The First Dail Court 17th May, 1920

Fr Healy
Dail Court in Westport

In May 1920, a court hearing took place in Ballinrobe that would prove momentous, not only for the people involved, but would also have far-reaching implications for the burgeoning independent legal system in Ireland.

Nationalism grew in Ireland in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising. In the general election of 1918, the Sinn Féin party had seventy-three candidates elected. They set about creating their own assembly, independent of London or the British Authorities. This assembly was called Dáil Éireann and it met for the first time on 21 January 1919.1

As the Sinn Féin Dáil set about trying to establish a new state, land agitation and agrarian violence flared up ‘with particular force in 1918 and again in 1920.’2 One of the aims of the Sinn Féin Dáil was to undermine the British establishment by setting up their own justice system. This was to be done initially through the establishment of arbitration courts to settle land disputes.3 Although the arbitration courts were authorised on 18 June 1919, no mechanism was in place for implementing the courts and it was left up to each county to make its own arrangements.4

‘Although West Clare, as early as 1919, had led the way in setting up parish and district courts under a constitution, it was in Mayo that popular sentiment succeeded in forming a nucleus of an attempt to impose order and direction in a situation becoming increasingly dangerous.’5

These local arbitration courts started to appear, particularly in the west, and became known as ‘Sinn Féin courts.’6 Conor Maguire claimed that Mayo was the first county to successfully establish Sinn Féin (arbitration) courts. In his Witness Statement to the Bureau of Military History, he noted that district courts were in place for the whole of county Mayo, presided over by four solicitors, who were all supporters of Sinn Féin.7

It quickly, however, became clear that a national system needed to be put in place.8 An arbitration courts committee was set up in June 1919 with Arthur Griffith (leader of Sinn Féin) as Chair, to consider the issue.9 But ‘while the logic of creating a national court system was persuasive; … the cost was daunting.’10 Through the autumn of 1919, various reports and proposals were drawn up and discussed.  However, it was not until 13 May 1920 that a scheme for parish and district courts was approved.11

In the meantime, frustrations were mounting at local level. On Saturday 10 April 1920, an article in the Mayoman described how the fight for land in South Mayo, Galway and South Roscommon was developing at ‘an alarming rate’ with cattle drives taking place in many areas.12 On 6 May, The Irish Times reported on a list of agrarian ‘outrages’ that had occurred around the country in the week prior.  Of the thirteen incidents reported, five involved shots being fired into households in south Mayo.13

‘…smallholders, impatient with the procedures of the Congested District Boards, and often reinforced by gangs of disaffected men, took advantage of the generally unsettled conditions to force landowners out of their property by terrorising them.’14

The continued and escalating troubles relating to land resulted in Art O’Connor (deputising as Minister of Agriculture) being dispatched to the west to investigate. He discovered that the arbitration courts were not working successfully in all instances as some people refused to attend and judgements could not be enforced.15 He recommended that a Land Commission be established to deal with land-related cases, but recognised that a more immediate solution was also required. O’Connor secured Cabinet approval to appoint a special commissioner to deal with land cases in place of the arbitration courts. Kevin O’Shiel was appointed to the post and began hearing cases in May 1920.16

The Fountainhill Case 

The first land court under the direct authority of Dáil Eireann (known as Dáil courts) was held in Ballinrobe, Co. Mayo on 17 May 1920.17 Conor Maguire, solicitor for the claimants and later Chief Justice, described it as ‘a case which was to put the whole system to a searching test.’18

The land in question was that of Fountainhill Farm in Kilmaine, Co. Mayo; land that was expected to have been divided up by the Congested Districts Board. Nine men ‘with insufficient land to sustain their existence’ laid claim to the land, which was legally rented by two local men, Hyland and Murphy. As well as renting the 250 acres at Fountainhill, Hyland and Murphy also each had twenty-four acre farms nearby.19 For this reason, the nine claimants viewed Hyland and Murphy as ranchers.20

Prior to the hearing, Hyland and Murphy had been subjected to ‘boycott, threat and intimidation’ by the small holders who wanted larger holdings on the estate.21 Conor Maguire’s clients, Prendergast et al., were happy to have the case submitted to the Dáil court but Hyland and Murphy refused.  The parish priest for Kilmaine, Fr. Martin Healy, intervened. He visited Conor Maguire and suggested that, if arbitrators were sent from Dublin, he believed the men would agree.

This is indeed what happened.  Maguire discussed the issue with Arthur Griffith, who sent Kevin O’Shiel (now Land Commissioner) and Art O’Connor (acting Minister for Agriculture) to Ballinrobe to hear the case.22 In his Witness Statement to the Bureau of Military History, O’Shiel noted:

‘The critical urgency of the situation would not wait on time. Conor Maguire put up to us a number of cases that should be heard at once, and heard by individuals who were not of the locality; and he suggested that Art O’Connor and I should hear them…’23

The court took place on 17 May in a packed Ballinrobe Town Hall, ‘watched by from a distance by members of the R.I.C., who did not, however, interfere.’24 An article in the Western People of 22 May described how the court attracted a great deal of public attention and was guarded by (IRA) volunteers ‘who maintained the greatest order, both within and without.’25

Just as proceedings were due to begin, the solicitor for the lease-holders withdrew for fear of being struck-off the rolls by the land judge for participating in the illegal court.26 Again, it was Fr. Healy who intervened to rescue the situation by offering to represent the men himself, suggesting that the principles of Canon Law were broadly applicable to secular law. The offer was accepted and ‘… a right good ad hoc counsel, Fr. Healy proved himself to be…’27

The claimants (Prendergast, Monaghan, Sullivan, Brennan, Swifte, Molloy, Keady, Hynes & Reilly) and registers (Hyland & Murphy) were required to sign a submission form agreeing to abide by the decision of the court, comply with its orders and not to take the case to any ‘alien tribunal’ should the decision go against them.

Once underway, the court heard how each of the claimants had holdings of only two to six acres, all within a mile of Fountainhill. Conor Maguire, their solicitor, argued that they were entitled to additional land to support their families. One of the men, John Nolan, testified that no violence had happened on the estate until March of that year when cattle were driven off by six young men, who were subsequently arrested and were currently in prison for the offence.28

In his cross-examination, Fr. Healy did not dispute their right to greater holdings but, suggested that the best solution would be to wait for the Congested Districts Board to divide the estate.29 He questioned the men about their proximity to another nearby estate at Frenchbrook (Kilmaine), which was already in the possession of the Congested Districts Board, and they responded that it would be more convenient for them to have land at Fountainhill.

When John Hyland took the stand, he explained that he had six children to support. His cattle had been driven off in March, then returned, only to be driven off a second time, without return. John Murphy testified that he had seven children, and both men stated that they needed the land at Fountainhill to support their families.30

Having heard the case, O’Shiel and O’Connor reserved their decision until the lands could be inspected, ‘more because of the heat and bitterness involved in the case than because of any doubts we had about what our decision should be.’31

The Ruling 

Nine days later, O’Shiel delivered the judgement and found in favour of the lease-holders, Murphy and Hyland, on the grounds that they ‘could not satisfy the reasonable requirements of their families’ otherwise. While the court agreed that Prendergast et al. were entitled to greater holdings, their claim to the land at Fountainhill was not upheld. The judgement mentioned the nearby farm of 700 acres at Frenchbrook, that was untenanted and owned by the Congested Districts Board, suggesting that the claimants direct their attentions there instead.32

On hearing the judgement, O’Shiel described how the claimants:

‘… were highly enraged and stamped out of the hall in an arrogant temper, proclaiming, in loud and angry tones, that we were ‘no Sinn Féin court’ (which of course, we did not claim to be) … They also proclaimed their intention of completely ignoring any order… continuing on in illegal possession of the Fountain Hill lands.’33

 This open defiance of the court and its ruling ‘threw down the gauntlet’ to the Sinn Féin Dáil regarding enforcement.34 O’Shiel, realising that this could undermine the whole court system, escalated the issue to Cathal Brugha (Minister for Defence) in Dublin. Brugha ordered the local IRA, led by Commandant Tom Maguire (Cross), to implement the decision of the court.35 Without the use of any prisons, they were forced to come up with alternative punishments.36 On 3 July, the Western People reported that three of the tenants were arrested and taken by car to an unknown destination.37 The three men were in fact sons of some of the most defiant squatters and were taken to an island on Lough Corrib for a week until the families promised obedience and assurances that no further agitation would take place. Having agreed, the men were allowed to go home.38

Impact and Legacy 

In his report to the Dáil, Art O’Connor described the Fountainhill case as, ‘…the cornerstone of our judiciary.’39 It was the first time a decision of the Dáil court was implemented by the Sinn Féin government. Although Tom Maguire sympathised with the claimants, he enforced the court’s decision out of respect for the authority of the state.40 As a direct result of the enforcement of the Ballinrobe court ruling, the courts became firmly established. The success of the new Dáil courts in Mayo eventually led to the boycotting of the county courts and later the Assizes at Castlebar.41

The Dáil officially passed the motion to set up nationwide civil and criminal courts a month later on 29 June, with a remit to hear every type of case. These courts operated under the authority of Austin Stack, Minister for Home Affairs, and sought to replace the authority of the British courts. While the British authorities had tolerated the earlier land arbitration courts, this upping of the ante resulted in both the R.I.C. and British Army calling for the suppression of the Dáil courts in July, for ‘undermining the King’s writ.42 At the same time, land courts (the Dáil Settlement Land Commission) were also being set up under the authority of the Minister for Agriculture. Conor Maguire and Kevin O’Shiel were appointed judges of the Dáil land courts.43 About them, Maguire remarked:

‘In the Autumn of 1920, the British authorities here decided to prevent the Courts from sitting.  Raids and arrests took place.  The Courts were driven underground.  The blow had been too long delayed to be effective.  The Courts were established so firmly that, although their activities were necessarily restricted, they continued to function.’44

Anyone taking part in the illegal courts were liable to prosecution or even imprisonment under the Defence of the Realm Act, so times and locations of the courts now had to be kept secret. Once the Truce was agreed, however, regular court sittings were organised. ‘Courthouses and prisons were commandeered and regular court sessions were prominently advertised and reported upon…’ Outside of Dublin, the Dáil courts effectively dealt with all day-to-day court sessions. But this all changed at the onset of the Civil War. The Dáil courts were operated (at least in part) by Sinn Féiners who were strongly anti-Treaty. This caused problems for the provisional Free State government and they ‘set in motion the machinery for rescinding the… courts.’45 In 1925, a commission was set up to wind-up the Dáil courts with their jurisdiction passing to the newly created Irish High Court.46 The era of the Dáil court had come to an end.


1 Dominic Price, The flame and the candle: war in Mayo 1919-1924 (Cork, 2000), p. 4.

2 Tony Varley, ‘Agrarian crime and social control: Sinn Féin and the land question in the west of Ireland in 1920’ in Mike Tomilson, Tony Varley and Ciaran McCullagh (eds), Whose law and order? Aspects of crime and social control in Irish society (Belfast, 1988), pp 54-75.

3 C.A. Maguire, ‘The republican courts’ in The Capuchin Annual (1969), pp 378-88.

4 J.P. Casey, ‘The genesis of the Dáil courts’ in The Irish Jurist (1966), pp 326-38.

5 Mary Kotsonouris, ‘Foreword’ in Roderick Maguire (ed.) The people’s courts; Ireland’s Dáil courts, 1920-24 (Claremorris, 2013), pp 5-6.

6 J.P. Casey, ‘The genesis of the Dáil courts’ in The Irish Jurist (1966), pp 326-38.

7 Maguire, C.A. BMH/WS 708, p. 2. Military Archives.

8 Charles Townshend, The republic: the fight for Irish independence, 1918-1923 (London, 2013), p. 125.

9 J.P. Casey, ‘The genesis of the Dáil courts’ in The Irish Jurist (1966), pp 326-38.

10 Charles Townshend, The republic: the fight for Irish independence, 1918-1923 (London, 2013), p. 126.

11 J.P. Casey, ‘The genesis of the Dáil courts’ in The Irish Jurist (1966), pp 326-38.

12 Dominic Price, The flame and the candle: war in Mayo 1919-1924 (Cork, 2000), p. 69.

13 Irish Times, 6 May. 1920.

14 Mary Kotsonouris, ‘Revolutionary justice: the Dáil Éireann courts’ in History Ireland, Vol. 2, No. 3 (Autumn, 1994), pp. 32-36.

15 J.P. Casey, ‘The genesis of the Dáil courts’ in The Irish Jurist (1966), pp 326-38.

16 Ibid

17 Fergus Campbell, and Kevin O’Shiel. ‘The last land war? Kevin O’Shiel’s memoir of the Irish revolution (1916-21).’?Archivium Hibernicum, vol. 57, 2003, pp 155–200.?

18 Maguire, C.A. BMH/WS 708, p. 3. Military Archives.

19 Dominic Price, The flame and the candle: war in Mayo 1919-1924 (Cork, 2000), p. 76.

20 Conor Maguire – RTE archives –

21 Maguire, C.A. BMH/WS 708, p. 3. Military Archives.

22 Maguire, C.A. BMH/WS 708, p. 4. Military Archives.

23 O’Sheil, K.R. BMH/WS 1770, p. 948. Military Archives.

24 Maguire, C.A. BMH/WS 708, p. 4. Military Archives.

25 Western People, 22 May. 1920.

26 C. A. Maguire, ‘The republican courts’ in The Capuchin Annual (Dublin, 19690), pp 378-88.

27 O’Sheil, K.R. BMH/WS 1770, p. 950. Military Archives.

28 Western People, 22 May. 1920.

29 The Irish Times, 19 May. 1920.

30 Western People, 22 May. 1920.

31 O’Sheil, K.R. BMH/WS 1770, p. 950. Military Archives.

32 O’Sheil, K.R. BMH/WS 1770, p. 953. Military Archives.

33 O’Sheil, K.R. BMH/WS 1770, p. 955. Military Archives.

34 Tony Varley, ‘Agrarian crime and social control: Sinn Féin and the land question in the west of Ireland in 1920’ in Mike Tomilson, Tony Varley and Ciaran McCullagh (eds), Whose law and order? Aspects of crime and social control in Irish society (Belfast, 1988), pp 54-75.

35 Fergus Campbell, Land and revolution: nationalist politics in the west of Ireland 1891 – 1921 (New York, 2005), p. 281.

36 Roderick Maguire (ed.), The people’s courts: Ireland’s Dáil courts, 1920-24 (Claremorris, 2013), p. 16.

37 The Western People, 3 July. 1920.

38 Maguire, C.A. BMH/WS 708, p. 4. Military Archives.

39 O’Sheil, K.R. BMH/WS 1770, p. 948. Military Archives.

40  Roderick Maguire (ed.), The people’s courts: Ireland’s Dáil courts, 1920-24 (Claremorris, 2013), p. 15.

41 C. A. Maguire, ‘The republican courts’ in The Capuchin Annual (Dublin, 1969), pp 378-88.

42 John Dorney, ‘The rise and fall of the Dáil courts, 1919-1922’ (Accessed 8 Feb 2020)

43  Mary Kotsonouris, The winding-up of the Dáil courts, 1922-1925: an obvious duty (Dublin, 2004), p. 9.

44 Maguire, C.A. BMH/WS 708, p4. Military Archives.

45 Roderick Maguire (ed.), The people’s courts: Ireland’s Dáil courts, 1920-24 (Claremorris, 2013), p. 27.

46 Mary Kotsonouris, ‘Foreword’ in Roderick Maguire (ed.) The people’s courts; Ireland’s Dáil courts, 1920-24 (Claremorris, 2013), pp 5-6.

Comments about this page

  • This article is both very well done but also meaningful to me. My late aunt Mary Kotsonouris is cited several times in the footnotes. I had not read her book or several articles on the Dail Courts. Until your article I had not appreciated the significance of the emerging state setting up the courts nor did I comprehend the emotional impact on the Irish people of turning their backs on the formal courts of the day.  Thank you.

    By PAUL REYNOLDS (09/12/2021)

Add a comment about this page

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *