Thursday, October 16, 2014

Of the Irish Constitution and half a red beard

1924 portrait of Darrell Figgis. The beard is red.
This is about a red beard and knives, but you'll need to bear with me while first I give a bit of context. In University College Cork's library yesterday I picked up the American Journal of Legal History and found an article on the Irish Free State Constitution. It's by Laura Cahillane who used to be at UCC, and as I narrowly missed a seminar she gave on this very topic a couple of years ago, I was delighted to find it. What I was actually looking for was something on the law of outer space but that’s another story.

The Irish Free State Constitution was the first Constitution of independent Ireland. Drawn up after the close of the Irish War of Independence, it was born in the midst of the Civil War, which broke out over disagreements as to the status of the embryonic Irish State and the continuing ties with the British Empire. The Free State Constitution was in force from 1922 until 1937, when it was replaced with a new constitution: Bunreacht na htireann.  However Cahillane’s point is that the 1937 constitution was not a completely new document; on the contrary, it contains (with certain additions and subtractions) most of the Free State Constitution, which still forms the spine of Ireland’s current constitution (now widely recognised as out of date).

She intends to rescue the Free State Constitution from undeserved obscurity, claiming that because of its Civil War birth pangs, it has been the subject of controversy and misinformation, and indeed the butt contempt and derision; as a result of which it is (she says) one of the most misunderstood aspects of the Irish legal system, neglected by legal and historical scholars.

That’s the preamble. Now we're getting nearer to the beard. It belonged to Darrell Figgis, known as an fear fēasōgach, the bearded one, and deputy chairman of the 1922 constitution drafting committee.  Michael Collins appointed himself chairman of the committee but whilst chairman in name, he did not have time to become actively involved in the drafting process. Apart from the initial meeting, he attended only one other, but he did keep in regular contact with some of the members and his instructions guided the committee in its work.

The Constitution Committee meeting at the Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin. Figgis is seated fourth from the left.
Darrell Figgis was a renowned literary figure in Ireland. He had also been an active member of the Irish Volunteers and Sinn Fein. Cahillane thinks that in many ways, Figgis was a curious choice as he was very unpopular.  Despite this, he was highly talented and a major influence on the shaping of the Free Sate Constitution, both in his daily attendance at the committee and in the subsequent debate in the Constituent Assembly.  Figgis applied himself to the study of constitutions and developed specific ideas on how the new constitution should be structured. He was the author of one of the three eventual drafts submitted by the committee to the Provisional Government.

Half of his beard

He was moreover famous for his red beard, of which he was immensely proud. In a footnote - and here we come to the nub of the matter - Cahillane relates a strange incident in June 1922. Three men broke into Figgis’s house in the middle of the night with knives and cut half of his beard off. Details of the attack remained vague until one of those responsible broke his silence 36 years later. He was the future Lord Mayor of Dublin, Robert Briscoe, who explained that Figgis had been attacked because of disobliging remarks about the IRA.

You can find an account of the incident and an extract from Robert Briscoe’s memoir in the Wikipedia article on Figgis.  It specifies a glittering razor rather than knives, and there is no mention of only half the beard being cut off.  So here we have a discrepancy, which after some soul-searching, I've decided I don't have the time to resolve.

The constitution had to be approved by the British government as well as the Irish parliament. This was by virtue of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty. And because the draft sounded too republican, and didn't say enough about being part of the British Empire, the British government threatened to go to war with Ireland again. But I won’t say any more on that as I really just wanted to tell you about the beard, and let you know that if the only reading material in front of you happens to be a journal of legal history, that may not be as dull as it sounds.