ALLEN FOSTER recalls the days in Ireland when an unsatisfactory
court decision could be challenged and settled in a ‘Trial By Battle’
Trial by battle was once an ancient and little-used method of deciding law cases in British law.
Several attempts had been made to remove this barbaric remedy, but it was not until 1819 that it was finally repealed, as a result of a celebrated English murder case in 1817.
Although the accused had been found not guilty of the murder of a woman, her brother appealed the verdict. In turn, the accused man offered to settle the issue by offering trial by battle to the outraged brother.
He did not accept and the accused man walked free, but later had to emigrate due to his notoriety.
The British public was scandalised by this legal trickery and efforts were made to quickly abolish it before any other accused persons sought to utilise it.
When trial by battle was abolished in 1819, the Union between Ireland and Britain meant it was also eliminated here.
Ireland had its own notorious trial by battle case a few years before.
In 1815, a farm labourer named Thomas Clancy shot and killed retired naval Captain Bryan O’Reilly in broad daylight in front of several witnesses on the high road near Mullingar.
Clancy shot his victim at close range with a pistol, but although the wound was mortal, O’Reilly lingered in agony for half an hour before he died.
He lived in Tullaghan, two miles outside Mullingar and acted as land agent for his relative Margaret Talbot, of Malahide Castle.
Clancy was immediately caught and brought before Westmeath Magistrate John Charles Lyons.
He made a full confession of the crime, declaring he had been hired to commit the murder by a tenant of Mrs Talbot’s, who was considerably in arrears in rent.