Lawyers urged to acquaint themselves with 'great literature'


LITERATURE OFTEN reveals the conflict between the strict letter of the law and justice, a dilemma judges face daily, according to retired High Court judge Bryan McMahon. He was the opening keynote speaker at a conference on law, literature and translation in Trinity College Dublin at the weekend.

Examples of such a conflict included Sophocles’s Antigone, 2,500 years ago, where Antigone confronted her uncle Creon with the words: “I disobeyed because the law was not the law of Zeus or the law of justice . . . what they decree is binding on us all”, and Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, he said.

“What is the attraction the court has for playwrights and writers in general?” he asked. “They are full of theatre and high drama. There are the personnel, the costumes, people talking in knots of conversation, the jury, on the left normally. Then the usher announces ‘all stand’, the judge enters and the place is transformed.”

From Brian Merriman’s Midnight Court to the short stories of Frank O’Connor and Mary Lavin, courts featured in Irish literature, he said. The plight of the prisoner also featured in both Irish and international literature, he said.

“Is there anything more chilling than Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol?” he asked.

“The power of literature and of things said in an unusual and fresh way by a person who has experience can be overwhelming and even life-changing,” he added, describing how as a postgraduate student in the US he did a project on the death penalty, reading all the relevant literature.

“At the end of it I was like a donkey equidistant from two stacks of hay,” he said. “I could have equally argued either side.

“I later read Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton and that convinced me the death penalty was wrong in all circumstances. Afterwards I looked at literature and the law in a different way.

“It makes me think and ask questions. Lawyers should be acquainted with great literature and should learn from it. It deals with envy, jealousy, greed, love, mercy, power politics, justice, social order, punishment.

“Judging also involves the soft side of the brain, dealing with compassion, understanding, imagining the extent of one’s decision.”

Every day a judge had a front seat in “the theatre of life”.

Mr Justice Adrian Hardiman of the Supreme Court told the conference there was a vast volume of legal references in both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.

He said the origins of this interest in the law seemed to lie in an article Joyce had written for a journal when he was living in Trieste, concerning the evils of empire from the standpoint of Ireland.

In it, he described a notorious trial in Ireland when three monoglot Irish-speakers were convicted of murder, having been questioned in English with only a policeman as translator. At least one was not guilty.