seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of Basil Kelly, Northern Irish Barrister, Judge & Politician

Sir John William Basil Kelly, Northern Irish barrister, judge and politician, is born in County Monaghan on May 10, 1920. He rises from poverty to become the last Attorney General of Northern Ireland and then one of the province’s most respected High Court judges. For 22 years he successfully conducts many of the most serious terrorist trials.

A farmer’s son, Kelly is raised amid the horror of the Irish Civil War. The family is burned out when he is five and, penniless, goes north to take a worker’s house near the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast. Even though they are Protestant the Kellys are met with a cold welcome. To counter that, his mother starts a bakery while the he and his father sell the hot rolls to the area pubs.

Kelly initially attends a shipyard workers’ school, sometimes without shoes, and then goes on to Methodist College Belfast, where only boys prepared to work hard are welcome. His mother, who had taught him to play the piano by marking out the keyboard on the kitchen table, is so cross when she hears that he has been playing football in the street that she tells the headmaster that he does not have enough homework.

On a visit to an elder sister at Trinity College, Dublin, Kelly is so impressed by her smoking and her painted nails that he decides to follow her to the university, where he reads legal science. After being called to the Bar of Northern Ireland in 1944, he has the usual slow start, traveling up to 100 miles to earn a five-guinea fee. However, aided by a photographic memory and the patronage of Catholic solicitors, he gradually builds up a large practice, concentrating on crime and workers’ compensation while earning a reputation as the finest cross-examiner in the province.

Kelly first makes a mark by his successful defence of an aircraftman accused of killing a judge’s daughter. The man is found guilty but insane, though the complications involved bring it back to court 20 years later. After appointment as Queen’s Counsel in 1958 he skillfully conducts two cases which go to the House of Lords. One involves the liability of a drunken psychopath, the other the question of automatism where a person, acting like a sleepwalker, does not know what he is doing.

In the hope of speeding his way to the Bench, Kelly is elected to the House of Commons of Northern Ireland as Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) member for Mid Down in 1964. His capacity for hard work leads to his being appointed Attorney General four years later.

In March 1972, the entire Government of Northern Ireland resigns and the Parliament of Northern Ireland is prorogued. As a result, Kelly ceases to be Attorney General. The office of Attorney General for Northern Ireland is transferred to the Attorney General for England and Wales and he is the last person to serve as Stormont’s Attorney General.

In 1973, Kelly is appointed as a judge of the High Court of Northern Ireland, and then as a Lord Justice of Appeal of Northern Ireland in 1984, when he is also knighted and appointed to the Privy Council of the United Kingdom. On the bench he proves a model of fairness and courtesy with a mastery of facts, but his role often puts him in danger.

A Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) gang once targets him with a bomb-laden milk van, intending to drive it through his gates. But the police are alerted and immediately take him to Stormont, where he lives for the next two months.

For a year Kelly presides alone over a non-jury Diplock court, protected by armed police and wearing a bulletproof vest before writing his judgment under Special Air Service (SAS) guard in England. He convicts dozens of people on “supergrass” evidence, though there are subsequently doubts about the informant and some of his judgments are overturned.

One of the accused, Kevin Mulgrew, is sentenced to 963 years in prison, with Kelly telling him, “I do not expect that any words of mine will ever raise in you a twinge of remorse.” While the IRA grumbles about the jail terms he dispenses, and he is often portrayed as an unthinking legal hardliner by Sinn Féin, he is a more subtle figure and is often merciful towards those caught up in events or those whom he considers too young for prison.

Kelly retires in 1995 and moves to England, where he dies at the age of 88 at his home in Berkshire on December 5, 2008 following a short illness. He is survived by his wife, Pamela Colmer.

(From: “Basil Kelly,” Independent.ie (www.independent.ie), January 4, 2009)


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The Clerkenwell Explosion

The Clerkenwell explosion, also known as the Clerkenwell Outrage, is a bombing that takes place in London on December 13, 1867. The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), nicknamed the “Fenians“, explode a bomb to try to free one of their members being held on remand at Clerkenwell Prison. The explosion damages nearby houses, kills 12 people and causes 120 injuries. None of the prisoners escape.

The whole of Ireland has been under British rule since the end of the Nine Years’ War in 1603. The Irish Republican Brotherhood is founded on March 17, 1858 with the aim of establishing an independent democratic republic in Ireland, and the Fenian Brotherhood, ostensibly the American wing of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, is founded in New York City in 1859.

On November 20, 1867, Ricard O’Sullivan Burke and his companion Joseph Casey are arrested in Woburn Square in London. Burke had purchased weapons for the Fenians in Birmingham. Burke is charged with treason and Casey with assaulting a constable. They are remanded in custody pending trial, and imprisoned at the Middlesex House of Detention, also known as Clerkenwell Prison.

Burke’s IRB colleagues try to free him on Thursday, December 12, without success. They try to blow a hole in the prison wall while the prisoners are exercising in the prison yard but their bomb fails to explode. They try again at about 3:45 PM the following day, December 13, using a barrel of gunpowder concealed on a costermonger‘s barrow. The explosion demolishes a 60-foot section of the wall, but no one escapes. The prison authorities had been forewarned and the prisoners were exercised earlier in the day, so they are locked in their cells when the bomb explodes. The blast also damages several nearby tenement houses on Corporation Lane on the opposite side of the road, killing 12 people and causing many injuries, with estimates ranging from around 30 to over 120.

Charges are laid against eight, but two turn Queen’s evidence. Michael Barrett and five others are tried at the Old Bailey in April 1868. Lord Chief Justice Sir Alexander Cockburn and Baron George Bramwell preside with a jury. The prosecution is led by the Attorney General Sir John Karslake and the Solicitor General Sir William Baliol Brett supported by Hardinge Giffard QC and two junior counsel. Defence barristers included Montagu Williams and Edward Clarke.

Barrett, a native of County Fermanagh, protests his innocence, and some witnesses testify that he was in Scotland on December 13, but another identifies him as being present at the scene. Two defendants are acquitted on the instructions of the presiding judges in the course of the trial, leaving four before the jury. Following deliberations, three of the defendants are acquitted, but Barrett is convicted of murder on April 27 and sentenced to death. Barrett is hanged by William Calcraft on the morning of Tuesday, May 26, 1868 outside Newgate Prison. He is the last man to be publicly hanged in England, with the practice being ended from May 29, 1868 by the Capital Punishment Amendment Act 1868.

The trial of Burke and Casey, and a third defendant, Henry Shaw, begains on April 28, all charged with treason. The prosecution claims that Burke had been involved in finding arms for the Fenians in Birmingham in late 1865 and early 1866, where he was using the name “Edward C Winslow.” The case against Casey is ultimately withdrawn, but Burke and Shaw are found guilty of treason on April 30 and sentenced to 15 years and 7 years of penal servitude respectively.

The bombing enrages the British public, souring relations between England and Ireland and causing a panic over the Fenian threat. The radical, Charles Bradlaugh, condemns the incident in his newspaper, the National Reformer, as an act “calculated to destroy all sympathy, and to evoke the opposition of all classes.” The Metropolitan Police form a Special Irish Branch at Scotland Yard in March 1883, initially as a small section of the Criminal Investigation Department, to monitor Fenian activity.

In April 1867, the supreme council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood condemns the Clerkenwell Outrage as a “dreadful and deplorable event,” but the organisation returns to bombings in Britain in 1881 to 1885, with the Fenian dynamite campaign.

(Pictured: The House of Detention in Clerkenwell after the bombing as seen from within the prison yard)