Nell McCafferty: ‘that wee Bogsider who hangs out with burglars’
For eight years, journalist wrote her column In the Eyes of the Law for this newspaper
Nell McCafferty outside the Criminal Courts of Justice on Parkgate Street, Dublin: she concedes conditions are better but believes the building is far from ideal. “The thing that stood out for me, I cannot hear anything. You could hear everything in old Bridewell.” Photograph: Court Collins.
She is known as a social campaigner, a playwright and an outspoken feminist but Nell McCafferty first made her name as a District Court reporter for The Irish Times or, as she puts it, “as that wee Bogsider who hangs out with burglars”.
From 1969 to 1977, McCafferty wrote her column In the Eyes of the Law from the Bridewell courts, across the road from the more upmarket Four Courts.
“It was an old Victorian building, dilapidated. So dilapidated that when I went to use the public toilets in the courtyard, with my delicate sensibilities, my stomach was heaving.”
She decided to write her column that day about the toilets. “I remember thinking ‘this is really rubbing their noses in it’. And I started off the column with ‘The walls are covered in shite’.”
These weren’t ordinary court reports. Part social commentary, part colour writing, the most striking thing about the articles was that they never identified the defendants.
McCafferty traces the reason for this back to growing up in the Bogside in Derry. A story appeared in the Belfast Telegraph about a woman on her street who had been convicted of stealing tins of John West salmon.
“We waited; we knew what would happen. The husband comes home and we hear the thumps and we hear the squeals,” she says. “My own mother, who was the street referee anyway, she went over and firmly pushed open the door and fetched the wife out and brought her bleeding and bruised across to our house where the two of them sat in the kitchen all night long. And I thought, that’s what happens when your name goes in the paper.”
Despite her policy, defendants frequently approached McCafferty begging her not to put their names in the paper. “They’d hand me a fiver,” she recalls, “and I’d say ‘look mister, I don’t do that’. So they’d give me a tenner. After a while I started bringing in my own columns and handing them copies, saying ‘look.’ But they were terrified even then.”
Listen: Nell McCafferty recalls her District Court column
Instead of vilifying the defendants, McCafferty’s column focused on the District Court judges, who became well-known characters in her missives.
“Every time they opened their mouths they put their foot in it. And unfortunately for the judges, they thought they were becoming famous, so they couldn’t wait to pronounce more,” she says. “There were people with their eyes wide open, who couldn’t believe the things the judges were saying.”
As an example, McCafferty says gardaí one day brought in five Hare Krishnas charged with disturbing the peace for playing drums and praying in the street. The judge berated them for their “ridiculous clothes” and said they were lucky they weren’t attacked by a crowd. “Any decent Irishman would object to this carry-on,” he added.
McCafferty wrote about it and shortly afterwards, Garret FitzGerald, who was a government minister at the time, contacted her, saying he had brought the matter up with the taoiseach.
“The Hare Krishnas were never brought in again. I think that was because of Garret FitzGerald or else the judges just wised up.”
McCafferty also witnessed the early legal careers of some of today’s leading judges. Garrett Sheehan, Adrian Hardiman and Pat McCartan all cut their teeth under her tutelage, as she puts it, doing pro bono defence work in the Bridewell.
“They were arguing points of law and getting on the judge’s nerves. This had never happened before in the District Court; holding the judges to account.”
As well as a reporter, McCafferty often acted as a sort of legal adviser. Back then, she says, the difference between going to jail and going home often depended on what judge you got or what time of year it was.
“A judge would say coming up to Christmas, ‘I’m warning you, anybody who comes in here for shoplifting I’m sending them straight to jail’,” she says. “I was advising them myself. I found myself saying ‘you’d be better off going with that judge or that judge.”
However, jail was often welcomed by some defendants. “The alcoholics, particularly the female ones, were pleased to get a night in off the street, a dry bed, a meal, particularly in winter.”
McCafferty has an endless supply of stories from those days, some funny, many tragic, but one that stands out.
Two men had been arrested after being caught in a public toilet together. Various reasons were given in mitigation for the offence: drink, depression, sexual immaturity. McCafferty recalls that the younger man’s psychiatrist, who had been brought in to help by a priest, gave evidence that he could be treated with therapy.
Her article from the time reads: “The Justice interjected to wonder why men behave in this manner. ‘It’s a completely unnatural performance. Normally at his age, young men are more interested in people of the opposite sex’.” The judge ordered the men to end their relationship and to keep the peace for a year.
As to the the modern courts in their new €140 million home on Parkgate Street, where she paid a recent visit, McCafferty concedes conditions are better but believes the building is far from ideal. “The thing that stood out for me, I cannot hear anything. You could hear everything in old Bridewell.”
She also noticed that a prosecuting solicitor was wearing a Yes Equality badge in the court room. McCafferty took her to task after the hearing for politicising the court. “I couldn’t believe it,” McCafferty says later. “Jesus, have things changed.”