Snowballing in Peace and War, 1867-1945

Snowball Fight, by Edouard Giradet, via ArtVee

From the Kilrush Herald and Kilkee Gazette, 11 January 1918:

“Round The Town

By the Man in the Street

There was a fine snowstorm on Monday and Tuesday which covered the ground several inches.  In town it was made the most of by the rising generation of both sexes – yes, and their far elder in years too.  There was a fierce war of snowballing in all the streets.  There was no discrimination for anybody passing through, gentle or simple, lay or clerical.  Solicitors and barristers passing to and from the Court were vigorously shelled, and even the good County Court Judge fell in for a few torpedoes. And he enjoyed the sport like a man.  A fussy shopkeeper in Market Square sought police protection coming from the Court House, but he and his escort fell in for a merciless pounding.”

Nothing polarised the public like the sport of snowballing.  In 1867 Saunders’ Newsletter published a letter from a gentleman (“name withheld: card with the office”) requesting that the attention of the proper authorities be drawn to “the dangerous and illegal practice of snowballing in Dublin, whereby gangs of roughs, young and old, male and female assailed the passers-by with volleys of hard balls of snow worked up into the most formidable missiles.”

That same month, ‘a regular battle, in which snowballs were the missiles, greatly to the annoyance and even terror of some of the passers-by’ had occurred in Stephen’s Green, Dublin between students from the Royal College of Surgeons and students from the medical school of University College, Dublin, resulting in a number of prosecutions and fines of 10s each.

We find medical students again in the dock in 1895 for pelting Cork doctor Joseph O’Sullivan with snowballs and otherwise maltreating him on his way to visit a patient.  The attack was linked to an ongoing dispute between Cork medical doctors and the friendly societies who employed Dr O’Sullivan as their physician.  Several prominent medical professionals made a point of attending the hearing.

Students Snowballing, by Horace Vernet, via Public Domain Review

You didn’t have to be a medical student, however, to be prosecuted for snowballing. In Waterford the previous year, John Henneberry, ‘a respectable-looking youth’ had been convicted of snowballing a man named Madigan in such a way as to accidentally break his umbrella and ding his hat. 

Snowballing a policeman, via Media Storehouse

Damage to person or property, or indeed the dignity of an authority figure, exponentially increased the risk of prosecution for snowball-throwing.  In January 1881 Dublin boys Christopher Bridgeman and Lawrence Berrill were prosecuted for having assaulted Constable 17C by striking him with several snowballs on the head and knocking off his helmet.  In 1873 Trinity student John T Ross was brought up before the Dublin Southern Division Police Court for having having assaulted Police Constable 1B by striking him with a snowball on the side of the neck.

The day of the week on which the snowball was thrown could also be relevant in assessing one’s chances of being prosecuted. In 1867, Mr John O’Neill, JP prosecuted Charles Maguire before Londonderry Magistrates’ Court for striking him with a snowball.  Mr O’Neill – who emphasised that he was not opposed to snowballing in principle, merely on the Sabbath – had seen the defendant and others snowballing and remonstrated with them regarding the propriety of their conduct.  The defendant had responded by putting one of the snowballs into his pocket and lobbing it at Mr O’Neill’s back as he exited following his homily.

Harold Hume Piffard ‘Guilty or Not Guilty?’ via ArtUk

Some magistrates – like Mr PJ O’Donoghue RM, who informed Belfast Magistrates’ Court that he himself had been snowballed many times but had never thought of bringing a prosecution for assault – were sceptical of the merits of prosecution for snowball throwing.   In December 1930, Mr Begley RM, sitting in the same court, faced with a batch of pre-teen defendants alleged to have thrown snowballs in public throughfares during the recent snowfall, said it was a shame to bring in these cases at all. Everyone knew that children could not do harm by firing snow.  It was a form of recreation which they had all indulged in in their young days.

James Beattie Michie, ‘Children at Play (Snowball Fight),’ via Art UK

Likewise, in 1935, Mr JM Mark RM, sitting at Templepatrick Petty Sessions Court. described a snowballing incident outside the local Parish Church as ‘merely a boyish prank which was carried too far.’  The defendant brothers promised to conduct themselves in future and were allowed off on payment of costs.

Snowball prosecutions could provoke romantic memories too. In 1909, an unnamed Dublin magistrate chuckled with amusement at the trial of a man brought up by the constable for throwing snowballs at a young lady. ‘Did she throw any snowballs back at him?’ his worship asked.  ‘She did,’ replied the defendant, whereupon the magistrate laughed heartily and asked what the cause of the combat might be.  When assured that it had been purely in fun, he discharged the defendant forthwith without fine.

Man and Woman Have a Snowball Fight, via Getty Images

Amore and snowballs coincided yet again in a prosecution featured in The Belfast Telegraph of 12 February 1945, involving a young married lady alleged to have conveyed to prisoners of war in a Belfast Prisoner of War Camp certain written or printed matters or articles of foot contrary to the Prisoners of War and internees Access and Communications Order 1945.  The communications consisted of the following notes wrapped in snowballs and thrown over the wire of the camp:

“Dearest Irish girl

I am enjoyed that you like the Germans as well for we prisoners of war have a sound feeling for the whole Irish people.  Take my sincerest regards to all at home and tell them that Germany stands together though the present war situation is not in our favour.

If you should have time enough to answer my line throw your chit in a snowball enrolled as far as you can and make me pay attention for this ‘bullet.’ You will see me every day at the wire wearing German parachute uniform.

Let me soon hear from you.  Best wishes. Heil Hitler – Heinz.

UK POW Camp, WW2, via Picclick

The defendant’s response was as follows:

“What is your name and address? Kathleen,” followed by several marks of endearment.

Further notes passed culminating in the following, again written by the defendant, accompanied by a parcel containing a jam sponge and several buttered sandwiches:

“I have fallen in love throwing snowballs.  Come back to me after the war?”

As a result of her communications, ‘Kathleen’ was bound on £10 bail to be on good behaviour for 11 months. 

To add to her woes, the gallant Heinz subsequently disclaimed responsibility for the letters, claiming to have been merely writing them at the behest of a fellow prisoner with limited English and a yen for baked goods.

The perils of snowballing with the enemy!

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

Irish barrister sharing the history of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland, and other Irish courts.

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