A day in the life of an island courthouse

District Court on largest of the Aran Islands is the only offshore sitting in Ireland

The judge’s bench in the Interior of Kilronan District Court held in Halla Ronain on the largest of the Aran Islands, Inis Mór. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The

The judge’s bench in the Interior of Kilronan District Court held in Halla Ronain on the largest of the Aran Islands, Inis Mór. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The

 

The buses pull up at Ros an Mhíl, disgorging a stream of giddy German tourists onto the pier. Some French schoolchildren join the queue, taking pictures of themselves against the blues and greens of a bright Connemara morning. Then, a more incongruous sight: six smartly-dressed men and women arrive, files in hand and wheelie-briefcases in tow, and take their place in the queue. The tourists glance their way; the ferry crew do a double-take.

It’s court day on Inis Mór. But first the court has to get there.

The District Court on the largest of the Aran Islands is the only offshore sitting in Ireland. It takes place four times a year, weather permitting. But for much of the past year, the future of the court has been in doubt, the threat of closure looming over it as the Courts Service considered cutting back on rural courthouses. Recently, to the delight of many in the community, it won a reprieve.

Opening the sitting, Judge Mary Fahy – who has presided here since 2004 – tells the court how pleased she is to be back. “Tá an-áthas orainn go bhfuil muid anseo inniú agus go mbeidh muid anseo arís,” she says, to murmurs of approval from the plastic chairs in the community hall that doubles as the courthouse.

On the sailing, solicitors who have been coming to the court in Cill Rónáin village for years fall into reminiscing. There was the time the garda from Inis Mór went to Inis Oírr disguised as a tourist, pitched his tent for the night and raided the pub for after-hours drinking. “Remember the man who would go up the electricity poles and wouldn’t come down,” says one solicitor. “Some protest or other.”

On the island, solicitors, judge and gardaí mix easily. They greet each other as friends and eat lunch together after court. The unspoken rule: no shop talk. The judicial entourage consists simply of the court clerk, Róisín Ní Neachtain, who has packed the court documents and the bible.

Can there be a more beautifully situated court in Ireland than Cill Rónáin District Court? It sits in a small meeting room in Halla Rónáin, overlooking the harbour. When the judge has put on her robes, she and her clerk sit on blue wooden chairs, behind them a huge window giving a magnificent view of the boats bobbing in the water. The witness box is a wooden armchair by the stone fireplace, making it look like people are giving evidence in their living room. The only intrusions on the stillness are the put-put of a small plane and the local man who stops to take a look in through the window.

Twenty-three cases are listed, including nine brought by the rate collector. A middle-aged Inis Meáin resident is due in court over an assault that followed an unspecified aighneas, or dispute, his solicitor Seán Ó Cearbhaill explains. He hasn’t turned up for court, because he had to be brought by lifeboat to the mainland earlier this week to undergo emergency surgery. In Irish – the court is bilingual, and most islanders tend to ask to speak in Irish – Ó Cearbhaill says he has a doctor’s letter to certify that his client has been off the drink for a year. Gardaí agree, and the judge brings the matter to a close.

The sitting gives glimpses into life on the islands. Asked why he didn’t deliver a summons to the house of an islander, Garda Brian O’Donnell explains that he met the man in question on the boat and told him to drop into the station to collect the document – prompting a ticking-off from the judge about “this long tradition” of not visiting homes to serve summonses. “It’s a different type of policing,” says Insp Kevin Gately later. “You have to take account of the fact that you live and work amongst the people. It’s all about striking a balance.”

In January last year, a local man made history when he became the first recipient of a road traffic violation ticket on Inis Mór. But, lately, a standoff has developed between local bus drivers and the council, which wants to stop them parking on the pier. So one of the cases that most interested locals was that against local bus driver Bertie Mullin, who was served with six separate summonses in a week by community warden Máirtín Ó Mainín for parking on the pier. The case was struck out, to the great delight of the bus drivers who gathered to celebrate afterwards.

It takes just 90 minutes to clear the list. Someone blows out the scented candle over the fireplace, and within minutes the old hall has fallen silent. “Will you close up after you lads,” says the last garda out the door. They’ll do it all again in September.

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