In the old dark days before social media, when the weekly newspaper was the only news conduit, the reporting of court cases was the staple diet of local news content. In a society where everyone knew everyone else, there was a certain glee in seeing the peccadillos of your neighbour spelled out in line by line detail in the paper.
And there were no cases quite as juicy as those involving breach of promise actions, where a jilted lady would sue for damages against the faithless swain who, having promised marriage, underwent a change of heart. These were the cases where the most intimate details of a
failed courtship would be mercilessly laid bare, where once-ardent lovers would be cross examined as to their real intentions, where chapter and verse of a relationship would be open to scrutiny. The most private love letters, expressing undying devotion, would be read out in court by lawyers with great flourish, often for the amusement of the public gallery, and so helping undermine the credibility of an already badgered defendant.
Breach of promise cases were commonplace in the forties and fifties, but it was thought that many were settled before reaching the courtroom, since even a costly settlement would have been preferable to the embarrassment of a man’s love life being held up to public ridicule. Court rooms were invariably packed to capacity for such hearings, but even those unable to attend could rest assured that they would be regaled with every little detail in the papers of the following week. Little heed was taken of the sensibilities of the parties involved, and journalists were not above embellishing the details with their own observations, perhaps referring to ‘a stylishly dressed young girl of about 24’, or ‘a rather prepossessing young woman with a defined air of sophistication’.
Public interest in breach of promise was particularly strong, so there would be great disappointment when a well-flagged case would be struck out at the last minute. At Sligo court, a Cavan lady had sued the son of a former TD and Mayor of the city for breach of promise, only for the plaintiff to withdraw the case as proceedings were about to start, prompting the Judge to remark that there would be great public disappointment at the non-pursuance of the case. (The defence, incidentally, went to great pains to deny rumours that a large sum had changed hands in order to have the case settled).
Except for one celebrated case in Westport, the plaintiffs were almost always jilted ladies seeking recompense from two-faced suitors. They were generally successful, except for the fifty years old dressmaker who had sued a fifty year old tailor for, she claimed, reneging on his promise. But even her barrister had to admit that ‘he could not say there was a great amount of romance attached to the case’, especially when it was admitted that after her attempts to call to the man’s home, his response was ‘to clear off and I want nothing to do with you’.
The Family Law act of 1981 finally brought to an end the law whereby a broken engagement could be the grounds for a legal action, but not before Judge O’Malley at Castlebar court had denounced the innate heartlessness of breach of promise hearings. In a case where a 45 year old returned emigrant had sued a 53 year old farmer, he said it was terrible to see decent people having to parade their emotions before the public. These cases, he said, should be held in camera, without having ‘people listening and laughing as had happened in his court that day’.