An Irish solution to a Swinford problem

County View

County View
John Healy

It was an incident that could have meant the closure of almost every public house in a small Mayo town, their doors never to open again.
The story of how the publicans of Swinford were saved from the brink of extinction is one of the chapters in the captivating memoir of solicitor and coroner, Pat O’Connor, in his new book ‘The Life and Times of a Country Solicitor’.
The saga began with the holding of Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann in Swinford on the Whit weekend of 1961. It was a huge success, but it brought unintended consequences for the 52 vintners of the town.
The Fleadh Cheoil was one of the great annual events of rural Ireland. An estimated 30,000 people descended that year on Swinford, to enjoy four full days of Irish music, song and dance, poetry and competition, in balmy weather conditions. It was an influx that sorely tested the accommodation capacity of a town with a population of 1,000. Every available room, every spare space in private homes, business houses and licensed premises was quickly filled with visitors.
For the publicans, it was a bonanza. The one cloud in the sky was that most of the pubs were operating on six-day licences, meaning they could only sell drink from Monday to Saturday. Sunday trading was strictly forbidden. But yet, Whit Sunday was the main day of the Fleadh, an army of thirsty drinkers were looking for refreshments – to keep the pub doors locked and shut would have risked a riot. And so the licensed vintners chose to ignore the law in favour of upholding Swinford’s reputation for hospitality to the stranger.
The local Garda Superintendent sent his men around on the Sunday morning to warn the publicans that their doors should remain closed. He did the same again in the afternoon, as the publicans continued to ignore the order, and he did the same towards evening, as the tills continued to ring merrily.
By now, the publicans were in red-card territory. Under the provisions of the Liquor Act, each conviction for a breach of the act meant an endorsement of the licence. Three endorsements meant the forfeiture of the licence for all time. And now, every publican in Swinford had broken the law three times in succession.
The publicans with six-day licences were duly summoned to appear before the District Court, where they would be staring into the abyss. Creative thinking was needed to save the day. Pat O’Connor’s father, Val, who was running the family practice, had the task of finding a way out. He in turn engaged two prominent legal luminaries – his brother, the barrister John Willie O’Connor, and Senior Counsel, Tommy Connolly – for advice.
Their solution was to seek a special clause in the pending Intoxicating Liquor Act of 1962 by which a licence could be endorsed only once for the days of May 19 to 24, 1961, regardless of the actual number of convictions. In the corridors of power, there was great sympathy for the Swinford publicans. Brian Lenihan, Minister for Justice, was eager for a solution. James Dillon, leader of Fine Gael, and Seán Flanagan of Fianna Fáil, argued eloquently in the Dáil on their behalf.
At local level, District Court Judge Hugh McGahon and the Gardaí consented to multiple adjournments of the cases until the hoped for amendment could be secured. And so, the ‘Swinford Section’ of the Intoxicating Liquor Act passed through the Dáil, meaning only one endorsement would be recorded, regardless of the number of convictions, during the four historic days of the Fleadh Cheoil in Swinford.