The Judge Who Was Mistaken for a King, 1908

Limerick County Court Judge Richard ‘Dick’ Adams.
King Edward VII, for whom Judge Adams was often mistaken, resulting in an embarrassing incident in Homburg c. 1900.

From the Cork Examiner, 6 April 1908, this loving tribute to one of the Irish Bar’s most famous humorists, Limerick County Court Judge Richard Adams:

“Those who knew the late Judge Adams well will find it hardest to believe that he is dead.  For with his personality, they associate all that was brightest and most vivifying in life.  What is chiefly to be written of Judge Adams is matter which from the richness of his genius – and he was a genius endowed with one of the rarest forms of genius – amused his fellow men.   Even in this hour, when all who knew him are keenly realizing the extent of the gap created by his death, men’s thoughts go back to the various incidents in his career, the telling of which have brightened their own lives, and if, in this appreciation, some items creep in which prompt smiles, it will be admitted that they come most naturally out of the inheritance which he has left behind.

Judge Adams was a native of Castletownbere, Berehaven, County Cork, where he was born some sixty-five years ago. He was fond of referring to himself jocosely as a member of the ‘Bantry Bay Band’ and used to tell at least one story of his return to his native town after many years.  When visiting there in the heyday of his career at the Bar, he asked his car driver was not there a fellow of the name of Dick Adams born in these parts.  The driver replied that there was and drove him around and showed him the house where this ‘fellow’ was born.  ‘And who is this Dick Adams?’ queried the big and bearded unknown.  ‘Begor, I’m not rightly sure,’ said the jarvey, ‘But I’m told he is a decent attorney in Dublin.’ 

The future judge does not appear to have greatly distinguished himself in his early days.  He took a course of studies at Queen’s College, Cork, but his first professional calling was that of a bank clerk in the National Bank in Cork.  It can be readily conceived that the routine of office work did not quite fit the temperament of this really original genius, and, according to him, his career in the bank was brief and not particularly glorious. He would himself tell how he was entrusted with the duty of opening letters containing bank notes in separate halves, a favourite way of sending money in those days, and then gumming the two halves together.  But his lack of acumen for bank business was such that he frequently gummed the wrong halves together – a terrible misadventure in any well-organized bank. 

Having regard to this and a general unsuitability for bank life, Richard Adams decided that he had mistaken his vocation. Accordingly, he left the bank and joined the ranks of that more Bohemian profession, the Press.  His future career was divided between the Press and the Bar, and it may fairly be said that he adorned each sphere in a manner that was unique.  He was for a period on the Editorial Staff of the Cork Examiner and subsequently joined the staff of the Freeman’s Journal as leader writer.   While on the staff of the Freeman he, as many other journalists before and after him have done, got called to the Bar.  This event took place in Hilary term of 1873.  

To aid him in his profession he had the advantage of a striking presence, a wonderfully ready flow of language, copious wit and abundance of self-possession, which had been gained by a previous informal career as a social raconteur.   In the eighties his impressive presence was well known in Cork Courthouse and in the Four Courts in Dublin. The fame of his wit and humour invariably drew large audiences, and to Richard Adams may be paid the unique tribute that even jurors heard with pleasure the cases in which he was engaged. 

Once in Cork Courthouse he was engaged, with another eminent counsel, in defending in a murder trial.  The late Mr. Justice William O’Brien was the judge.  The case was a particularly ticklish one, requiring all the art of the advocate and the subtlety of move of the practiced court hand.  During the adjournment, Adams met in the corridors of the Court the judge’s crier, a well-known functionary who was supposed to have the ear of the judge in a way that few court criers have.  This worthy approached Adams with an air that was brimful of mysterious significance and whispered ‘Mr. Adams, don’t call any witnesses, mind now.’  Adams, knowing the relations of the judge and the crier, accepted this as a friendly hint as to the judge’s view.  Accordingly, he decided not to call any witnesses, and closed the case with a brilliant speech.

To his dismay, however, Mr. Justice O’Brien commenced his charge by at once referring to the significant omission of the defence to call a witness who might have thrown light on the case and harped perpetually on the omission all through his charge.  ‘You’ve hanged our man, Richard,’ exclaimed his colleague, throwing up his hands.  But when the case was over, Adams took occasion to seek out the crier, and ask him why he had told him not to call any witnesses.  ‘Because, Mr. Adams’ solemnly affirmed that functionary, ‘I very much dislike perjury.’

Prior the date of his appointment as Queen’s Counsel, Adams enjoyed a very large practice at the Junior Bar.  In actions for breach of promise of marriage his services were particularly sought, and it was one of the treats of the Four Courts to hear a speech on that congenial topic from one who was a master of humorous exposition.  His admission to the ranks of the Inner Bar was soon followed by his elevation to the Bench as County Court Judge of Limerick, and in that position, we have of late come to regard him as quite an institution. 

While not a profound lawyer, he was fortified by a splendid store of common sense – a better commodity for the community at large than intricacies and meshes of law – and his decisions were rarely disturbed by superior tribunals.  He did not himself at all mind jesting on the subject of his legal knowledge – indeed what subject did he not jest upon – and would tell how once he came into one of the Dublin Courts after the luncheon interval and heard a well-known solicitor proclaiming from the solicitors’ table to a cluster of minor lights ‘Adams! Oh, he has a fine nisi prius prescendi, but he knows absolutely no law,’ whereupon Adams himself put his genial countenance over the side barrier and said, ‘Look here, that’s slander of me in my business trade and profession, and it is actionable without proof of special damage, so look out for a writ.’  This was of course said with glorious good humour.

However, he possessed plenty of legal knowledge, and better than that, he had rare intelligence and good judgment in the application of his knowledge.  The public have been vastly entertained and amused by the dialogues reported from the County Court of Limerick.  Most of all were we convulsed by the memorable case in which a man sued for the loss of his whiskers, cut off in malice aforethought by a mischievous neighbour.  This was a case that Judge Adams look simply to his heart of hearts, and the proceedings in court were a perfect classic for humour. 

Then when he ‘held a court in a ditch’ as the newspapers phrased it, the scene was retailed not only in England and Ireland, but in various countries beyond the seas.  He himself referred to the incident in a very humorous way at a dinner given in his honour in Limerick for the solicitors’ profession:

 ‘Some time ago… I had occasion to adjourn a case and intimate that I would go out and see a boundary in dispute on the following Sunday.  I went there and saw the plaintiff and defendant and some more of the boys, and I sat on a stile and had a few words with them all.  But what was my surprise when the next day I saw in the papers – ‘Extraordinary scene in Limerick: Judge Adams holds a court on a boundary fence.’  The climax came when I got enclosed to me in a wrapper that had no stamp an Australian paper with a cartoon representing a villainous looking ruffian with a caubeen on his death and a dhudeen struck across it sitting straddle- legged on a country bank with a scowl on his face and addressing a crowd of ragamuffins with underneath it the inscription ‘How Justice is Administered in Ireland.’’

Judge Adams also loved to go to health resorts on the continent.  These sojourns were rendered doubly enjoyable by reason of his exceptional attainments as a linguist.  We all presumably have heard of the story which he himself told so well on the subject of his resemblance to the present King.  ‘When in Homburg,’ he said, ‘the King’s Equerry came up to me and said ‘Mr. Adams, the King commands me to ask you as a personal favour not to be going about in a tall hat and frock coat.  It is very embarrassing for his Majesty to be so often whacked on the back, and to be shouted at by gentlemen in Dublin accents, ‘Hello Dick, old man, how are all the boys in Dublin?’’

The last time the writer of this article met Richard Adams was in Dublin a year or two ago.  He said he was hankering after his old native county, Cork.  ‘I’ve been to every capital in Europe,’ he said emphatically, ‘and I’ve come to the conclusion that Cork city is simply the loveliest of them all.  I’d like to end my days there – in one of those nice houses down by the river, by Tivoli or Dunkettle.’

Alas! To hosts of friends and thousands of admirers of his brilliant, genial humour, the thought that that peaceful ideal cannot now be realized will occasion the deepest sadness. His unique gifts were a national asset, they gave lightness and spice to routine that is usually dreary, and colour to what is often dull.  To have produced such things in life was a big achievement, and there will be universal grief that the rich, sparkling spring is now dried up forever.”

The story of Judge Adams, his resemblance to King Edward VII and the royal command received by him at Homburg had been circulating in the media for many years.  Indeed, on the occasion of King Edward’s visit to Ireland in 1903, the Dublin Daily Express reported gleefully that Judge Adams was out of the country, otherwise there might have been some amusing complications, as the judge was the King’s double.  

The same article did however suggest, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, that perhaps Judge Adams might have been a stand-in for the King on his famous – and most uncharacteristic – expedition to the slums of Dublin during that visit. 

Who knows?

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

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

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