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Truth Above Everything

Frank Mac Gabhann writes: This decade of centenaries has thus far passed with barely a mention of James Creed Meredith, a man largely unknown outside his family and even to relatively few lawyers and historians. This should not be the case. Not only was he a High, then Supreme Court judge, he was also one of the great sprinters of his generation, a member of the Irish Volunteers and a 1914 gun-runner, president of the Supreme Court set up by Dáil Éireann during the War of Independence who championed Brehon Law, a philosopher, a translator of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgement (still in print a century later with his commentaries and read by philosophers and students alike), a novelist and playwright who late in life became a Quaker. One wonders how many Irish lawyers of today could even read Kant, much less translate him. 

Meredith was born in 1875 in Fitzwilliam Square in Dublin of a prominent family that was serving the Church of Ireland, if not the British empire, well, with many clergymen among its ranks. His father, of the same name, practised as a barrister and was the deputy grand master of the Masonic Lodge of Ireland and even today there a lodge in Belfast bearing his name. His portrait in his Masonic robes still hangs in the Masonic Hall in Molesworth Street in Dublin. He was knighted by the British monarch and even invited to the coronation of 1910. He was appointed secretary of the new Royal University of Ireland, which may have had something to do with his son enrolling as a philosophy student there. The young Meredith was awarded a BA and subsequently an MA, as well as the gold medal in mental philosophy. He also studied at Trinity College, where he was awarded another gold medal. He qualified as a barrister in 1901. In 1911 Oxford University published his translation of Kant’s Critique of Judgement. In 1895, while at Trinity, he was the Irish champion at the 100, 220 and 440 yard events and the following year won the British championship at the quarter mile. At the time of his death Meredith was considered one of the greatest Irish quarter-milers of all time.

He was a member, with Tom Kettle, of the intellectually fertile Young Ireland branch (the only branch that allowed women to join) of the United Irish League. Perhaps Meredith the philosopher was reading Karl Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: up to now philosophy has only interpreted the world ‑ the point is to change it. For Meredith now began to marry theory with praxis ‑ practice. By 1913 he was a convinced Irish nationalist and engagé. He joined the Irish Volunteers at its inception, although it is not known whether he wore the uniform. He was one of the organisers of the Howth and Kilcoole gun-running in the summer of 1914 and persuaded Dr Thomas Myles to use his yacht, the Chotay, which he helped to crew, to smuggle the guns to Kilcoole. He was one of John Redmond’s added nominees to the national committee of the Volunteers. Despite being a nominee of Redmond, he worked actively with the Republican members, according to Bulmer Hobson. Immediately following the British declaration of war on August 3rd, Meredith called a meeting at his own home in Dublin for the following evening, at which Seán Mac Diarmada, Bulmer Hobson and some Redmond nominees attended, to discuss how Ireland should respond. When Seán Fitzgibbon arrived late with the news that Redmond had pledged Irish support for the war the night before in the House of Commons, “Meredith was so annoyed that he could not discuss the matter”, according to Fitzgibbon.

Meredith is believed to have drafted the constitution of the Volunteers some months later, with its declared objective, “To secure and maintain the rights and liberties common to the people of Ireland”. This is lawyer-speak, probably just vague enough to escape the rigours of the wartime Defence of the Realm regulations. In 1915 he published in a prestigious philosophical quarterly in the US the Kantian essay “Perpetual Peace and the Doctrine of Neutrality”, where he sets out both his anger at the war then raging and his views on pacifism. There is no record of his attitude towards the Easter Rising the following year. However, he did testify as a witness for the defence in the court-martial of Eoin MacNeill following the Rising. As late as July 1917 he was still involved to some degree with the Irish Parliamentary Party during a by-election for South Dublin, then a unionist stronghold. Republicans did not field a candidate in that by-election as the East Clare by-election was being held four days later. Meredith harboured the vain hope that the last-gasp, ill-fated Irish Convention that began that month might provide a way forward.

It is unclear exactly when, but at some stage after the overwhelming victory of Sinn Féin in the 1918 general election Meredith crossed the Rubicon and nailed his colours firmly to the armed independence struggle. He became president of the Supreme Court of the republican Dáil courts, the “chief justice” of the Irish Republic that functioned during the War of Independence. He defied the Irish Bar, which was not exactly stocked with patriots at the time. The Bar had forbidden barristers to appear in Republican courts. Those who did risked not simply the Bar’s sanction but also a different sanction from the Black and Tans, who were armed with more than summonses for professional misconduct. In one case heard by Meredith, he preferred Brehon law over common law in ruling that the father of a child born out of wedlock was required to pay maintenance in respect of that child. This ruling was followed thereafter in all Republican courts. With the winding up of the Dáil courts he was appointed chief judicial commissioner, deciding the disposition of those cases.  

When the provisional government decided to set up a British-style judiciary in 1924, there was no room for Meredith on the new three-member Supreme Court, the "Protestant seat" going to Gerald FitzGibbon, a unionist, in order to allay Southern unionist fears. Nor was there any room for a judge there to follow his Brehon example. A child born out of wedlock in the new Irish Free State reverted to being a filius nullius, a son of nobody, a baby whom the natural father could lawfully neglect. The new set-up was, in effect, demoting Meredith to the newly created High Court.

As there were effectively no vacancies until 1936, he had to wait until then to be promoted to the expanded five-member Supreme Court, joining FitzGibbon there. The unionist FitzGibbon never forgave Meredith for being a Protestant republican and, just before his retirement in 1938, FitzGibbon, without notice to Meredith, launched an unfair and wholly unwarranted attack on his fellow judge in a written judgement. According to the late Adrian Hardiman, this attack was unique in modern Irish judicial history, though typical of FitzGibbon’s vindictive style to one whom, according to Meredith’s family, he may have considered a traitor to his class and perhaps even to his religion. Meredith, by 1938 the good Quaker, did not reply in kind to the attack and turned the other cheek. Apparently alone among all the superior court judges, FitzGibbon is not recorded as attending Meredith’s funeral in 1942.

FitzGibbon had already fallen out with Hugh Kennedy, the first chief justice, without whose recommendation the decade before to the provisional government, he would never have been even considered for the bench. FitzGibbon gave judgement, reported in 1934, in a case involving a minor whose ancestors included a deputy lieutenant and a high sheriff and whose grandfather had owned 25,000 acres in Co Clare in the nineteenth century. FitzGibbon lamented that “the policy of successive Governments . . . has transferred the land [of his grandfather] to its occupiers". He went on to comment on the possibilities of the minor carrying on the tradition of his class in Ireland to seek “distinguished service and exalted position in the colonies” of the British empire. FitzGibbon had the extraordinary effrontery in a judgement in 1935 to ridicule the state of which he was one of the chief magistrates, referring to “ . . . this other Eden semi-paradise, this precious stone, set in the silver sea, this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this Saor Stát”, after Shakespeare. Not only is this unique in Irish judicial history, it is all but unthinkable in civilised legal exegesis anywhere.

It may be remembered that FitzGibbon’s father, of the same name, was a judge and loyal servant of the British empire for nearly half a century until he died in 1909. He was well known and despised by most Irish people and for that reason appears in Ulysses, whose action takes place in 1904, when the elder FitzGibbon was still sitting as a judge and dispensing justice. James Joyce playfully slid in a possible double meaning reference concerning him in the Aeolus episode. The elder Fitzgibbon’s father, also of the same name, had been perhaps the most bigoted lawyer in Ireland in the nineteenth century, publishing absurd sectarian drivel about Catholicism and about how fortunate the Irish people were during the nineteenth century to be ruled by Englishmen.

In the meantime Meredith had published in 1928 a translation of Kant’s Critique of Teleological Judgement with notes and analyses, as he had with the earlier translation. He chaired numerous state commissions, including that on the Army mutiny of 1924. He was appointed by the League of Nations in 1934 to supervise a plebiscite in the Saar Basin in still-occupied Germany. He also wrote three plays (including one entitled The Heckled Unionist) and contributed to a plethora of intellectual and literary journals, both Irish and British. His utopian, visionary, philosophical, science-fiction novel The Rainbow in the Valley is a story of visitors to western China, including a thinly disguised, at times whimsical, Meredith. They communicate by radio with Mars and discuss Freud, Aristotle, Hegel and Kant. as well as language, the partition of Ireland, the League of Nations, and politics in general, given the gathering war clouds in Europe. We learn that there has not been a war on Mars for 10,000 years. Even Éamon de Valera and Eoin O’Duffy get a mention, the former telling a joke about the latter. The narrator relates an incident about himself in 1920 going out of his way to avoid being forced by the British military to take off his hat during the passing by of a military funeral procession on the Dublin quays for the detectives shot by the IRA on Bloody Sunday, and how it led to a quarrel with a lifelong friend. The thought occurs that perhaps the comment elsewhere of the narrator, “I have the greatest respect for pacifist theories, but I value Truth above everything”, is Meredith’s credo. Unfortunately for the book’s dissemination, its publication coincided with the outbreak of the world war, although even in times of peace Kantian novels top few bestseller lists.

One of Meredith’s cases was the custody battle between Muriel MacSwiney, Terence MacSwiney’s widow, and Mary MacSwiney, his sister, over his daughter, Máire, born in 1918. MacSwiney, lord mayor of Cork and IRA commandant there, had died on hunger strike in London in 1920, with worldwide publicity. MacSwiney, in his will, had appointed his sister to be joint guardian of his daughter. After the civil war, during which both women took the anti-treaty side, Muriel left for the continent with her daughter. She became involved in leftist politics there. In 1932 Mary, her aunt, went to Germany and, with the daughter’s agreement, effectively kidnapped the minor and raced with her by taxi to the Austrian border and then back to Cork. By this point the child had forgotten both her English and Irish, and had had, as she later wrote, “an erratic upbringing, moving from place to place”. Meredith had to determine which woman would have custody of the fourteen-year-old girl. Both sides fought the case bitterly over several months. Meredith decided to speak with the girl privately in his chambers. By then she understood some English. He asked her with whom she would like to live. She replied, “My aunt”. Meredith awarded custody to the aunt.

An interesting aside to the case is that for a time she and her aunt were furnished with Garda protection as there was evidence that Muriel was trying to “re-kidnap” her. She recalled later her aunt’s discomfiture: she was a diehard Republican who never accepted the legitimacy of the Free State, yet was being protected by their police. Mary MacSwiney, it may be remembered, was one of the seven surviving abstentionist Sinn Féin TDs from the Second Dáil who in 1938 purported to delegate the authority of the Irish Republic to the Army Council of the IRA. This was, presumably, their version of apostolic succession which, according to Irish Republican mythology, converted the IRA Army Council into the legitimate “de jure Government of the Irish Republic”.  

Meredith’s grandson, Rowan Gillespie, is one of Ireland’s finest sculptors, whose work includes the famine statues on the Dublin quays and the dolmen in Blackrock. Proclamation, the sculpture outside Kilmainham Jail, is a tribute both to the vision of the 1916 leaders and to the vision of his grandfather. Meredith died in 1942. Athlete, philosopher, revolutionary, jurist, he is now barely remembered. He deserves better.

5/5/2020