‘They do be saying we’ve built the finest parish priest’s home in the country’

A landmark libel case from 60 years ago, involving the English novelist Honor Tracy – Sean O’Faolain’s lover – and a fundraising cleric, shows the pitfalls that the media can still stumble into

Witty and sometimes caustic: Honor Tracy, who lived in Ireland after the second World War. Photograph: B Seed/Lebrecht/Photographers Direct

Witty and sometimes caustic: Honor Tracy, who lived in Ireland after the second World War. Photograph: B Seed/Lebrecht/Photographers Direct

 

This year is the 60th anniversary of one of the most famous libel cases in Irish legal history – and one with an unexpected twist.

After the second World War the English novelist Honor Tracy (1913-1989) spent two years in Dublin working with Sean O’Faolain (subsequently her lover) on the Irish Digest and then on the Bell. After a period working as a foreign correspondent for the Observer she returned to Ireland and wrote a series of articles about Ireland for the Sunday Times, for a fee of £750 a year (about £16,000 in current sterling values).

Tracy, whose real name was Lilbush Wingfield, was noted for her witty and sometimes caustic writing, and became friendly with a number of Irish writers and with English people who, like her, had moved westward in part to escape postwar Britain.

Among these friends were Roland and Norah Preece, who lived in Doneraile, a small village in north Co Cork whose main claim to fame was that it was the parish of the redoubtable Canon Francis Sheehan, a towering figure in 19th-century Irish literature in English.

Staying with them some time in 1951, she noticed – it would have been hard to ignore it – the spacious new mansion that the parish priest, Canon Maurice O’Connell, then aged 79, was building at a rumoured cost of £9,000 to replace the elegant Georgian building in which the canon had lived and composed his many novels.

This generated a column that appeared in the Sunday Times on May 14th, 1951, entitled “A Great Day in the Village”, and described what was happening in Doneraile as funds were raised for the new house. “Everyone,” she wrote, “is busy selling raffle tickets to everyone else. The winners will hand back the prizes as soon as received. The nuns are getting up a sale of work to which all will contribute and from which all will buy. The church dues are increased, the collections multiply and the Canon’s voice, so tired and confused at times, rises clear as the Shandon Bells from the steps of the altar as he pricks the faithful on to fresh endeavours.”

She reported the views of one of the canon’s parishioners thus: “They do be saying we’ve built the finest parish priest’s home in the country: and isn’t it well for us? The Canon was saying on Sunday, not to bother with the Stock Exchange and that, but to lay up for ourselves the unspeakable joys of Heaven: and wasn’t he right? Ah, he’s a queer old fellow altogether mind, there’s no harm in him, and mind, I didn’t say anything, and mind, you didn’t have it from me.”

The canon sued. A year later the case came before the High Court in Dublin, with a battery of lawyers for the parish priest and another for Kemsley Newspapers, publisher of the Sunday Times. The two senior counsel for the canon were Richard McGonigal and TK Liston. The newspaper was represented by John A Costello, who had been taoiseach until a few weeks earlier, and Sir John Esmonde.

Honor Tracy’s barrister, the future attorney general Andreas O’Keeffe, successfully applied to have her name struck out of the proceedings, because a defence had been entered in her name but without her authority. The newspaper then surrendered without a fight, agreed to pay the canon £750 in damages – the same sum that Tracy was being paid for a year’s articles – to publish an apology for the “unjustifiable attack upon the character and position of Canon O’Connell” and to unreservedly withdraw “the injurious statements and imputations contained in it”.

The canon gave the money to the Society of St Vincent de Paul. The judge, the former Fine Gael attorney general Charles Casey, registered his satisfaction at the outcome, having regard to “the great wrong that had been done to the canon”.

But things didn’t end there. Three years later, long after this case had been settled, Tracy sued Kemsley Newspapers in the high court in London on the grounds that she, as a professional journalist, had been libelled by the letter offering terms of settlement to Canon O’Connell and by the apology printed by the Sunday Times.

Her barrister, Neville Faulks QC, told the jury she took the view that the article was true criticism and fair comment on what was going on in Doneraile. He pointed out, also, that in the previous September an inquiry had been held into the matter in Doneraile, which had heard evidence on commission from the canon, the bishop, an Anglican bishop, a solicitor and a schoolmaster – but not from a single villager.

He went on to ask whether there was any reason to believe that Tracy was not telling the truth, adding that when Mr Faull QC, for the Sunday Times, had cross-examined her, he had never suggested she was lying.

“How could he?” he asked. “She had her notebook. I dangled that notebook before the defence like a carrot before a donkey, but they never took it.”

The evidence for the novelist included an affidavit from O’Faolain saying he had heard the villagers grumbling about the new house. “I suppose in all village life,” said Faull, “some grumble and some don’t. Some are enthusiastic for the church; some are not.”

Mr Justice Glyn-Jones instructed the jury at the end of the five-day hearing: “Her views were that there were too many priests, and that they lived on a scale which was quite disproportionately high, having regard to the comparative poverty of the majority of their parishioners.”

Urged on in this way, the jury awarded Tracy £3,000 and her costs – four times the amount the Irish High Court had awarded the canon three years earlier.

In August of the same year a portrait of her in The Irish Times commented that “it takes some courage for an individual journalist to take the financial and professional risk of launching a legal action against a great newspaper”.

As we approach the promised five-year review of the 2009 Defamation Act, this case provides a graphic example of the pitfalls that may still affect newspapers six decades later.

The full text of “A Great Day in the Village” is republished in Great Irish Reportage, edited by Prof John Horgan (Penguin)

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