Patrick Pearse and the Name on a Dray, 1905-1916

Ruth Cannon
Ruth Cannon
A commemorative poster for the 1916 Rising, via

From the Irish Independent, 18 May, 1965:

 ‘Pearse’s only Court Brief – The Name on a Dray’ by Frank Byrne

‘One man can free a people as One Man redeemed the world’

(The Singer: PH Pearse)

Did any one man do more to free the people of Ireland than Padraic Pearse, who, sixty years ago today, in the courtroom of the King’s Bench Division, publicly espoused the sacred cause of freedom when, in his only court brief, he pleaded for the right of Irish farmers to put their names in Irish on their carts in the famous ‘Illegible Letters’ case.

Pearse studied law and was called to the Bar but he never practised except for this one case when, at the age of 26, as Junior Barrister, he defended McGiolla Bhridghe, a farmer of Dunfanaghy, a bilingual district in Co Donegal, who had been fined one shilling and costs at Dunfanaghy Petty Sessions for having what the magistrates termed ‘illegible letters’ on his cart on the road at Kill.

Although he lost the case, Pearse was publicly complimented on his ability by the Lord Chief Justice O’Brien. 

As his French biographer, M Le Roux, tells us:

‘Pearse was a persuasive speaker although he did not have the rhetorical power or grace of delivery of Grattan or O’Connell.  A slight droop in one of his eyes, the result of an illness in childhood, obliged him to lower his head slightly when addressing the crowd and a slight lisp, which he never completely overcame,  obliged him to speak slowly and stress his phrases.

The ‘illegible letters’ case began on May 16, 1905, at the King’s Bench division before the Lord Chief Justice O’Brien, Mr Justice Andrews and Mr Justice Gibson. Appearing for the defence were Pearse, Mr T M Healy KC, MP and a Mr Walsh.

The Dunfanaghy magistrates had ruled that the leters pained on the defendant’s cart were proper letter in regard to size and they were adjudged ‘illegible’ simply because they were not English characters.

The defence counsel at the King’s Bench Division agreed with the Lord Chief Justice that the issue narrowed itself to ‘whether the name and address being written in Irish characters, were legibly written?’

Arguing that all the journals and papers circulating in the country at the time contained Irish and that even the advertisements of the All Ireland Temperance Bazaar in Ballsbridge were printed in similar characters to those used by the defendant, the defence counsel said that there was nothing the statute prohibiting the use of Irish letters.

They are ‘legible’ to both English and Irish speakers and they are the English letters which were used by the Saxons in the time of Alfred the Great’ counsel added.

The Lord Chief Justice then asked Mr Walsh if he could speak Irish himself and Mr Walsh replied, amidst laughter, ‘A little, my lord.’  Mr Walsh then went on to explain that the defendant was a very clever man who had been contributing English and Irish poetry to the papers for 25 years.

Putting the suppositious case of a Turk who exhibited his name in Turkish letters in the North of Ireland, the Lord Chief Justice asked Mr Walsh if that would satisfy the statute.  Mr Walsh replied that it would ‘if the Turk knew nothing else but Turkish and if he was a law-abiding man.’

You argue in effect, said the Lord Chief Justice, that if the prosecuting authority are to maintain in their case it is necessary to put in the word ‘English’ before letters and the word ‘English’ is not there.

Mr Walsh – I won’t say that.

Mr Walsh then said he would push his argument so far as to say that it was legal to use the letters of any language provided, they were legible.  The only reason the case had been brought in was because the letters were in the Irish characters, but that, he added, did not affect their legibility.

Appearing for the Crown, Mr Cecil Atkinson argued that anything that was inconsistent with the English language was a violation of the section of the act of Parliament.

Mr Justice Gibson – Suppose the Irish name and address were written in the English characters; wouldn’t that be right?

Mr Atkinson replied that he did not think so.  The adopted language of the legislature was English, and the Act of Parliament was to be construed in its English interpretation, and no other interpretation, and no other equivalent of the English language would be accepted by the legislature as consistent with the provision of the Act.

Atkinson said that the object of the Act was to enable any person injured by the cart to ascertain the name and address of the owner and this objection would be to a great extent defeated if Irish letters could be used.

Pearse, in reply, said that the statute was applying to a bilingual country and therefore there was no presumption that it was intended that the name be in English characters.  The act of Parliament referred to was the Parliament of the United Kingdom and they must take that Act in connection with the circumstances.

In Ireland, Pearse said, there were 4600,000 Irish speakers and in the union of Dunfanaghy there were 12,000 who spoke Irish including many who spoke Irish only.

Pearse further instanced the case of the name ‘Gibson’ the Irish equivalent to which as adopted by one prominent member of the Gaelic League he gave (amid much laughter) as McGiolla Bhridghe.’

Mr Justice Gibson – That is very interesting (laughter)

With humour and subtlety, Pearse continued his argument.  If Mr Atkinson’s argument were to hold, he said , Shuley should be written Walker, McRory should be written Rodgers, Mullen show be written De Boyns and if an unfortunate Italian came over with name Giovanni Giacomeo, his name should be read John Joseph – (laughter).

Pearse contended that the Irish language was a spoken language and that its letters were correct letters in the country.

The court reserved judgement at the end of the first day’s session, and when it reconvened on May 18, the judges decided to uphold the decision of the Dunfanaghy magistrates.

Lord O’Brien said that the case had been ‘most elaborately and interestingly’ argued by Pearse and Walsh.  They had said everything that could with propriety be advanced on behalf of their client, but the result was never far to seek.

The judges’ decision was

(a) that the question turned not on the word ‘legible’ but on the word ‘letters’ and

(b) that the word ‘letters used in the Act meant ‘letters of the type and character of the English language. 

Justice Andrews described the defence as being very ingenious, interesting and, from a literary point of view, instructive.

Mr Justice Gibson said that he failed to discover any statue in which Ireland was treated as bi-lingual and requiring special treatment accordingly.  An English citizen, he said, if knocked down by an Irish cart was entitled to have its name and address in characters he could read.  He saw no objection depicting the defendant’s name in his own language on the side of the cart as the statue only referred to the description on the offside.

So, ended Pearse’s only court brief.  For the remaining eleven years of his life forsook the profession of law to dedicate his genius as poet—soldier, teacher and journalist to the same ideal of freedom for which he had fought unsuccessfully in the courtroom.”

The case of the name on the dray would be long forgotten were it not for subsequent events regarding its second Junior Counsel. In April 1916 Patrick Pearse, on behalf of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, issued the orders to all Irish Volunteer units throughout the country for three days of manoeuvres beginning on Easter Sunday, being the signal for a general uprising which began on Easter Monday, 24 April 1916. That day, Pearse read the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, of which he had been chosen as President, from outside the General Post Office, the headquarters of the Rising.

Although Pearse, and other leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising, were subsequently executed after surrendering to British authorities, the uprising they instigated was instrumental in setting in train a process which led to establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922, and the later passage of the Republic of Ireland Act 1948, which came into force on 18 of April 1949 and declared the State a Republic.

I am sure Pearse, described as a popular and good-humoured student during his time at the King’s Inns, would have smiled to hear that, in the course of his Rising, the house of the former Mr Justice Andrews, one of the judges in the MacBride case, had been occupied by rebels. The Judge, by now elderly and retired, refused to leave and remained in the basement throughout their occupation. In a twist characteristic of Four Courts history, Judge Andrews was himself descended from William Drennan, active in the United Irishmen. Nor was his the only judicial residence to be occupied during the 1916 Rising!

The establishment of the Irish Free State indirectly contributed to by Pearse resulted in the severance of the Northern Irish Bar, and a mass exodus of non-nationalist barristers to the United Kingdom and the colonies. One of those who departed was Mr Walsh (now a KC), who went on to become Chief Justice of Cyprus. Another was Cecil Atkinson, opposing Counsel in the MacBride case, who left Ireland to become a judge of the Calcutta High Court.

As the son of Lord Atkinson, former Attorney-General for Ireland, Atkinson, called to the Bar on the same day as Pearse, had been hotly tipped for professional and judicial success. This did not occur. In fact, he was to die only three years after Pearse, in mysterious circumstances after falling out of a train in India. No one, reading the above newspaper write-up of the call of 1901 in which both Atkinson and Pearse feature directly after one another, could possibly have predicted such a chain of life events for either barrister.

Ruth Cannon
Ruth Cannon
Ruth Cannon

The MacBride case of the name on the dray may well have been Pearse’s first superior court case, but it was not his only superior court case. In April 1906, Pearse appeared in a similar case before Lord Chief Justice O’Brien, Judge Andrews and Judge Wright. This time he was led by two seniors, Tim Healy KC and James O’Connor KC (later Lord Justice Sir James O’Connor). One hopes Tim Healy, who did well out of Pearse’s Rising, becoming the first Governor General of the Irish Free State, turned up this time! The appeal was dismissed on the basis that it was governed by the decision given the previous year in the case of MacBride.

Nor was the dray case Pearse’s only case. It seems he may have cut his teeth on the Northern Circuit. References to Mr Pearse BL appear in provincial newspapers on a number of occasions in the years following his call, including an article in the Sligo Champion of 22 October 1904 which records him as having acted in an application seeking compensation for the alleged malicious burning of a mountain containing heather and game.

After the Easter Rising, the Bar was quick to disavow Pearse, with newspaper articles describing him as ‘a barrister without briefs” (Ballymena Weekly Telegraph, 6 May 1916) and ‘a dismal failure’ as a barrister (Kildare Observer, 13 May 1916)

Ruth Cannon

With the passage of time, things have changed and now a display close to the Law Library features the image of Patrick Pearse BL in barrister robes and an account of the MacBride case.

Who knows what the future may hold for any of us?

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

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

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