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1816 in Ireland

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Events from the year 1816 in Ireland.

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Although an impressive amount of material for practitioners has been published in recent years on legal interpreting, the vast majority of it does not extend its reach to looking at the deep roots of historical court interpreting; there have been some works over the years looking at non-Irish contexts where Deaf people encountered the courts. This presentation seeks to fill a gap in this literature, and will examine the historical roots of sign language interpreting in Irish courts in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In Irish legal literature, Deaf people were referred to as early as 1638, in Richard Bolton’s 'A justice of Peace for Ireland'. The section pictured here is one of the earliest Irish common law references to Deaf people, stating that ‘deaf and dumb’ people could not be charged with a felony as they were unable to have a felonious intent; this was linked to the legal presumption of idiocy that lasted until the late eighteenth century. Bolton’s book was intended as a guide for magistrates, who dealt with summary justice. Magistrates were not legally trained, but were the powerful landlords and men of property in each local area. Bolton’s guide, and others like it afterward, were intended to function as a quick and comprehensive guide to dispensing summary justice in local courts, while other works instructed on how to deal with indictable offences. There were many updates and alternative guidebooks for Irish magistrates and legal professionals after Bolton, but none went into detail about Deaf people in court for many years. The writers I have mentioned have identified the core formative precedents of English common law in relation to Deaf people in the late eighteenth century. The 1773 case of Thomas Jones challenged the old presumption under the law that Deaf people were ‘idiots’; the court found that if the accused could understand the charge and proceedings through ‘signs and symbols’, or what we know as sign language, he or she was able to plead. In 1786, a Deaf man named John Ruston was found able to be sworn and give evidence as a witness, again, through ‘signs and tokens’. And in Elizabeth Steel’s case the court decided that a Deaf person could be both tried and sentenced. These, and more cases besides, began to be cited in influential legal textbooks, and formed the basis for the use of sign language interpreters in English – and later Irish – courts. It is not until 1802 that we find a reference to Deaf defendants or witnesses, or sign language, in Irish legal texts. Leonard MacNally was a barrister who wrote the influential Rules of Evidence on Pleas of the Crown. One chapter of this deals with ‘examination of persons Deaf and Dumb’, and states that persons “deaf and dumb, to whose mind has been conveyed the knowledge of a Deity, and a belief of rewards and punishments, may be examined as a witness, through the medium of a person capable of conversing with him by signs.” The first step for Deaf persons accused of a felony, or giving witness testimony, by common law, had long been a preliminary voir dire. Here a jury was empanelled to decide whether the defendant was ‘mute by malice’ or ‘mute by the visitation of God’ – essentially, a test to see if the deafness was genuine. At this point witnesses were called to testify as to the defendant’s deafness, which would often include the individual who ended up interpreting later. Here in MacNally’s later work The Justice of the Peace for Ireland in 1808, we see a reference to Deaf people being arraigned; if it can be proved that a Deaf person can understand ‘by signs and tokens’, and MacNally states that it “is known that persons thus afflicted frequently possess [this understanding] to a very great extent”, then they can plead. It is interesting to see this reference to Deaf people’s widespread use of signing in 1808, almost a decade before Ireland’s first Deaf school was opened, lending credence to the presence of signed language in Ireland before 1816. Following a finding of ‘mute by the visitation of God’, it would next need to be decided whether the Deaf person was capable of taking a trial. This hinged on their ability to understand the nature of, and consequences of an oath. If so, the trial could begin. It was in this pre-trial process, where oaths were explained in sign language and gesture to Deaf people, that interpreters became of vital importance. After English cases involving Deaf people such as Dyson (1831), and Pritchard (1836), it became no longer sufficient for the Deaf person to understand signs and the oath for the trial to proceed; the effect of these cases meant that Deaf defendants also needed to prove they sufficiently understood what was going on in the courtroom, or in other words, they were ‘now sane’. If the jury found the defendant not sane, the result would be indefinite detention under the Criminal Lunatics Act of 1800. For many Deaf people, who were found not to be fully able to follow court proceedings, this could lead to a lifetime of institutionalisation in a mental hospital. Interpreters have had different forms of oaths in Irish courts through the years. The version in 1911 is remarkably similar to the one still used today, and interestingly, in most manuals and guidebooks, the oath was the same one taken by interpreters of spoken languages. I have described just a selection of the case law and guidance available to legal professionals in this period, but how able were judges, counsel and solicitors to take heed of them and abide by case law and precedent? British administration of English common law in Ireland had mixed fortunes during the nineteenth century. Although there is evidence that many used the courts as a remedy, as illustrated by Richard McMahon for the pre-famine Galway Petty Sessions, there was often distrust of English law. Magistrates were especially mistrusted. They were often absentee landlords and as the vast majority were Protestants through this period, there was an added dimension of sectarian mistrust. At the outset of the period, the magistrates who sat at courts of lesser importance were the most powerful and wealthy landlords of the area, and were described by R B MacDowell as ‘unpaid amateurs’. They did not need any training in law to sit at sessions – - hence the guidance manuals - and it is very possible that the finer details of procedure in dealing with Deaf people in court were unknown to them. In 1822 the magistrates began to be assisted by professional resident magistrates (RMs), who resided in the district and sat with magistrates at sessions – this may have led to an improvement. John McEldowney has studied the emergence of a public prosecution system in Ireland and the emergence of Crown Solicitors and Crown Sessional Solicitors to assist with prosecution of serious crimes. But McEldwoney quotes a contemporary account by P J McKenna in 1856, where it appears crown solicitors were rushing from case to case and only received statements and documents at the last minute before prosecuting. Again in this confusion, the finer details of dealing with Deaf people may have been lost, despite extant case law and laid down procedure. Another vital dimension to consider is the changing demographic profile of the Irish Deaf community during this period. At the outset in 1816, there were no Deaf schools, and though we have no reliable figures, we can estimate that literacy was extremely low. By the time of the 1851 Census, seven separate Deaf schools had been established, and 18% of the population were listed as ‘educated’. By 1911 although the number of Deaf schools had gone down to five, the percentage of Deaf people who had completed or were undergoing education was up to 59%. Although this represents a fundamental transformation in Deaf people’s ability to deal effectively with the hearing world, it still means that in the period approaching independence, 1,600 Deaf people (we can assume) had no or little skills in written English. But it is important to remember - Irish Sign Language did not begin only in the schools. By 1911 there were 334 Deaf people across the country who lived with Deaf siblings, many of them uneducated, and this is a trend that had continued since the 1850s. Our knowledge of Deaf Studies and Deaf communities tells us they must have signed to each other. Families would have had their own home signs, and with Deaf siblings growing up alongside them, these signing systems may have developed into fully fledged sign languages, without the siblings even having to enter Deaf schools. Anne Leahy (2015) makes the point that court interpreters began to be used in courts long before Deaf schools were widespread, and indeed long before there were educated Deaf communities. This may very well have been the case in Ireland too. However it must also have thrown up a difficulty for interpreters; if each Deaf household had a different signed ‘idiolect’, then how did those people acting as interpreters cope if their knowledge of this idiolect was imperfect? This presentation comes out of my PhD research on the experiences of Deaf people in various types of institutions in Ireland between 1816 – 1924. Three separate online newspaper databases were searched for mention of Deaf people, and this presentation deals with newspaper accounts of court proceedings within this timeframe. I have come across over 500 cases so far where Deaf people have been in court, and so far 159 separate cases of these where an interpreter of some kind is specifically mentioned. Accounts of inquests, and more obscure local courts and land-related courts, have not been included. Please note that this research is ongoing, and as newspapers are added to online databases, the number of cases located will grow. The corpus of cases so far offers a chance to look at some trends and some examples of interpreted courtroom encounters between Deaf and hearing people. This chart shows the percentage of reported court cases where interpreters were mentioned as being present in newspaper accounts. It covers the various levels of courts from the superior Courts of Kings / Queens Bench, Chancery, Exchequer and Common Pleas (together known for most of the period as the High Court), down to regional Assizes, as well as city Commission Courts, to local Quarter Sessions / Recorders Courts, and down to the summary jurisdiction of Petty Sessions and Police magistrates’ courts. Within each category of court, it should be remembered that there were often high numbers of newspaper reports that did not make it clear if an interpreter was present or not. These figures are therefore likely to be underestimates. The most immediate trend to notice is that the more superior the court, the higher the percentage. On the face of it, one might assume that the more serious the case, or at least the more superior the court, the more likely an interpreter would be present. However, we need to bear in mind that the more inferior the court, the higher the percentage of cases where it is not clear what communication method was used in the courtroom. Superior court cases involving Deaf people were fewer in number and generally reported in more detail, and so the presence of an interpreter is more likely to be mentioned. Petty Sessions or police court proceedings were more likely to mention a defendant or witness’ deafness with no other information given. This trend did reverse in particular newspapers towards the end of the period, however, with longer Petty Sessions reports that often mentioned interpreters. This chart is based on newspaper reports of cases where interpreters were present. The highest category consists of interpreters who are named, but whose relationship with the Deaf person is not listed. This category includes some individuals who regularly interpreted on several occasions for Deaf people, sometimes for a variety of Deaf people The next highest category was family members. This was often a sister, brother or mother of the Deaf person. Then there were cases where an interpreter was reported to be present, but no name or information was given. The next category was school teachers or other personnel linked to Deaf schools, for example chaplains or missioners to the Deaf. This would indicate a far smaller number than one might assume for those affiliated with deaf schools, but there are indications from newspaper coverage after 1924, that this category of interpreter would increase significantly. Occasionally, barristers, solicitors or even judges were the ones to communicate with Deaf people in sign language. There were also staff from prisons or workhouses who sometimes interpreted. Finally there were also friends, workmates, neighbours or employers. Though they are not shown here as a separate category, it should be mentioned that occasionally the person chosen to interpret for the Deaf person was someone on the opposing side of the case! Despite the range of interpreter categories, we still possess numbers that are too small to make any definite conclusions about trends and patterns in interpreter usage as we go through the nineteenth century. However there is one rough, but interesting, pattern; where use of family members (shown here in blue) declines, in fits and starts; while use of teachers in Deaf schools, chaplains, and other professionals associated with Deaf people (shown here in red) increases, again in fits and starts. This pattern may have been a sign that courts recognised, to some degree through the century, the advantages of using an expert in Deaf people’s communication who would approach interpreting in an objective manner. We return to the Voir Dire process. and the attempts of interpreters to make Deaf witnesses understand the meaning of an oath. Where Deaf people had not been educated on religious subjects, and where their sign language had consisted of little more than ‘home sign’, this process could be tortuous - but in the eyes of judges and magistrates, achievable. Interpreters were given a certain leeway in describing the oath and its responsibilities and consequences. Here, the witness’ mother describes the signs she uses with her Deaf daughter, and the sense she gives to them: “she said she made signs up and down. The woman did so, and the girl blessed herself.” In this case, she is considered by the court to “have a sense of religious obligations”. The trial proceeded. This process was not always successful. In this example, reported in Cox’s law reports in 1846 from the Limerick Assizes, Bridget Heaney’s sister makes the unfortunate decision to get across the oath’s effect by telling Bridget that if she was to tell a lie in court… ‘the priest would kill her’. Counsel for the defence objected to this testimony being received on this basis, as ‘the witness could [not] clearly understand the nature of an oath.” Here, communication with Deaf defendant Thomas Dunlop on technical legal issues proves first to be impossible for a neighbour, then difficult for a relative, before some semblance of a plea was considered to have been put forth. Dunlop obviously understood why he was in court, and that this arena was where he could tell his story of being wronged, and instead of entering a plea, begins to tell of his innocence. This case shows difficulty in putting across the concept of a plea – a sticking point for many judges who demanded unambiguous evidence that the Deaf accused understood what this and other legal concepts signified. For John McKeever, accused of murder in 1847, the clerk of the gaol “stated that he could converse with the prisoner, but the latter understood his signs but imperfectly”. The stakes were high for Deaf defendants in these cases. In McKeever’s case, he was found to be unable to plead due to the inability of anyone involved to communicate with him, and thus sent to the Gransha Lunatic Asylum in Derry. He ended his days in the asylum in 1899, after more than 50 years residing there. This is a picture of John, taken in 1892. The hospital at Gransha found McKeever to be quick of understanding and harmless. It is hard to reconcile this with the decision in 1847 that he was ‘not sane’. These were the stakes for Deaf defendants found unable to plead – their liberty. In McKeever’s case as in others, we do not have verbatim court proceeding transcripts, and thus cannot comment objectively in interpreters’ performances, but in the newspaper reports and other sources available to us, there seems to be little willingness to explore the possibility that the deficiency in communication skills was not the Deaf person’s, but the interpreter’s. In the lower courts, the expressed necessity for interpreters varied widely according to the type of court and the magistrate. But occasionally this necessity could be expressed in no uncertain terms. Hearings were often adjourned while an interpreter was sought. In this case, police court magistrate Wall angrily refuses to take evidence without an interpreter, which the RIC officers in this case have not arranged. “I could not try a man who is deaf and dumb without some evidence… I can’t take the evidence against a foreigner or a deaf and dumb person without an interpreter.” Wall’s firmness on this point contrasts with other cases, where it seems interpreters were not even considered by the court. The Deaf person’s lack of access to what transpired in proceedings became a source of amusement. The gesticulations and exertions of both Deaf person and interpreter were frequently the source of interest for newspaper reporters and court attendees, occasionally a thing of wonder, but more often than not, an object of ridicule. Here, William O’Brien stands without any form of communication and is mocked by the magistrate and barrister alike. As has been stated, it is impossible for us to judge the quality of interpretation without knowing anything of the signs used, but one can find moments where interpreters acknowledge limits to their skills. Here, the interpreter William Murphy is asked if he would swear that his friend, uneducated Deaf man John Rowland, could understand a ‘future state’, along with several other metaphysical and religious questions; Murphy has some fun with the defence counsel’s dogged line of questioning here, and stated that he did not know himself what would happen to him after his death, what would happen if he committed perjury, or what the difference was between Old and New Testaments – - and so Murphy could not possibly swear this for anyone else! We also find individuals who are candid with the court about their ability to perform the specific task asked of them, and sensitive to the limits of their own skills to perform the job. In this case, both an aunt and a brother of Deaf victim Mary Buckley claim she had been sexually assaulted, and no doubt possessed an interest in seeing the accused sentenced. But they endanger that possibility by admitting that “though they knew many of [Mary’s] signs, there were many they did not know, and they accordingly refused to swear”. The prisoner was discharged. It was also on the minds of counsel that the network of relationships that interpreters had with other parties in legal proceedings could have repercussions on a trial. In 1845, a Deaf man named Cornelius Sullivan accused Christopher Lyne of aggravated assault. Joseph O’Riordan, counsel for the defence at the Killarney Sessions, had serious misgivings about the use of Edward McSweeney as the interpreter. McSweeney himself testified on the witness stand that “there is a bad feeling existing between [his] family and the prisoner’s; [and] the dummy is always fondly attached to [McSweeney’s] family; he would always do whatever they desired.” O’Riordan felt that not only was this bias a reason why McSweeney should never have interpreted, but that Sullivan should have a family member there instead to interpret, as “[t]hey must have known him longer and more intimately than anyone else, and must be supposed to be better able to communicate his meaning to the jury than Mr McSweeney”. The amount of custodial and law enforcement personnel who offered their ‘skills’ as interpreters, especially in the lower courts, is noteworthy during this time. This may have brought a number of quite obvious challenges to the court interpreting scenario. The example pictured shows outright hostility to the RIC constable who offers to sign for the defendant, John McCabe. McCabe was in fact a chronic alcoholic, and by 1924 he had been convicted at least 110 times for drunkenness and other offences. Here, we see him react violently and uncooperatively to the constable’s attempts to interpret; the policeman “received a smart smack on the hands from the dummy who drew a finger across his throat, and winked at his Worship, much to the amusement of the latter”. Then as now, interpreters can be called to give evidence as witnesses in trials. The same was true for this period, and as many cases’ outcomes revolved around intelligence and capacity, interpreters were often asked to testify as to the intelligence of the Deaf individuals they had been interpreting for. In this case, the Deaf plaintiff was Agnes Geraghty – a Deaf teacher in St Mary’s Deaf school in Cabra. Her own interpreter, Fr Joseph Cussen was asked to testify as to her intelligence, which he rated as ‘not of a high order’. It was also the case however that such evidence may have had the effect of creating a paternalistic sympathy for the Deaf plaintiff, and may have been given for that purpose. Interpreters at Petty Sessions or Police Court level seemed to be arranged in a chaotic, ad hoc manner, and the personal character of many interpreters was often far less above reproach than we hope for in today’s interpreters. At one Petty Sessions in New Ross in 1891, “when the chairman asked ‘Where’s the [usual] interpreter?’ ‘He’s in jail, sir,’ replied a voice in court; and so he [was], for the … interpreter [had] got ‘six months’ hard’ [labour] not long since for beating a woman in Barrack-lane.” In certain cases, Deaf defendants had been arrested at the same time as the interpreter, for the same crime; in one case, also in New Ross in 1888, Patrick Byrne had actually been charged with assaulting Martin Neill – who was Byrne’s interpreter for the hearing. Byrne received a sentence of two month’s imprisonment with hard labour, and “as he was leaving several times endeavoured to “go for” [the interpreter], but was held back by police.” Neill himself had interpreted for this Prisoner, Patrick Byrne on and off for twenty five years, came from the same poor area of the town as him, and was often in and out of court for petty offences. Neill was found dead at his home that same year, dead of alcohol poisoning after trying to drink an entire pint of whiskey. A remarkable character, then, but a role model for the ages, somewhat less so. We also find examples where more than two languages are used in the courtroom – necessitating two or more interpreters. The Irish language also makes an appearance alongside sign languages; at a rape trial during the Roscommon Assizes in 1834, Bridget Egan’s mother was sworn to interpret her deaf daughter’s testimony, but another Irish language interpreter was also required, as she was unable to speak English. The interpreting chain seemed not to work well for Bridget, and the prisoner was acquitted. A more successful interpreter chain can be seen here, along with antecedents of Deaf / hearing professional interpreter teams. In 1884, Margaret Gilliland gave her evidence in the form of ‘signs’, which were interpreted into the ‘dumb / finger alphabet’ by Deaf Church of Ireland missioner Maurice Hewson. Hewson’s brother Thomas, a barrister, then relayed this into speech for the court, and vice versa. And at the end of the trial, Gilliland’s assailant was convicted. That’s all for my presentation. I hope you’ve found it useful. I’d like to thank Prof Lorraine Leeson for the opportunity to speak here today, and thank also my colleagues and collaborators Teresa Lynch, Anne Leahy and Alvean Jones as well as my supervisors John Bosco Conama and Patrick Geoghegan.





  • Full date unknown


  1. ^ Bryson, Bill. A Short History... p. 372. ISBN 0-385-40818-8.
  2. ^ O'Donovan Rossa Bridge at Structurae
  3. ^ "History". The Parish Church of St George, Belfast. Retrieved 2012-08-01.
  4. ^ Dooley, Terence (2007). The Murders at Wildgoose Lodge. Four Courts Press. ISBN 978-1-84682-085-4.
This page was last edited on 8 April 2019, at 18:52
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