star, the United Irish newspaper, went on trial along with its editor, Samuel Neilson, and organiser Thomas Russell. They were jailed in Newgate Prison, which was next to the Green Street Courthouse.
Newgate Prison was an older building than the courthouse and the site of the latter was presumably chosen because of its proximity to the prison.
The brothers John and Henry Sheares, United Irish leaders in Dublin, were executed on the built-in gallows over the door of Newgate in 1798. Their show trial in Green Street lasted through the night by candlelight. Newgate was also where United Irish leader Edward Fitzgerald died from his wounds after his capture in May 1798. The jail was demolished in 1875; today, St Michan’s Park stands on the site and its centrepiece is a memorial to the United Irishmen.
By far the most famous trial in Green Street was that of Robert Emmet. He went on trial on 19 September 1803 before the infamous ‘hanging judge’, Lord Norbury. The trial lasted only a day and Emmet’s speech was delivered after the jury had returned their verdict of guilty without even leaving the courtroom to consider the evidence. In one of the lesser-known passages of his speech, Emmet castigated Norbury for trying to prevent him explaining his motives:
“You, my lord, are a judge; I am the supposed culprit. I am a man; you are a man also. By a revolution of power we might change places, though we never could change characters.
“If I stand at the bar of this court and dare not vindicate my character, how dare you calumniate it?”
Emmet was described by the historian of the United Irishmen, Richard Madden, as delivering his speech in an animated manner and in a voice loud enough to be heard at the outer door of Green Street Courthouse. He was executed in Thomas Street the next day.
The next major political trials in Green Street were those of the Young Irelanders. The first of them were put on trial for seditious speeches and articles. On 22 May 1848, John Mitchel was in the dock for articles in his newspaper, The United Irishman. He highlighted the practice of ‘jury packing’, whereby the British authorities tried to ensure convictions by making certain that only the most loyal subjects were allowed on the jury panel. Mitchel declared in court:
“I have to say I have been found guilty by a packed jury – by the jury of a partisan sheriff – by a jury not empanelled even according to the law of England. I have been found guilty by a packed jury obtained by a juggle, a jury not empanelled by a sheriff but by a juggler.”
Among the articles for which Mitchel was prosecuted was one urging people to fight to retain in Ireland the food which was being exported as tens of thousands died of starvation and disease. For Mitchel and his associates the sentence of the court in Green Street was transportation to Australia and some of them never saw their country again.
In 1865, Dublin Castle suppressed The Irish People, newspaper of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. The Fenians who produced the paper were put on trial by a special commission consisting of several judges who began their hearings in Green Street on 27 November 1865. The defendants included Thomas Clarke Luby, John O’Leary, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa and Charles J Kickham. Kickham turned the table on the judges when he declared:
“English rule in Ireland is on its trial. The Government admit the existence of a widespread conspiracy, both in Ireland and America. This only shows that the treatment of Ireland by England has been judged and condemned.”
Green Street also saw the trial in 1867 of Fenians involved in the ill-fated Rising of that year, including Irish officers who had come from America to participate. In 1883, Green Street was the venue for the trials which followed the assassination of senior British officials Cavendish and Burke in the Phoenix Park the year before by the Irish National Invincibles. Five Invincibles were sentenced to death in Green Street and executed in Kilmainham Jail: Joseph Brady, Michael Fagan, Thomas Caffrey, Daniel Curley and Timothy Kelly.
Green Street continued in use as a courthouse in the following years, although political trials were more often held at other venues during the revolutionary period 1916 to 1923. Seán Mac Bride recalled in his autobiography (That Day’s Struggle, Currach Press, 2005) that part of the Dublin count for the 1918 general election was held in the courthouse and Constance Markievicz’s victory was celebrated there, with Mac Bride rescuing the defeated candidate from rough treatment by some of the crowd
In the 1920s and 1930s the Cumann na nGaedheal governments of WT Cosgrave and the Fianna Fáil governments of Eamon de Valera used special courts against republicans. These were tribunals of Free State Army officers. Special no-jury courts of either judges or military officers were provided for in de Valera’s 1939 Offences Against the State Act. Special trials in the 1940s were held mostly in Collins Barracks. When the 150th anniversary of Emmet’s trial was marked by a re-enactment in Green Street in 1953, few guessed that before too long the courthouse would resume its place as a venue for many political trials.
The Special Criminal Court with three judges and no jury was re-established by order of Fianna Fáil Justice Minister Des O’Malley in 1972.
Already, following the resurgence of republicanism after 1969, people had received sentences in the ordinary courts for IRA membership and other offences. But O’Malley and his colleagues were concerned at the number of acquittals which reflected the widespread sympathy for the IRA in the wake of the pogroms against nationalists in the North. Therefore the no-jury court was set up and was based in Green Street.
Among the first to be tried and jailed by the Special Court in Green Street were the then Derry IRA leader, Martin McGuinness, and An Phoblacht editor Eamonn Mac Thomáis.
McGuinness and fellow Derry republican Joseph McCallion were convicted of IRA membership in January 1973. Both slammed the hypocrisy of the 26-County establishment in protesting at the British Army murders on Bloody Sunday exactly a year before and then jailing Derry republicans for resisting the British Army. “I am a member of the Derry Brigade of Óglaigh na hÉireann and I am very, very proud of it,” McGuinness told the court.
On 15 July 1976, there was a dramatic escape from the cells under Green Street Courthouse. Five republicans were involved: Jim Monaghan, Dónal Murphy, Joe Reilly, John Hagan and Michael O’Rourke. Using precisely-placed explosives, the prisoners blasted from their cell and breached a doorway into a lane outside the court. However, Murphy was captured in the court while Monaghan, Reilly and Hagan were apprehended in nearby streets. Only O’Rourke made good his escape.
The late 1970s saw an increase in the numbers facing trial in Green Street, including those who had been beaten in custody by the Garda ‘Heavy Gang’. The men wrongly convicted of the Sallins mail train robbery were the best-known but there were many others.
Many high-profile trials were held in Green Street during the 1980s, including that of Martin Ferris and the crew of the gun-running trawler ‘Marita Ann’ in 1984. As the Dublin Government stepped up its co-operation with the Thatcher government in the Six Counties it attempted to establish a conveyor-belt of extradition for republicans from the South to the North and Britain. This proved to be a legal minefield and some of the court battles were fought out in Green Street.
Green Street was often a scene of farce as well as tragedy. In 1988, Donegal Sinn Féin Councillor Liam McElhinney was tried for IRA membership on the basis of a speech that he gave at the Drumboe Easter commemoration the previous year.
The gardaí presented as evidence their totally amateurish video of the commemoration, a large part of which consisted of footage of the carpet in the upstairs room of the building from which they secretly filmed the parade on the street below. However, the sound quality was perfect and the walls of the Green Street courtroom resounded to the tunes of republican flute and drum bands. There was nothing amusing in the outcome, however, as McElhinney received a five-year sentence for a speech.
Now that the era of political trials at Green Street has come to an end, it is surely time for film-makers to use the venue to recreate some of the most significant trials in Irish history.
Liam McElhinney: Pictured in 1988 outside Green Street. The following day he was sentenced to five years
An Phoblacht Magazine
AN PHOBLACHT MAGAZINE:
- Don't miss your chance to get the second edition of the 2019 magazine, published to coincide with Easter Week
- This special edition which focuses on Irish Unity, features articles by Pearse Doherty, Dr Thomas Paul and Martina Anderson.
- Pearse sets out the argument for an United Ireland Economy whilst Pat Sheehan makes the case for a universally free all-island health service.
- Other articles include, ‘Ceist teanga in Éirinn Aontaithe’, ‘Getting to a new Ireland’ and ‘Ireland 1918-22: The people’s revolution’.