Limerick City Night Watch

Published in Features, Issue 2 (March/April 2021), Volume 29

The case of Night Watch Constable John O’Brien

By Tadhg Moloney

“… the ‘small man’ was out of his depth when dealing with the political nuances in local authority structures.”

The clash between different political loyalties and class interests at local level comes across in a controversy involving the Limerick City Night Watch between 1915 and 1923. The Night Watch, established in 1843, was authorised by Limerick Corporation to deter criminal activity, provide law enforcement and ensure public safety from 8pm in winter and 9pm in summer, complementing the Royal Irish Constabulary when these were not available.

John O’Brien

A Limerick City Night Watch inspector, c. 1910. (Limerick Museum)

The controversy centred on one Night Watch constable, 39-year-old John O’Brien, who on 23 July 1915 rejoined the British Army, having previously served prior to the Second Boer War (1899–1902). Ensuring that his next of kin was in receipt of the separation allowance, 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 subcommittee of the ‘whole House committee’ (representing the Corporation and the Night Watch and Fire Brigade committees), which at a meeting on 4 August 1915 rejected it unanimously. They did, however, in compliance with local government board instructions, give O’Brien that which he had not sought—a guarantee of reinstatement in his job on his return home. The Corporation accepted this recommendation and informed O’Brien accordingly.

Not happy with having been refused half-pay, O’Brien wrote on 30 November 1915 to the under-secretary at Dublin Castle, outlining 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, 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, but the precedence of local over central authority worked against him. Like 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 25 shillings, along with the three shillings and sixpence compulsorily deducted from his weekly army 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 had previously held.

Local authority infighting

On his demobilisation in 1919, O’Brien 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 (ITGWU), which had commenced organising the general body of workers in Limerick city in 1917; by the end of 1919 there were 42 branches throughout the city and county, with a membership of 7,478 and growing stronger over time. It was therefore from a position of strength that the ITGWU made representations on Hayes’s behalf, stating that they would object to O’Brien being taken back if their member was dismissed. There followed protracted infighting in the local authority, with this contentious issue oscillating for seven months between the whole house committee of the Corporation and the Watch subcommittee. There were hints of personal scores being settled; one of the inspectors who regularly attended these subcommittee meetings cast 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, and only got his job back through influence—an allegation contradicted by the Watch committee minutes for 1912, which show O’Brien being commended by several members of the public for his dedication to duty.

Above: John O’Brien’s letter to the under-secretary in Dublin Castle, 30 November 1915, including the response (in red)—‘H[is] E[xcellency] regrets the matter is not one in which he can interfere’. (NAI)

The Watch committee dismissed the allegation against O’Brien as irrelevant and tried to resolve 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: 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; O’Brien strenuously denied this, however, 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 for 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 O’Brien, frustrated at the indecisiveness of the Corporation, decided to take matters further by also having recourse to the law. Solicitors acting on his behalf (whether or how he paid them is unclear) unsuccessfully called on the Watch committee to make a definite decision and took 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 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.

The winds of political change

This, however, 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. Members of Limerick’s Corporation were adopting a more aggressively nationalist outlook, partly in the wake of the 1916 Rising but more so in 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 held 26 out of the 40 seats. Nevertheless, the new Night Watch committee decided that, as O’Brien had been 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. He did not remain in that position for long, however, 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 Síochána), the Limerick Night Watch was abolished and Dáil 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 again foremost 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 O’Brien in a precarious position financially and he and his family became dependent on charity to subsist.

Irish Grants Commission

Hope, however, springs eternal, and O’Brien’s persistence again came to the fore with 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 owing to their loyalty to the Crown. The resourceful O’Brien saw the possibility of getting compensation from this body; he argued, fitting in with the IGC criteria, that there was a conspiracy of Limerick Corporation to defeat the British government and that the subsequent vendetta against him was 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 owing to being deprived of the pension attaching to his service on the Night Watch he had nothing else on which to subsist. 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 and awarded him £400.

Conclusion

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 prevents us from 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 faced by a humble individual in dealing with established bodies; and that individual’s pragmatic approach to the system, shaping his argument to bolster his case.

Tadhg Moloney is the author of The impact of World War One on Limerick (Cambridge Scholars’ Publishing, 2013).

FURTHER READING

J. O’Callaghan, Revolutionary Limerick: the republican campaign for independence in Limerick, 1913–1921 (Dublin, 2010).

M. Potter, The government and the people of Limerick: the history of Limerick Corporation/City Council 1107–2006 (Limerick, 2006).

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