The solicitor Louis Courtney.

TIMES PAST: The coachman who made an ass of himself

Jonathan Smyth's latest Times Past column recalls a traffic obstruction on a Market Day in Cavan and the argument it caused between a solicitor and the local R.M. in 1903...

There is nothing more annoying than when a car or lorry is left double parked on the street and all the traffic is backed down to the end of the townand. What’s even more irritating is the owner who leaves such a vehicle unattended. Anyone can be guilty of blocking the road at some stage and it always seems to be a greater annoyance when we are running late.

It was no different a hundred years ago, like when the traffic in Cavan Town could not get up Main Street because of someone’s horse and cart in 1903. The owner caused the obstruction when he needed a bit of shopping but on Market Day it is never a good idea to abandon your transport in the middle of the road. That someone was Robert Woods of Cullies, a coachman in the employ of Bishop McGennis. Bishop Edward McGennis was born in Tullyvin and an excellent account of his life by Monsignor Liam Kelly can be read in the 2022 volume of the Breifne Journal.

But, when the law gets broken, it doesn’t matter if you are the local Lord of the manor’s butler, or an ordinary five to eight, it is the rules that will govern your fate when the mark gets overstepped as happened the hapless coachman who, for his troubles, received a summons from Constable Grimshaw to appear at the petty sessions in Cavan on the Monday of the last week of April 1903.

From the courtroom a drama of another sort unfolded between the Resident Magistrate and a local solicitor who began a bickering match over the traffic nuisance that was Robert Woods, who happened to be the bishop’s coachman. Neither of these upholders of the law seemed to have any great liking for one another. Rudeness in human nature is not a new thing.

G.D. Mercer, the Resident Magistrate, or R.M., for short, chaired the petty sessions and Louis C.P. Smith, solicitor, defended Robert Woods. Mercer and Smith were not exactly friends in the courtroom; however, Smith was a clever solicitor and did not accept any guff from the latter. The court proceedings were reported by both the Cavan Weekly News and The Anglo-Celt. The Cavan Weekly News chose to reveal the name of Wood’s employer during the petty session that became a petty squabble.

The incident occurred outside Finlay’s shop on Tuesday, April 21, 1903. Robert Woods pulled up in his horse drawn car and let down the sides of the wagon before going into Finlay’s to pick up goods. Constable Grimshaw approached Woods to tell him to move on up the street and allow the backlog of carts to keep moving. But the coachman said no, and told Grimshaw he would not budge for him, nor would he move for the Dis trict Inspector and proceeded into the shop. The R.M. then asked Grimshaw, “had he the car across the footpath?” He replied that the car was not on the footpath but was stuck in the middle of the road.

Louis Smith cross-examined the policeman, asking, “how long was the block on?” To which the reply was, a couple of minutes only. And how long have you been a constable in this town? enquired the solicitor. “Seven years” came the reply. Smith wondered if the hotel buses caused any issues on a Market Day when they pulled up at the hotels along Main Street. Grimshaw replied that they did not, since buses parked in the hotel yards on those days and he pointed out that there were a lot of hay carts on the street that Market Day.

The solicitor asked if the Convent across the street was not the place where “hay should stand”? It was the correct place, but the carts on the street were heading for the weighbridge, said Grimshaw.

Woods, having loaded the car, put up the sides and then walked away again, but the policeman did not know where he went when questioned by Smith. G.D. Mercer R.M. then ruled Louis Smith “out of order” for his line of questioning. The solicitpr’s retort was terse, “You can’t rule me out of order. I object to this system. I am here conducting the case for the defence, and I will conduct it.”

The R.M. said, “you asked him where the man went and he says he doesn’t know.” To which Smith responded, “you can’t dictate to the whole Bench.”

T.J. Smith interjected to say that the policeman did at first say that the coachman went off somewhere. But the R.M. pondered over the purpose of asking the same question over and over. Louis Smith had no time for foolishness and turned against Mercer, telling him, “I won’t be jerrymandered by you. The constable says he went away. I say he went into Finlay’s shop for goods.”

The angry R.M. then said back, “you must conduct yourself.” To which the solicitor replied: “And you must conduct yourself as chairman.” The R.M. came short of not hearing the case.

Woods himself was sworn in and “deposed” that he went to Finlay’s to order goods and then went over to the butchers and on leaving that premises, he headed back in to Finlay’s to collect the goods. The chairman asked if Woods could be considered competent in the evidence he gave.

The manager of Finlay’s shop, Michael Smith, was sworn in. He said that Finlay had put in an order and went away, but returned a short time later, when he had “the goods ready for him on the counter”… Woods “took some of the goods and packed them on the car, and then came back for the rest of them.”

The Head Constable uttered that the coachman need not have been summoned if he had not been so cheeky, after all, “he gave impertinence to the constable.”

The R.M., showing mercy, dismissed the case and added that if the man had done what he was told, there would been no need to have so much “unnecessary talk”; but what he likely meant was unnecessary argument. Louis Smith having calmed down, informed Mercer, “there were two of us in it.”

The coachman had made an ass of himself, and I imagine that the good bishop was none too pleased as he read the report; possibly, over breakfast. He might very well have thought to himself - you can dress them up, but you can’t let them out.


The lawyer, the whip lady, and a courtroom brawl