Review: Irish Peacock & Scarlet Marquess – The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde by Merlin Holland Publisher: Fourth Estate

wilde bookThere are trials in the Four Courts that attract so many members of the legal profession that more often than not, there is little or no room forthe general public. This is particularly true of libel trials. It was always thus. Wilde’s libel action against the Marquess of Queensbury attracted the profession in such great numbers that the Daily Chronicle was moved to observe of the briefless barristers that flooded into the Old Bailey:-

“they came not as single spies, but in whole battalions…They sat in the barristers’ seats; they sat in the solicitors seats; they sat in the witnesses seats; they sat in the ushers seats, and excepting the Bench, they sat in all the seats they could capture.  And when all the seats were used up, they stood, a serried mass of voluble, grey wigged, black gowned humanity hogging the gangways and approaches of the court…”

What drew them was the heady mix of the aristocracy, literary fame, and sex. And of course, the law of libel, for barristers know that libel trials attract advocacy of the highest quality. Here in Merlin Holland’s most welcome book, we have the reason for the attendance of such serried ranks, for at last, we have the full transcript, the ipssima verba of the entire Wilde trial, containing a wealth of previously unpublished material including the simply brilliant opening speech of Edward Carson for the defence of Queensbury, a speech so outstanding that it alone justifies the price of the book.

The transcript is primarily the work of the court stenographers, Messrs Cherer, Bennett and Davis. Merlin Holland, besides contributing an excellent introduction to the trial, mainly acts as editor of their excellent shorthand notes.

The transcript covers the preliminary proceedings at the Magistrates Courts as well as the three days of the libel trial itself.   It opens with Wilde’s legal team presenting their case for the reputation of Wilde and the evidence of the libel itself. Wilde is cross examined by Carson and all the familiar repartee of that famous cross examination is presented in its full and extended form, including what is often seen as the critical turning point in the trial –the Carson/Wilde exchange of “Did you kiss him? – “Oh, no, never in my life. He was a peculiarly plain boy”.   Carson clearly caught Wilde off his guard in that exchange but it iswhen you turn to Carson’s opening speech for Queensbury that you realise where the case was truly won and the damage to Wilde’s case so overwhelmingly inflicted.

You will not hear nor read better advocacy than this. The speech must have been written as much with a hammer as with a pen, for it falls upon Wilde’s legal team with such devastating blows that you can feel it smashing through their confidence and your sympathy goes out to the barristers being crushed by Carson’s words. You get caught up in the power and pace of it’s delivery as surely as the jury were so caught. Even the judge, in his staccato interventions, seems more intent on encouraging the pace than making any sensible contribution.

You have to remind yourself that this is just the opening speech Carson outlines what evidence he intends to call to justify the “posing as a sodomite” alleged libel of his client. He names the rent boys to be called, the valet from the Savoy Hotel who saw the bed linen, the silver cigarette cases he will exhibit that Wilde so generously presented to hisyoung male friends, the evidence of the private dinners with the poor the young and the vulnerable boys. It is by modern standards a speech so politically incorrect that it could never be given again. It belongs to the moral agenda of a time long passed. But it is marvellous advocacy. Before the speech is finished – mark you – before it is even finished, Wilde’s legal team throw in the towel, hoist the white flag and abandon their libel action, consenting, under the duress of the speech, to a judgement that effectively declares to the world that Wilde was indeed posing as a sodomite.

The book confines itself to the transcript of the libel trial. It does not take us to the Cadogan Hotel, to Wilde’s subsequent criminal prosecution, to Reading Goal or to Parisian poverty. Yet all those places are in Carson’s speech. It is surely amongst the finest examples of the barrister’s art and anyone who seeks to earn their bread by advocacy must read this book. _

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Gerry Kelly Senior Counsel, 1942 – 2014 – A memoir

Gerry KellyHe would run. Every Sunday morning. He would run.  In the Wicklow hills. He ran in the frosty mornings of the winter and the warmth of the summer dawns, he ran.  With his friends Somers and occasionally with O’Brien, he ran.  Into his 50’s and into his 60’s he ran, and because it was Gerry there would have been laughter and gossip and joy in the running and he ran and laughed and gossiped until the day that he stumbled and fell, like a great Irish oak,  he fell.   And we visited him in St. James’s, fearing the very worst.  And it was a close run thing. But all that endurance and energy and determination and persistence of the running was now turned to his  recovery.  It took a long tortured difficult time and a lot of love and care from his dear dear Rose,  But he came back to his strength.  Wounded now, his left arm paralysed and his left side, still with some strength, but reduced. Walking with a limp, dragging his left leg, moving slowly.  But he was back. And if anything he was talking and gossiping and telling stories even more than before.   And back to the law.  Nothing ever gave him greater pleasure; greater satisfaction than being able to return to the law, to the wars of words that he so loved and had so desperately missed. To the life of the library. And he became a familiar figure in the library.  In his red braces and his battered hat, he wore a scarf now for he could no longer fasten a tie.

In the early hours of the morning he and I would meet to review the papers of our briefs, read the cases, draft the letters,  talk of tactics.  Often we would be the only souls in the library, working quietly at his desk.  Occasionally, even frequently we would be joined by those other dawn risers who haunt the early hours of the library, Constance Cassidy and Eddie Walsh.  Eddie would jest with him, tease him a little about his Labour Party work, asking when he was going to be appointed to the Supreme Court.  It was done with affection.

Often we would take our papers downstairs to breakfast and Gerry, as we descended the stairs would hold on to the banister, awkwardly, with his right hand crossed across his body, a step at a time, carefully, slowly and each time would say to me the same thing.  “John, you have to phone the attorney general and get her to put a banister on the other side, john, when are you going to phone her john”   And I would tell him that banisters were the responsibility of the Taoiseach’s office, not the attorney generals.

“We’ll have to get the Troika involved John, I need a banister on the wall, will you phone the Troika John?

And there was another routine he always followed, as we entered the restaurant, always the first customers of the day.  He would say to me in a loud aside, “We are not staying John unless that Jean is there, Jean will look after us John and if she’s not here we’ll go upstairs, do you hear me John”

And of course Jean was there. She always was, with a great beaming smile and she loved to hear him and he was a treasure to the staff, they treated him with great affection for he knew everyone did Gerry.  Had the first names of all the staff in the restaurants and in the library.  He would know a bit about their families and never failed to ask of them.  Share his stories with them.  I used to tell him he should have been a politician.  But Gerry didn’t get to know people for their votes.  It was because he was Gerry.  It was the way he was.   It was one of the library staff, Paul, who when he heard that Gerry had passed away placed a rose upon his desk.

He was famous for his stories was Gerry.  Tall stories. And it was sometime difficult to shut him up.  I recall walking across the yard with him once.  His great friend Raj was with us and we bumped into Judge Peter Kelly.  Gerry proceeded to tell Judge Kelly that Raj was directly descended from Mahatma Gandhi.    That would have been a bit of surprise to Gandhi and was an even bigger surprise to Raj.  But for a brief moment Peter Kelly believed it, until he remembered it was Gerry Kelly that he was talking to..

I breakfasted with him on the morning he died.   I thought he looked a bit grey that morning, but he was in good enough form.   The day before we had both attended the bar remembrance ceremony, for the Great War.   Gerry had read a poem at the ceremony, in Irish for he had the Irish did Gerry and loved to use it   ibpairceanna Flondris,  In Flanders fields, seideann na poipini leo, the poppiels blow, idir na crosa ro ar ro, Between the crosses, row on row, is air duinn thas ar eitleog ghroi, that mark our place, and in the sky, Canann fuisega fós le bri, The larks,still bravely singing, fly, Nach gCluintear I measc gunnai’s gleo, Scare heard amid the guns below

After the ceremony he had asked to take my arm for support and said he had been standing too long and wasn’t feeling too good.  And of course I had not thought, nor had anyone, to get a chair for Gerry.  He was feeling the strain a bit, but we still went down stairs, Gerry still making his ironic complaints about the missing banister.  We took the priests who had led the ceremony to lunch in the small snug next to the bar.  We probably gossiped a bit too much and drank a bit too much and stayed a bit too long but Gerry loved the stories and the laughter of such occasions and they made life a little lighter, worth living for.

At that final breakfast he was persuading a young devil Cadimhe Ruigror, that she should be sure to come to the law library Christmas carol service,  as he did himself, every year with his dear wife Rose and his daughters Aoife  and Aisling, and with Raj and other friends..  He loved the social side of the bar, loved its traditions and enjoyed nothing better than introducing his friends, over mulled wine and mince pies, to the place of which he was so proud to be a member.    And he had found a new restaurant, for Gerry was forever discovering Dublin pubs and restaurants.  He wanted me to go and dine with him.  There was an amazing chef there, a lady said Gerry, and she makes the most incredible puddings.  Anne Kavanagh she was, and they were already, Anne and Gerry, on first name terms and affectionate friends.   “You must come with me John, try some of Anne’s puddings, we must go up to Glasnevin John, to the Gravediggers, you must come and dine with me in the Gravediggers John”

Ah,  I will Gerry, I will.

I got home that evening about six and put my phone on to charge.  It was a couple of hours later that I checked it.  There were four missed calls, two from Peter Somers and two from Bernard McCabe, both close friends of Gerry.   I sensed something was wrong.  I knew.  I just knew it was about Gerry.  I did not dare to call them back nor listen to their messages.  I just knew something terrible had happened.   I sat before the turf fire looking at the missed calls and knowing it was bad news and not sure that I wanted to hear it.    The phone rang. It was Gerry’s daughter Aoife phoning around his friends with the awful news that he had passed away that afternoon.  She was using Gerry’s  mobile and  contact list and so my own screen, on receiving the incoming call  had lit up with the photograph of Gerry, as it would every time he rang.  A  bright, vibrant,  full of colour image, the photograph used in this tribute, a photograph I had taken in the barrister’s tea rooms only a few months earlier.  And I looked at the screen and I looked at Gerry, but I knew it would not be him.  I knew.

And of course it wasn’t.

-May he rest in peace-

                                                            johnthebarrister@gmail.com                                                                January 2015