An Unusual Ballina Libel Action, 1955

The cause of all the trouble – the defendant’s missing Irish setter dog, which he believed had been taken by the plaintiff. Generic Irish setter dog image via

From the Ballina Herald, 30 April 1955:

“Unusual Ballina Libel Case

Exception Taken to Note Written by Dumb Shoemaker.

The absence of an interpreter of the sign language used by deaf and dumb people caused an adjournment at Ballina Circuit Court on Wednesday of one of the most extraordinary libel cases ever to be listed.  It was one in which Mr O’Hara, a labourer, Ballina, sought a decree for £75 against Mr Clarke, boot and shoe repairer, Ballina, on the grounds of libel.

Where it all took place. One of the Western Circuit’s prettiest courthouses at Kevin Barry Street, Ballina, County Mayo. Image via National Inventory of Architectural Heritage.

The plaintiff’s case was that the libel was contained in a letter dated 26th October, 1954, written and signed by defendant on one of his bill-heads, and falsely and maliciously published of and concerning plaintiff, by the defendant.

The letter stated:

“I have been notified that you have my setter, which I lost yesterday, and if you don’t hand him over to the bearer of this note I will be compelled to call on the Guards.  Signed PJ Clarke.”

The plaintiff held that by it Clarke meant the plaintiff was guilty of the crime of stealing a dog the property of defendant.

Mr Maguire BL for plaintiff said there were certain unusual aspects of the case.  The defendant was dumb, and he wrote the note and gave it to a man named Matthew Jordan, who was deaf and dumb, but able to read.   The note was not placed in an envelope, but was left open.  The plaintiff was illiterate, and had to have the note read for him. After the note was read to him, the plaintiff was very upset and wrote a letter to the defendant to which he received no satisfaction, and the proceedings became necessary. 

In view of the defendant being dumb, the plaintiff’s legal team had made efforts to obtain somebody familiar with sign language, but were unable to do so.  It was proposed they should write out the questions.

The Judge said it was a very serious case of its type and he would not like to go on so late in the evening without an interpreter.  He adjourned the case to the next sittings and appealed to the parties to come together.

Two things happened before the case came on for the next sittings in February 1956

In November 1955, Mr O’Hara issued a second set of libel proceedings against Associated Newspapers Limited, publishers of ‘The Sunday Despatch’, which had featured an article about his ‘fantastic’ libel case. According to Mr O’Hara, the use of the term ‘fantastic’ implied that the action was without merit, and that he was a person who would engage in the bringing of fanciful and capricious proceedings, thereby lowering him in the eyes of the public. The Ballina Herald must have been relieved at having opted for ‘extraordinary’ rather than ‘fantastic’ as its adjective of choice to describe the case.

Matters might have escalated further were it not for the fact that, later that same month, Mr O’Hara was – by presumed coincidence – convicted at Ballina District Court with having killed a neighbour’s dog by hitting it over the head with a brush. As the ‘sting’ of the libel asserted by Mr O’Hara had been that he had disposed of Mr Clarke’s dog, this conviction may have resulted in a settlement of the O’Hara/Clarke case at the next Petty Sessions, since there are no further reports of the dispute.

Or perhaps the newspapers were simply too afraid of Mr O’Hara’s legal team to publish anything else regarding the case?

In any event, the case stands as an early example of sign language interpretation being contemplated in an Irish court – and as testimony to the type of village disputes that kept practitioners on the Western – and every other – Irish Circuit happily in business throughout the 20th century.

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