Eliza O’Reilly v James O’Reilly

Commission de Lunatico Inquirendo 1860

John O’Grady

Published in; Navan, It's People and It's Past, Vol. 2

The Rev. Eugene O’Reilly, parish priest of St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Navan died on 12th December 1852 aged 84 years. His niece and nephew Eliza O’ Reilly and James O’Reilly lived in Navan.  Eugene O’Reilly had property in Limkilnhill, Balreask Old and Townparks, Navan which he willed to Eliza.  The will provided that Eliza pay her brother James £500.

The Irish Times started publication in 1859 and in July 1860 it reported that “A Commission de Lunatico Inquirendo is being tried, with all due formality, … in the classic town of Navan.”  This means “A Commision to Inquire into the State of Mind”.  The terms Lunatic and Lunatic Asylums remained in use until 1945.

The Irish Times had a few readers around Navan - in the previous year some locals had been mentioned in the social and personal news there:

George A. Pollock, Oatlands, Navan, George Thunder Kingston Lodge, Navan, Mrs. Garnett, Arch Hall, Navan, William S. Garnett, Navan, Colonel Henry Percival de Bathe, Knightstown, Navan and Captain and Mrs. Ramadge, Gravelmount, Navan.

The report of this case as summarised below has come from the digital version of The Irish Times. The full transcript can be viewed on the website of the N&DHS www.navanhistory.ie


The Inquiry began on the 30th August 1860 in the Courthouse in Ludlow St. Navan. The Irish Times published an editorial on the inquiry. This gives a summary and makes it easier to understand the proceedings.

“A Commission de Lunatico Inquirendo is being tried, with all due formality, and, doubtless, with the usual costs, in the classic town of Navan.  The circumstances of the case are extraordinary. Mr. James O’Reilly is a solicitor, well known and respected in the county of Meath.  He possesses property to the amount of £150 a year, and a security, by judgment, for £500, with some arrears of interest.  The petitioner who procured the commission is no other than his sister, Miss Eliza O’Reilly, who never accused him of lunacy during the six years which he lived with her.

The object sought is of course, the legal one - to secure proper treatment for the lunatic, and the protection of his property.  As the Chancellor directed a Commission to be held, a prima facie case of lunacy has been established to his satisfaction, and Mr. Francis Brady has been sent down to Navan to head the Inquiry.

Mr. O’ Reilly it appears, enjoyed a very extensive practice in Navan.  In 1852 he was attacked by disease of the spine, which, it is supposed, had a temporary effect upon his brain.  He ceased to practice between 1852 and 1857.  He resided with his brother-in-law, Mr. Murphy, and the sister who petitions.  Some feeling against Mr. Murphy entered his mind about the year 1857, and he transferred his agency from that gentleman to a person named Gregory, a grocer in the town of Navan.  (Charles Gregory is named in Lot 48, Cannon Row, in Griffith’s Valuation 1858-65)

The “proofs" of the alleged lunatic are certainly curious.  He cheered the train sometimes when it passed under his windows, or saluted the passengers by crowing.  Nay, he actually asked occasionally for refreshment.  He spoke of laying down plans for buildings, and of purchasing land.  Are these proofs of lunacy?  Some unpleasant family circumstances came out on the cross examination of the petitioner.  She is indebted to the alleged lunatic in a sum of £500, and on the 28th of May last he filed a declaration of the debt, and was met early in June by her affidavits charging him with insanity.  It is notable that for six years he was treated as a thoroughly rational being.  He was asked to sign warrants of attorney and a bill for £100 by the sister and brother-in-law.  One physician proved that his mental power had recovered after the cessation of his disease, yet the moment the unfortunate gentleman takes legal proceedings to recover a debt due to him by his sister, he is asserted to be lunatic, and a commission is issued against him.

"We cannot comment on this case until the decision of the jury is given, except to remark that this Commission will, in any case, cost Mr. O’Reilly some four or five hundred pounds.  Whether he be found sane or insane, his property, amounting to but £150 a year, will be mulcted in costs.  The expense, too, must be increased by the holding of the Commission in Navan.  It costs something to send to that locality a Commissioner in Lunacy and a bar of lawyers.  The ends of justice, we suppose would have been fulfilled if the case had been heard in the Court of Chancery in Dublin.  Navan is not a place where proper publicity for such a trial can be readily procured.  We heard of this strange case by the merest accident, and are thus enabled to furnish a special report.  They who are interested in the reform of the laws relating to lunatics would never think of searching for such suggestive evidence in the Sessions Court of a county town.”

Francis William Brady who headed the inquiry was the equivalent of a High Court Judge.  Dr. Ball, Queens Counsel, representing Eliza and Dr. Battersby Q.C. representing James are the equivalent of senior counsel to day.  Each side also had junior counsel and solicitor.  The inquiry was held with a jury of twelve local men who could put questions to the witnesses.  The Irish Times reporter was able to get his news back to Dublin for publication the following day using the recently opened train service.  The reporter did not give verbatim reports but did quote some of the Navan witnesses word for word.  He used a form of speed writing that was common during the 1800's.

Irish Times, 30 August 1860. (From our own Reporter)

Before Francis William Brady, Esq., and a Special Jury. In the matter of James O’Reilly, Esq., an alleged lunatic.

Dr. Ball Q.C. and Mr. Sidney, instructed by Mr. James Wm. O’Reilly, Esq., appeared for the petitioner(Eliza) and Dr. Battersby Q.C., and Mr John A. Curran, instructed by Mr. John Thomas Hynes, solicitor appeared on behalf of the alleged lunatic, to oppose the petitioner.  The first three days of the inquiry was taken up hearing evidence from both sides.  Eliza O’Reilly was the first witness and was questioned by her own junior counsel.

“I am a sister of the subject of the present investigation. I have one sister, and no brother except Mr. James O’Reilly.  My sister is married to Mr. Murphy of Kingstown.

Up to the year 1852 my brother practised his profession as a solicitor.  In that year he was stopping in the Northumberland Hotel, where he took ill.  For some time prior to his illness I did not know where he was.  Subsequently I saw him in Navan, at the house of the Rev. Eugene O’Reilly.  When I heard he was lying ill of paralysis of the spine, I visited him.  Prior to the illness he was quite able to attend to his business, and did so.  Subsequently I observed his mind appeared to be somewhat changed, and I saw that he was quite incapable of attending to his business.  Contrasting his manner then with what it was, I was convinced a perceptible change had taken place.  During the illness he rambled a good deal in his conversation, and spoke of attending race courses.  By advice of Dr. Nicolls he was removed to Sandycove Castle, and subsequently left that, and went again to live in the house of Mr. Murphy at Brighton Terrace, Sandycove.  About two and a half years ago he strayed away, and the detective police were looking for him.  He was brought back to Navan.  He appeared unable to purchase his clothing, and was unable to attend to his domestic duties.  During his illness he was not allowed to shave himself, but he did so after he recovered.  He had a great desire for putting up clothes lines in the garden, and when the train would be in sight he would shout and crow like a cock, take off his hat, and as the train approached used his arm as if he was playing the violin.“ [Note: The O’Reillys lived in Academy Street, Navan where the newly built railway bridge for the Drogheda to Navan railway crossed.]

Eliza was then questioned by Dr. Battersby Q.C.

“My uncle, the Rev. Eugene O’Reilly, was very fond of my brother at one time.  He left me everything, and nothing to my brother.  The sum he left me was about £150 a year, subject to a debt of £500 which I was to pay my brother. On the 28th of May last, my brother filed a declaration of the debt against me, and subsequently in June I filed affidavits to establish his insanity.  Since his illness in 1852 he has improved in his bodily health, but in his mental health he has not improved.  He was then quite childish, and is so still.  During the time he was in that childish state I went to the Hibernian Bank and got £120 which was standing in his name.  I got the money out of the bank by power of attorney, which was drawn by Mr. Ford, and signed by my brother.  Under that power of attorney also I received his rents.  I cannot say where that power of attorney now is.  I got it in 1853, and another in 1857.  The time I received the money from the bank I had the power of attorney.  With that money I paid some of my brother’s debts.  By agreement I charged him a specific sum for his maintenance. “

Eliza and James had a sister who was married to Mr. Murphy the next witness. His evidence was much the same as Eliza’s.

The evidence of the local witnesses gives a flavour of how Navan people spoke in 1860.  This was the first time that the way people spoke was recorded verbatim.  The inquiry was open to the public and the reaction with laughter helps to form an impression of the character of the witness.  The witnesses were questioned by both sides.  The evidence of the witnesses in relation to the inquiry is not important.  What is revealing is what the witnesses say about themselves and about Navan in 1860.

Mary Gibney:

“I have been housekeeper to the alleged lunatic’s sister for a period of twenty three years.  Mr. O’Reilly, since his illness, was very foolish in his conversation, and the greatest change in the world took place in his manner.  Since 1837 he did not do any business, but occupied his time going about looking for land.  He told me sometimes when he came home that he had been attending an auction, and that it did not go off well.   Sometimes he asked for refreshment - (laughter) - everyday when he would return home he would tell me where he was.  I am aware that he does not go to any place of worship.  He crows with the cocks before he leaves his bed - (laughter) - and when outside would take off his hat, and cheer the train as it passed, and crow again.  He would also sing, and play an accompaniment with his stick on his arm.  He had a great dread of robbers breaking in, and before going to bed would fortify the house.  He slept with an iron bar under his pillow.  When I would be engaged hanging out clothes, he used to fix up the lines for me.  On one occasion he left the house with his sister’s dress thrown across his shoulders, and walked through the town with it on him.  When half drunk he was very violent in his manner, and on Saturday last he threatened to shoot me or have me transported.  He threatened to go up to Kingstown and horsewhip Mr. Murphy all round the jetty.  I don’t know myself what day of the week this is.  At dinner he never got anything to drink but water.  I drink porter myself, he got none of it.  He never shot anyone, and when he threatened to transport me I understood it was because of what I was going to swear.”

Dr. Nichols: Archibald Nicholls lived in the house beside the Church of Ireland, Church Hill.

“... He spoke rationally on various subjects for nearly three quarters of an hour ... I last prescribed for him about seven years ago.  His bodily health was then very much impaired, but it has since improved.  My evidence is that he is of weak mind, and incapable of managing his own affairs.  Being anxious to test him on his building propensities, I said to him in a field of mine, would it not be well if I built on it, and he said not, as drunken persons might come home at night and burn the houses, and what then would I have for my money – (laughter) – I replied, very true.  The life he had been leading I considered brought on his illness in 1852.”

William Carry:

“I am acquainted with Mr. O’Reilly, the subject of the present investigation. A field of his was flooded at one time, and he spoke of draining it by lowering the bed of the Boyne, and building a wall across it.  I heard him frequently imitating a cock, and cheering as the train passed.  Within the last ten days I heard him threaten to shoot his sister, and say that he would go up to Kingstown with a stick to beat his brother-in-law, Mr. Murphy, on the jetty.  A person might converse with him for a long time without knowing his state of mind.  Whenever he would meet me any place on the road he would ask where I had been working that day, and when I would tell him he would say that he recommended that to be done.”

Patrick Smith lived at Infirmary Hill.

“I am a painter.  I know Mr. O’Reilly, and have been in the habit of painting houses for his sister.  From communications which I received from his sister I searched the town for him frequently, to bring him home when he would be intoxicated.“

James Ralph:

“I am a baker by trade, and have had frequent intercourse with the alleged lunatic.  I have known him for twenty-five years.  I have had frequent opportunities  of observing his manner, and it seemed very strange.  He sometimes called into the bakery establishment and made strange suggestions.  I have heard him speak of the clergy of the town in a most disrespectful manner.  Within the last three or four months he has been somewhat more circumspect.  About eighteen months ago I saw him coming towards me, with a young tree on his shoulder, which he said would make a capital pike-handle, and that if the boys on Tara had such pike-handles they would not have been defeated in the manner they were.  His language towards the clergy was rather of a scurrilous character.  Some seven or eight months ago he asked me to undertake his agency.

I write a good hand and can keep accounts, and would not be unfit to discharge the duties of an agent.  Mr. O’Reilly was a funny man, but I consider his carrying the young tree a strange proceeding for a gentleman.  He was in the habit of speaking bad of the clergy. I was not instructed for this investigation, but was subpoenaed in consequence of having lived opposite to him.”

John Leonard owned property at Moathill, Navan.

“I am a collector of poor-rates in Navan, and am acquainted with the subject of the present investigation.  One day, at the Moate of Navan, he met me, and asked me to level the Moate, and said he would do it in twelve hours with a plough; “Well, if it is so easy as that” said I, “we may as well have an offer at it;”  I said so just to pacify him. He was constantly talking about selling his land, and asked me would I buy it, as he had notions of going to France.  Whenever I would meet him in the town, I endeavoured to avoid him, so as not to be annoyed with his nonsense.  Within a few years back I think he is losing his mind very much.”

James Reid:

“I was engaged by Miss O’Reilly to mind Mr. O’Reilly.  After dinner when he would go out I was engaged watching him until he came back.  He used to go about looking for whisky all through the town, but he always used to get it in Charley Gregory’s where there is the best of whisky, at least so Charley says - (laughter) He was not aware that I had been watching him.  In the street he made no noise, but when he would get to his own house he commenced to beat the girl.  One evening he bundled all his clothes under his arm, and went off to Kells, and I after him, he refused to come back with me … Mr. O’Reilly was often drunk, and so was I, and on my oath I would like to be drunk now, but no man ever saw me beastly drunk.”

Owen Farrelly:

“I am a dealer, and for the last twenty years I am acquainted with Mr. O’Reilly.  He never spoke to me more than bidding me the time of day. I saw him carrying a large tree on one occasion.  On another occasion I saw him digging up stones on the road with a spade, and I asked him what he was doing that for, and he said it was to prevent the women’s feet from being injured going to the well. (laughter) - I had conversation with Mr. Gregory on the subject.”

Michael Cantwell:

“I am a watchman in Navan, and have seen Mr. O’Reilly frequently.  I saw a man of the name of Roe watching him, and then Reid watched him.  Mr. O’Reilly used to go into several houses in the town, and whenever he went Roe was after him.  I often assisted Roe to bring Mr. O’Reilly home when he would be drunk.  On one occasion I met him at four o’clock in the morning, and he said, “Go along, you fool! It is seven,” but I did not mind him as I knew what he was.”

Christopher Flood:

“I am a farmer residing in the neighbourhood, and have known Mr. O’Reilly for the past twenty years.  I conversed, and he frequently asked me to buy land from him.  I wished to avoid him, as I did not like to bother my head with him.”

Francis Murphy lived at Limekilnhill, Navan.

“I have known Mr. James O’Reilly for 30 years.  He frequently conversed with me, and of late years there is a great change in him.  He told me he intended to build a large mill, and carry on the cotton trade.  I asked him where the money was to come from, and he said, “Oh, there is no want of money,” He also said he intended to take a tour through France, and he hoped the mill works would be completed on his return.”

This finished the questioning of the witnesses that were put forward by Eliza O’Reilly against her brother.  Dr. Battersby Q.C. representing James O’Reilly then gave a three hour speech to the jury.  The speech was a summary of what the witnesses had said along with legal and medical arguments favourable to James O’Reilly.  At the close of the address there was loud applause in court.  Evidence was now given on behalf of James O’Reilly.

Dr. Wallace:

“I am surgeon to the county jail in Trim, and have had considerable experience of cases of lunacy in the jail.  At the request of Mr. Hynes I examined Mr. O’Reilly, and conversed with him.  From those conversations I failed to discover in him any mental incapacity, and I believe him perfectly competent to manage his own affairs.”

Clement Hamerton:

“I am a physician, residing at Antylstown, near Navan.  I have had considerable practice.  I examined Mr. O’Reilly in the month of May last at his sister’s house in Academy Street in Navan.  When I saw him he was in bed.  I conversed with him for nearly an hour upon the state of the country ... he spoke a good deal of the change in the country by emigration, and he said it had materially improved his profession.   He also said that for the benefit of his health, he intended to go to America, via Galway.  I consider that there is no proof of insanity, as the voyage would undoubtedly be beneficial to him.”

Elizabeth Doake:

“I am a widow residing in Navan.  About two years ago Mr. O’Reilly lodged in my house, and he conducted himself in a gentleman like manner, but when he would take a tumbler of punch he was very hearty. (laughter) He is a very sensible man.  I keep a public house and sell good whisky, and when you taste it, sir, you will know it good.” (laughter.)

Mr. Hartcourt Lightbourne, J.P.

“I am a magistrate in the town of Trim and was chairman of the Town Commissioners for seven years.  I have known Mr. O’Reilly intimately for a period of 30 years.  I was in his company on Thursday evening last, and if I met him yesterday as a stranger, I would say he was the most rational man I ever met in my life.  He was as clear in his intellect as ever I saw him, and when I told him there was applause in court at the close of his counsel’s speech, he said he was glad to hear there was good feeling towards him amongst the people, and said that bad feeling against him only existed amongst those who were interested in obtaining possession of his property.

On two occasions he asked me to lend him half a crown, and as an old friend I did so.   I never was paid it back.  He spoke about the Dublin election, and being concerned for O’Connell, who offered to draw a cheque for £105 for him, which he refused. He also said that O’Connell wanted to push him out, and that he broke his umbrella.” (laughter.)

Noah Birch had a shop in Market Square.

“I am engaged in the wool trade, in Navan, and have known Mr. O’Reilly. He frequently conversed with me about the gentlemen’s places where I went to purchase wool.  His conversation was most rational, particularly within the last two years.“

This closed the evidence on both sides. The Irish Times continues its report.

“At this stage of the proceedings, Mr. O’Reilly, the alleged lunatic, entered the court, and took his seat beside his legal advisor.  The gentleman appeared perfectly collected and entered freely into conversation with his legal advisers.

The Court was then cleared, no person remaining in court, save the Commissioner, Jury, and Counsel on both sides.  The solicitors were also excluded.  Mr. O’Reilly was under examination for about two hours and a-half, and on his reappearance from court was greeted with a cheer. He still retained a calm collected demeanour.

When the public were readmitted Mr. J.A Curran proceeded to address the jury on behalf of the alleged lunatic...  At the conclusion of the learned counsel’s address, which lasted for three hours, and of which the above is a mere abstract, there was loud applause in court.”

Day Four of the Inquiry

“The hearing of the case was resumed at eleven o’clock on Saturday.  Mr. Curran having concluded his address, Mr. Sidney proceeded to reply in a very able speech, on behalf of the petitioner.  The jury then retired, and after a noisy deliberation of three hours, came into court and stated there was not the remotest chance of their agreeing to a verdict.  It was then after ten o’clock, and the court was densely crowded.

The Commissioner stated that the inquiry was of so very important a character that he did not feel justified in discharging them, and they should retire and re-consider their verdict.  The jury reluctantly retired, and at eleven o’clock came back into court, and stated they might as well be discharged as they could never agree.  The Commissioner said, under the circumstances he should discharge them.  The jury were accordingly discharged at eleven o’clock, after deliberating for four hours.  It appeared that ten of the jury were  in favour of the sanity of Mr. O’Reilly, but two gentlemen were unable to make up their minds on the point.

The commission, accordingly, was a dead letter, and Mr. O’Reilly was as free to act for himself as if there had been a unanimous verdict in his favour. The result appeared most gratifying to the persons in court.”