21 Jan 2022

Limerick city's Night Watch: Historian Dr Tadhg Moloney tells the sad tale of Constable John O’Brien

Limerick city's Night Watch: Historian Dr Tadgh Moloney tells the sad tale of Constable John O’Brien

THE clash between different political loyalties and class interests at local level comes across in the controversy involving the Limerick City Night Watch between 1915 and 1923.

The night watch was a body established in 1843 and authorised by Limerick Corporation to deter criminal activity, provide law enforcement, and ensure public safety, from 8pm in winter and at 9pm in summer, complimenting the Royal Irish Constabulary when they were not available.

The controversy centred on one Night Watch Constable, thirty-nine year old John O'Brien, who on July 23 1915 re-joined the British army, having previously served prior to the Second Boer War (1899-1902).

Ensuring that his next-of-kin was a recipient of the separation allowance payment, O'Brien, now a corporal in the Royal Irish Regiment, endeavoured to supplement this, as did others, by applying for half pay from his employer, Limerick Corporation.

Other employers including the Great Southern and Western Railway Company had facilitated their employees with such a payment. The application was referred to a sub-committee of the Whole House Committee (representing the Corporation and the Watch and Fire Brigade Committees) which, at a meeting on August 4 1915 rejected it unanimously.

They did however, in compliance with Local Government Board instructions, give O’Brien that which he had not sought, i.e. a guarantee of reinstatement in his job back on his return home. The Corporation accepted this recommendation and informed O'Brien accordingly.

Not content with being refused half pay, O’Brien wrote on November 30 1915 to the Under Secretary at Dublin Castle and outlined his situation.

But the ‘small man’ was out of his depth when dealing with the political nuances in local authority structures: in his letter he stated that Alderman John O'Brien (no relation), a member of the Watch Committee, was handling his case there, unaware that Alderman O'Brien was on the committee that had refused him half-pay.

Furthermore O’Brien argued that he had a family of four children depending on him and that with the Lord Lieutenant’s intervention, he would be allowed this payment in addition to the separation allowance, which would certainly have assisted in supplementing the family's finances.

But the precedence of local over central authority worked against O'Brien. Again as with that of the Corporation, the answer received from the Lord Lieutenant was not what he expected: 'His Excellency regrets the matter is not one in which he can interfere'.

This was an issue that had to be dealt with locally, leaving O’Brien’s family completely reliant on the separation allowance of twenty-five shillings along with the three shillings and sixpence compulsorily deducted from his weekly pay for the care of his family.

Meanwhile, O'Brien's position was filled by John Hayes, senior temporary employee of the night watch, on the understanding that when O'Brien arrived home, he would return to the position that he previously held.

On John O'Brien’s demobilization in 1919 he returned to Limerick, expecting, in accordance with the guarantee that he had received, to resume his duties as a permanent night watch constable.

His application to be re-installed in his job was supported by the Ministry of Labour, which had submitted a letter on his behalf.

Ironically, the first block to O'Brien’s application was the growing trade union movement. During O'Brien's absence, his temporary replacement, Hayes, had joined the Irish Transport and General Workers Union which had commenced organising the general body of workers in Limerick city in 1917, while by the end of 1919 there were forty-two branches throughout the city and county with a membership of 7,478 which was getting stronger over time.

It was therefore from a position of strength that the ITGWU made representations on Hayes’ behalf, stating that they would object to O'Brien being taken back if their member was dismissed.

What followed protracted infighting in the local authority, this very contentious issue oscillating for seven months between the Whole House committee of the Corporation and the Night Watch Sub-Committee.

There were hints of personal scores being settled, one of the inspectors who regularly attended these sub-committee meetings casting John O'Brien in a bad light by claiming that he had previously been fined ten shillings and dismissed from the Night Watch for theft from a licensed premises, only getting his job back through influence – an allegation contradicted by the Limerick Night Watch Committee minutes for 1912 which show O'Brien being commended by several members of the public for his dedication to duty.

The Night Watch Committee actually dismissed the allegation against O’Brien as irrelevant, and tried to solve the dilemma by passing a motion to appoint an extra night constable.

This decision was conveyed to the trade union, which expressed satisfaction, but the decision proved premature because when it came before the Corporation’s Whole House Committee, it was rejected and referred back to the Watch Committee.

Now legal arguments were tried: the opinion of the Corporation's law agent, John Dundon, was that as the Night Watch budget only provided for a specific number, it would be illegal to create a position for the purpose of finding a place for O'Brien.

Dundon argued that the Corporation was not liable to pay compensation if O'Brien took legal action since he had been an army reservist before 1915 and subject to recall, though O’Brien strenuously denied this, stating that he had left the army in 1899 when his time had expired.

On the other hand, Dundon concluded that there was no legal basis to the ITGWU’s objection to O'Brien's resumption of duty and that the obvious course of action was to honour the guarantee, reinstate O’Brien, and return John Hayes to the position of senior temporary employee.

At this stage, stalemate had been reached and John O'Brien, extremely frustrated at the indecisiveness of the Corporation, decided to take matters further. O’Brien, too, now had recourse to the law.

Solicitors acting on his behalf (whether or how he paid them is unclear) unsuccessfully calling on the Watch Committee to make a definite decision on the issue, and taking the Corporation to the County Court, where O’Brien was awarded £25 in damages, plus legal costs of £2.2s and expenses. Despite an appeal by the Corporation, the payment was upheld by the County Court Judge on the grounds that 'the action of the Corporation, a public body, was extraordinary.

They had treated their own resolution as a scrap of paper' and were bound to honour the guarantee of re-employment made to John O'Brien.

However, this proved a pyrrhic victory for O'Brien, and his reinstatement as a permanent Night Watch Constable was as elusive as ever. The winds of political change now further complicated the issue.

Around the time that John O'Brien returned from the army, members of Limerick’s Corporation were adopting a more aggressively nationalist outlook, partly due to the rebellion of 1916, but more so to opposition to conscription in 1918.

One Sinn Féin member, grocer Matthew Griffin, was particularly Anglophobic: with great influence over the Corporation’s committees, he thwarted every effort to facilitate O'Brien, and this opposition continued after 1920 following the election of a new Corporation in which Sinn Féin had twenty-six out of the forty seats.

The new Night Watch Committee decided that as John O'Brien was badly treated by the old Corporation, some concession should be made to his demands. It was unanimously agreed that he should be taken on as a temporary night watchman, but it was specifically stated that this employment was only to cover for any watchman who was ill.

More mystery surrounds O'Brien’s next move: he did not take up the Corporation’s offer but instead became a prison warder in Mountjoy Jail, Dublin. However, he did not remain in that position for long, resigning in protest at the treatment of hunger-striking political prisoners.

Following the establishment of the Irish Free State and the foundation of the Civic Guards (later An Garda Siochána), the Limerick night watch was abolished and Dail Éireann’s 'Limerick Night Watchmen Superannuation Act' decreed that 'the Corporation of Limerick may at its discretion... grant to any night watchman whose whole time shall have been devoted to such employment, who had not less than ten years’ service, and whose appointment the Corporation, may at its discretion consider it necessary to determine a weekly pension...'

But nothing had changed for John O'Brien who applied to the Night Watch Committee for such a payment, arguing that he had been employed by Limerick Corporation for fourteen years as a Night Watch Constable from November 1901 to 1915 when he received permission to enlist in the British army, being denied reinstatement on his return in 1919.

Despite support for his application from five of the former Mountjoy hunger-strikers whose treatment had prompted his resignation as warder in 1920, the Night Watch Committee with Matthew Griffin foremost as heretofore in opposing all of O'Brien's efforts, rejected his request on the grounds that he had been satisfactorily remunerated with the Corporation’s £25 compensation payment to him for breach of agreement.

This left John O'Brien in a precarious position financially and he and his family became dependant on charity to subsist.

However, the cliché that hope springs eternal was ever so true and O'Brien's persistence again came to the fore. The establishment of the Irish Grants Commission (IGC) in 1923 to consider claims from southern Irish loyalists who had experienced hardship and loss during the revolutionary years as a result of the loyalty to the crown.

The resourceful O'Brien saw the possibility of getting compensation from this body as a result of what he argued, fitting in with the IGC criteria, was the conspiracy of Limerick Corporation to defeat the British government and the subsequent vendetta against him due to his loyalty to the crown. This he stated led to his inability to find employment and resulted in the deterioration of his health, including chronic rheumatism and heart problems.

Furthermore, he argued that due to his being deprived of the pension attaching to his service on the Night Watch, he had nothing else to subsist on. He therefore claimed £1,000 from the IGC, but they deemed this to be excessive and did not see a direct link between his anxiety over local hostility against him and his medical troubles. They did however have sympathy for the man, more than likely due to the hardship he had to endure, and awarded him £400.

There is an indication in the 1923 Limerick Register of Electors that O'Brien was still living at his old address in Gaol Lane, but it is not known with certainty what happened to him after this, as he disappears from the record, and the inaccessibility of the 1926 census totally prevents our following him any further.

Despite this unsatisfactory end to the story, John O'Brien's unsuccessful endeavours to either regain his employment or win compensation throw some light on a number of realities at local level during the revolutionary period: the complicated controversies within local politics; the growing power of the trade union movement; the difficulty of a humble individual in dealing with established bodies; and that individuals’ pragmatic approach to the system, shaping their argument to bolster their case.

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