Former Judge Michael Connellan says it's important to say what you have to say and to do it in a nice way. Photo by Shelley Corcoran.
He has always spoken his mind, has a quick wit and good sense of humour, and is probably one of the best known faces in the country.
But Michael Connellan - the former judge from Longford town - also has a wonderful story to tell and this week he sat down with the Longford Leader to share some of that quick wit and impart his knowledge and wisdom with the team. It was both entertaining and sobering.
Born on April 4 1935, Michael Connellan entered the world during what can only be described as the war years.
It wasn’t long since the end of WWI and just four years away from the outbreak of WWII.
There was no money and poverty was very evident in Longford town.
He recalled his early memories of school.
“I went to school during the war and it was a very strange time; I went first to the Convent National School on September 3, 1939 and the next day England declared war on Germany.
“We used to go to school through Breaden’s Lane and cross the road to get in.
“The first nun I had was Sr Cecilia then Sr Francis and Sr Scholastica.”
Michael Connellan spent three years there until he made his First Communion in May 1942.
“There was nothing - there was no money, no tea, no petrol and no cars in the town,” he recalled.
“Sugar was rationed too.”
He also remembers the way in which people in Longford town lived in those days.
“There was yards here in the town with houses; there was McDonnell’s Yard and then at the back of the Annaly Hotel - which was Stafford’s Hotel when I was going to school - there was houses in what was known as Blue Yard.
“Down at the bottom of Richmond Street there was more houses known as ‘Widow’s Row’ and Little Water Street was the main street in Longford town then.
“The only family left there now is the Dempseys - they are a very old Longford town family.
“Billy Dempsey was a cobbler and he went to school with me.”
“At that time there was free dinners in the McGoey Hall for the gossons going to school; the teachers would say to us, ‘hands up who wants to go for dinners in the McGoey Hall’ and a lot of lads would put their hands up. They got fed good stew or whatever was going at the time and it kept them going.
“One fella that went to school with me went to America. He was home about 10 years ago and came to see me and do you know what he said?
‘But for the free dinners I would have got it very hard to exist’.”
Meanwhile, Michael remembers other well-known families in the town when he was growing up.
“There was the Greene’s - they were roofers and they had a gennet and cart - Creightons, Keiltys and Cunniffes,” he smiles recalling some wonderful memories.
“There was also a lot of WWI ex British Army soldiers around Longford town as well.”
Meanwhile, Michael's father worked as a solicitor in his own practice in Longford town and the local man is acutely aware that he and his five siblings had a little more than a lot of families around them when they were youngsters.
After he completed his secondary education at boarding school in Roscrea, Michael entered UCD where he studied Law. One of his lecturers there was a man who would go on to lead the country - the late Garret Fitzgerald.
Thereafter he returned home to work in the family’s law practice.
His brother Padraig was also a solicitor and when Michael took over the practice after the death of their father, he and Padraig became a formidable force in the Longford town legal scene.
But tragedy was to strike and in 1993 Padraig died unexpectedly at the age of 58.
That same year, Michael’s beloved wife Paddie got a stroke.
“Paddie got a stroke in 1993; she was able to walk with a stick but then she got cancer a few years ago, had an operation and as a result of that lost the power in her legs,” he says with sadness.
“She can’t stand or walk; she can’t read or write and her speech is poor, but she does know everything that is going on. She also has the use of her left arm. It’s very hard on her and as a nurse herself she knows what’s wrong with her and the ramifications of the illness.”
A Fianna Fail town councillor for Longford, Paddie Connellan was one of the most popular and well-liked women in the county.
She was on the national executive of the Fianna Fáil party and chairwoman of the Visiting Committee to Mountjoy.
Together Michael and Paddie have two daughters Fiona and Patricia, and one son Michael. They also have five adored grandchildren.
“They come and they go and they are in and out; I have grandnieces and grandnephews living here beside me too and they are in and out too,” Michael smiles.
“With the children I’m inclined to give them ice cream and sweets when they call and they know it!”
However, the loss of his brother in 1993 had a profound impact on Michael.
It made him take stock of himself and forced him to look at his life more closely.
He decided it was time to make some changes - most especially in his career.
So, he decided to apply for the judiciary.
“Padraig’s death was a hard blow; he worked with me for donkey’s years before he became County Registrar,” Michael added.
“His death really took the steam out of my engine and I began to wonder what exactly was I doing working as a solicitor in Longford and where exactly was I going.”
He says too that at that stage he was beginning to look at life through a different lense.
“I use to say that I was full of miscellaneous, useless, knowledge but be that as it may I took over the practice and became State solicitor in August 1963,” he laughs, proudly alluding to the fact that the position is now held by his nephew Mark.
“When I was a solicitor here in Longford town people did very little wrong. You might have the odd dangerous driving causing death or serious bodily injury and that was as serious as it got.
“When we were going, back in the 1940s, to school there was a fella called the Rover Quinn and he killed his girlfriend when she was milking the cow, and my mother used to say to us when we were out of order, ‘I’ll get the Rover Quinn after you!’
“Then I was offered a job as a judge in 1994 and took it; it is a job that I really enjoyed.
“When I became a judge I was 35 years qualified and an experienced lawyer.”
One case in particular that sticks out over his often colourful and varied career was the brief hearing held in Longford in 1979 when the man charged in connection with the death of Lord Mountbatten appeared before the court.
Michael was there on behalf of the State that day in his capacity as State solicitor and the heavy garda and army presence in town on the occasion will always stay with him.
His time on the Donegal district court circuit also brings some fond memories to the fore as does his dealings with members of the public in Cork, Clare, Dublin, Cavan, Monaghan, Westmeath and Kerry.
He also presided over the children’s court in Dublin for a number of years.
“I got fairly challenged by the people of Donegal, I can tell you,” he laughs now, before pointing out that there were three Judge Connellans during his time on the Bench including himself, Peter and Murrough.
“I often saw a photo of myself attached to an article in the daily papers of a case Peter presided over and other times it might be Murrough and they vice versa with me……..I even got judicially reviewed to the High Court in Peter Connellan’s name,” he laughs.
A man that has always spoken his mind, Michael Connellan looks back now and says that his sense of mischievousness helped him to get away with comments on occasions that perhaps others wouldn’t have gotten away so lightly with!
“I was always careful though; you have to be.
“But I would say things out straight and I think that people respected me for that.
“It’s important to say the things that you have to say and in a nice way too.
“Law is only 20% of it - the rest comes from common sense and a bit of empathy and understanding towards the fellow man.”
During all his years as a judge, he sat just once in Longford Courthouse.
“I did a lot of cases that day and I am delighted now that it happened because it’s nice to say that I sat in the my hometown courthouse.”
Does he have any regrets?
Just one it appears - “I should have learned how to use a computer,” he smiles.
Perhaps his funniest soundings during the interview with the Longford Leader is his surprise at still being alive!
“Well,” he laughs, “I never thought I’d live this long!
“All my colleagues in Longford are dead now and it amazes me that I got this far.”
And at 83 it’s not that long ago since Michael retired from public life.
Judges are expected to retire on their 70th birthday but the day after his milestone birthday he was appointed vice chairman of the Valuation Appeals Tribunal.
And one morning in 2009 at the age of 74 in the dead of winter while waiting for a train in Longford to take him to Dublin he had a moment of enlightenment.
“I was above at the railway station that morning at 6:50am in the middle of winter standing on the platform in the bitter cold waiting for the train to bring me to Dublin for work when I said to myself, ‘what class of an eejit are you; standing here at your age in the bitter cold going to work?’
He resigned that very day and hasn’t looked back since.
He visits his wife every afternoon, spends time with his immediate and extended family and likes to go into town occasionally for a chat with the locals.
“I’m a native of Longford town; I like the townspeople and I like to talk.
“This town has changed greatly - a lot of the families are gone and so too are a lot of the businesses. Time changes everything.”