Michael Comyn

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Michael Comyn KC (6 June 1871 – 6 October 1952) was a member of the British Civil Service, barrister, King's Counsel, politician, vice-chairman of the Irish Senate (appointed by de Valera while in opposition in 1928), judge, geologist, discoverer and operator of phosphate mines in Co. Clare, engaged in gold mining interests with Ben Briscoe in Avoca, Co. Wicklow, and finally "litigant in one of the longest cases ever heard in the Irish courts". As a lawyer-turned litigant, he recounted that "it was his last case, and he won it: a far cry from his first case as a young barrister...it was a bad case and I did it badly".[1]

Michael Comyn was born at Clareville, Ballyvaughan, County Clare, in 1871, the eldest son and the second of seven children of James Comyn of Kilshanny, a tenant farmer and secretary of the local branch of the Land League. His mother was Ellenora, daughter of Thomas Quin, of Fanta Glebe, Kilfenora, Co. Clare. In 1879, the Comyn family were evicted from their home by Lord Clanricarde's agent and the family moved to Gortnaboul in Kilshanny parish, Co Clare. Michael Comyn attended the local school and was taught by Vere Ryan, father of the republican Frank Ryan. Later he attended Hugh Brady's school in Ruan, Co. Clare. This school had a reputation for tutoring its students successfully for civil service examinations. Michael boarded with his aunt (married to Casey) in Ruan during the week.[2]

At the age of 19, Michael Comyn sat for an examination to be an excise officer; 2,500 people entered and 50 were selected. He was assigned to Powers' Distillery, Dublin (John's Lane Distillery (John Power & Sons) - Dublin 1791 - 1974) for a six-week introduction course. He was assigned to Lancaster, where he both worked in excise and attended Preston College. He returned to Dublin to University College Dublin where he studied law. He attended King's Inns while continuing to work during the day. Despite being transferred to Burton Salmon, Yorkshire, in his last year at the King's Inns which meant he was not able attend the required lectures, he persisted. He was one lecture short at the time of the final examination. Eager to proceed he put himself forward for the Victoria Prize, he won the Victoria Prize which enabled to complete his studies. Michael Comyn was called to the Irish bar in 1898 taking the Victoria Prize and joined the Munster Circuit in 1900. He built up a highly successful[clarification needed] practice and he took silk in June 1914.[2]

"A barrister at last, but a civil servant still. With no legal back ground, no solicitor acquaintances and no influential friends, the bar looked a particularly hazardous profession". He decided to join the Munster circuit and presented himself at quarter sessions in his home county Clare.[3]

Comyn would have met[clarification needed] people like Fenian John O'Leary. Comyn was active in advanced nationalist politics. He would have known[clarification needed] Patrick Pearse, Thomas Clarke, Eamon de Valera, Erskine Childers, Michael Collins, Kathleen O'Connell (secretary to Eamon de Valera), Elgin O'Rahilly, Kathleen Clarke (nee Daly) and many others. During the 1916 Easter Rising he was in Kansas City, USA, with Arthur Griffith, Founder of Sinn Fein in 1905. When he returned from the USA he became involved in the defense of Republican prisoners and was introduced to the Military Courts regime. He would argue several cases before the British House of Lords in his time.[2]

Re. Clifford and O'Sullivan 1921 is the case that is most significant. The case represented two of the 42 men under sentence of death from a military tribunal for possession of arms. It was a solicitor named James G. Skinner from Mitchelstown, Co. Cork, who approached Michael Comyn and his brother James with the words "Do anything but do something"..."Invent something if necessary". It is written[by whom?] that it was Michael Comyn who decided to apply for Prohibition (an old and seldom used remedy) which would be new to the authorities. Re Clifford and O'Sullivan proceeded forward to the House of Lords.[4]

Initially, the application was made to the Chancery Division in Ireland. In 1920, two proclamations were announced, one by Viscount French, the Lord Lieutenant, putting certain areas including Co. Cork under martial law and the second by the British Commander-in-Chief in Ireland (Sir Nevil Mccready) requiring all civilians who did not hold a permit to surrender all arms, ammunition and explosives by December 27 of that year. Failure to comply meant that any unauthorized person found in possession of arms, ammunition or explosives, would become liable to trial by Military Court and on conviction the sentence was death. General Sir E.P. Strickland was appointed by the Commander-in-Chief Macready to be military governor of the martial law area. It was his duty to establish and organize the Military Courts. In April 1921, 42 individuals, including Clifford and O'Sullivan, were arrested near Mitchelstown, Co. Cork. On May 3, 1921, 42 civilians were tried by a military court on a charge of being in possession of arms and ammunition. They were sentenced to death "subject to confirmation".[3]

Ten days later, May 10, 1921, Mr. Justice Powell sought a Writ of Prohibition against Sir Nevil Macready and General Strickland to prohibit them "(1) from further proceeding the trial of applicants, (2) from pronouncing or confirming any judgment upon them, (3) from carrying any judgment upon them into execution and (4) from otherwise interfering with them. The Prohibition sought was that the Military Court was in fact illegal and therefore had no jurisdiction to try the applicants or to adjudicate in any matter related to them. Mr. Justice Powell listened to this unusual application in his division but "felt constrained to dismiss it". In the appeal to the Court of Appeal - the Crown's case was that the Preliminary objection that Mr. Justice Powell's order was "made in a criminal cause or matter within s.50 of the Supreme Court of Judicature Act, 1877, therefore no appeal lay. "This contention succeeded with O'Connor, M.R., and Lord Justices Ronan and O'Connel, and the appeal was duly dismissed". June 16, 1921 (just six weeks after the verdict of the Military Court) the case appeared before the House of Lords in London for hearing on the Preliminary objection. Sir John Simon, K.C., led Michael Comyn K.C., James Comyn S.C., their colleague, Joe McCarthy (later appointed a Judge) and Richard O'Sullivan of the English court appeared before the House.[3]

The House of Lords heard the argument but then decided to adjourn the preliminary objection hearing until the hearing of the case on its merits. This hearing over five days took place in July. Delay and elaborate review of the law throughout history, taking account of other wars, civil wars and revolutions was a tactic specifically used. A most detailed review of the conditions in which prisoners were held in custody was cited. A red herring by Comyn drew mention to a link to Comyns' Digest of the 18th century and where to place the apostrophe. 28th, July 1921 (only 10 weeks from the original trial by Military Court), Their Lordships, 4 from Scotland and Lord Atkinson from Ireland, gave judgment, which was most unsatisfactory. James Comyn, QC, (nephew of Michael Comyn KC and son of James Comyn SC) writes "On the strongly argued Preliminary objection that no appeal lay from Mr. Justice Powell or to them, they ruled against and against the unanimous judgment of the Court of Appeal....They went on to hold that Prohibition was inappropriate because first, the Military Court was not a judicial tribunal and secondly, the officers constituting it were functi officio. They refrained from saying too much about the merits of the case because the use of habeas corpus 'might be attempted'".[5]

James Comyn QC cites the Clifford and O'Sullivan[2] case as a leading authority in the field of constitutional law. The lives of 42 men were at stake. Timing proved essential. Michael Comyn K.C. revealed later that King George V became aware of the details about the 42 men facing the death penalty. He was reported to be shocked and personally "interfered" to ensure that the sentences of death were not carried out. Not one of the 42 men were executed. Shortly after the Treaty, these men received their freedom.[5]

"In Michael Comyn's view the case had been brought to an end through the intervention of King George V, who, he said, secured a promise from the prime minister that no executions would take place and that Peace would be made". It also notes that no republican prisoner whose case Comyn took up during the "troubles" suffered the death penalty. Other notable cases included his appeal to the House of Lords on behalf of the suffragette Georgina Frost.[2]

After the truce in 1921 it is stated that Michael Comyn K.C. met with Arthur Griffith and Austin Stack in London. He is said to have revealed "intelligence" from a highly placed British source that Lloyd George (Prime Minister) "would negotiate on lines that would satisfy Smuts and would go to the country rather than to war if those negotiations failed".[2]

During the Irish War of Independence, Michael Comyn K.C. was involved in the defense of Irish Republican prisoners at the High Court and before the Military Courts. He also defended Republican prisoners during the Irish Civil War. He also took part in some significant inquests notably the two that arose with the deaths of Cathal Brugha and Harry Boland with the intention to disrupt them on behalf of the IRA.[6] Erskine Childers: when the Treaty was being negotiated in London was one of the principal secretaries to the Irish mission. The split between the pro- and the anti-treaty factions resulted in the former becoming the government and the latter under (de Valera) engaged in the hostilities.

Civil War: sentence of death penalty and Erskine Childers[edit]

In the Civil War in Cork in 1922, Erskine Childers operated the printing press turning out anti-Treaty propaganda. In October 1922, de Valera made Childers secretary of de Valera's shadow "government" so he returned to Dublin. He returned with his typewriter and a small Colt automatic revolver (given to him by Michael Collins). While staying with his cousin Robert Barton (one of the signatories of the treaty) in Wicklow, he was captured by the forces of the Free State Government. His capture made headlines and it is reported that it was noted with satisfaction by Winston Churchill who said he was a "mischief making renegade" and added "Such as he is may all who hate us be". The charge against him was the "illegal possession of arms - the Colt revolver". Erskine Childers was due to stand trial before a Military Court November 17, 1922. He was imprisoned in Portobello Barracks and being a long-time friend of Michael Comyn KC, he asked Michael to defend him. He had often hidden in Michael's home in Leeson Park. As quoted in James Comyn's book, Michael Comyn talks about visiting Erskine Childers at the place of his imprisonment:

"Childers in his cell was perfectly calm, drinking tea from a mug. I knew how much he loved tea so I asked for a mug of tea for myself which I then gave it to Childers. "You know, Comyn," he said, "there is no defense in fact. I had a gun". "That may be", I replied, "but you are too famous a figure to be condemned without due form and solemnity". It was my rule in those awful times and awful circumstances never to betray any softness or sympathy: it would have been unkind. He had some messages for Mrs. Childers which I brought to her. She also was calm and told me that they had considered and discussed the probable course of events and that they were prepared. At his trial, which was in camera, Childers was, as we all anticipated, convicted. Then with Paddy Lynch (later Attorney-General) we went to the High Court, presided over by the Master of the Rolls, Sir Charles O'Connor, and we conducted a spirited fight based purely on technical grounds. It failed and we appealed. Before the appeal was heard - the terrible news came - in an announcement from London - that Childers had been shot at dawn on November 24 at Beggar's Bush Barracks. It appears that measures to rescue him were known to the Free State authorities and thus forestalled. It was a complete negation of justice, the worst I have ever known, to execute a man whose case for life or death was actually under argument and awaiting judgment"[7]

The Judges of the Court of Appea echoed this when the case was held a few days later.

Michael Comyn had provided shelter for Erskine Childers while he was on the run, he regarded himself a friend of Erskine Childers. It had a profound impact on Michael Comyn when Erskine Childers was executed while the case was on appeal. He said "It was a complete negation of justice, the worst I have ever known, to execute a man whose case for life or death was actually under argument and awaiting judgment".[7]

Michael Comyn KC knew Michael Collins but Comyn decided to take the anti-treaty side during the Civil War. After the Civil War, he became principal legal adviser to Eamon de Valera and Fianna Fail, advising on the formation of the party and the founding of the Irish Press newspaper. It is said that on the advice of Gavan Duffy and Michael Comyn to the Irish Free State that they could withhold payment of the land annuities to Britain.

In 1924, Michael Comyn married Marcella Margaret, younger daughter of Blake-Forster, the O'Donnellan, of Ballykeal House, Kilfenora, Co. Clare. Two daughters of the marriage are Marcella and Eleanor Rose now in their eighties.[2]

In 1926 he became a founder member of Fianna Fáil and in 1928 he was elected as one of six Fianna Fáil Senators to the Free State Seanad under the leadership of Joseph Connolly for three years.[8] He served as senator between 1928 and 1936 and was vice-chairman of the house (1934–36). "He was a keen debater, he was a hard-working and able legislator, if unforgiving of political opponents. On de Valera's accession to power, he expected to be made attorney general but was passed over in favour of Conor Maguire.[2] [2] Attributed to Michael Comyn K.C. without detail (any further information would be much appreciated: "In 1932, Michael Comyn K.C. took a successful action against de Valera's government in the recover of £20,000 of IRA funds".

In 1931 he was re-elected for nine years.[9] After the 1934 Seanad election, there was a contest on 12 December 1934 to decide who would be elected Cathaoirleach. Senator MacKean was absent for the vote but all other members were present. General Sir William Bernard Hickie chaired the election. The two candidates were the outgoing Cathaoirleach, Thomas Westropp Bennett, and the Fianna Fáil candidate, Comyn. Neither of the two candidates voted and so fifty-six Senators voted in the election, which resulted in a tie of twenty-eight votes each. Westropp Bennett received the votes of all twenty-one members of Fine Gael and seven Independents. Comyn received the votes of his eighteen Fianna Fáil colleagues, all the votes of the seven Labour Party Senators and the votes of three Independents: Sir Edward Bellingham, 5th Baronet, Thomas Linehan and Laurence O'Neill. Hickie then gave his casting vote for Westropp Bennett saying he would have done so had he had the opportunity in the division. The following week, however, Comyn defeated the outgoing Leas-Chathaoirleach, Michael F. O'Hanlon of Fine Gael, by twenty-six votes to twenty-five.[10]

"In 1932 he took a successful action against de Valera's government for the recovery of £20,000 of IRA fund".[2]

On 24 February 1936, he resigned his seat in the Seanad as he had been appointed a judge on the Eastern Circuit Court.[11] He died in 1952 aged seventy-five years.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Comyn, James (1973). "IV". Their Friends at Court (First ed.). London: Barry Rose Publishers. p. 11. ISBN 0 90050056 5. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Pauric Dempsey (2009). Dictionary of Irish Biography, under auspices of the Royal Irish Academy II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 723. ISBN 978-0-521-19974-2. 
  3. ^ a b c Comyn, James (1973). Their Friends at Court. Chichester and London: Barry Rose publishers. pp. 51, 52. ISBN 0 90050056 5. 
  4. ^ Comyn, James (1973). Their Friends at Court. London: Barry Rose Publishers. p. 51. ISBN 0 90050056 5. 
  5. ^ a b Comyn, James (1973). Their Friends at Court. Dublin: Barry Rose Publisher. p. 53. ISBN 0 90050056 5. 
  6. ^ Fitzpatrick, David (2003), Harry Boland's Irish Revolution. Cork, Cork University Press. pp. 4–5
  7. ^ a b Comyn, James (1973). Their Friends at Court. London: Barry Rose Publishers. pp. 75, 76. ISBN 0 90050056 5. 
  8. ^ O'Sullivan, Donal (1940), The Irish Free State and Its Senate. London, Faber and Faber. p.241
  9. ^ O'Sullivan, p. 278
  10. ^ O'Sullivan, Donal, p. 448.
  11. ^ "Mr. Michael Comyn". Oireachtas Members Database. Retrieved 21 August 2012.