New Zealand Law Society - The Irish R.M: Justice a mere sideline in historical magistrates series

The Irish R.M: Justice a mere sideline in historical magistrates series

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A screen shot of the Irish RM

This semi-comical television series, a joint Irish-British production, was as much about class and servitude as it was about the serving of justice.

The R.M. in the title refers to the Resident Magistrates which the United Kingdom (which at the time included all of Ireland) sent out to the colonies to sort out those dashed unruly locals and provide a stiff upper lip type civility.

They were also present in New Zealand, first established in 1846, with the R.M.s deciding on a limited range of criminal cases and civil claims. In 1893 they became known simply as magistrates and their responsibility and authority was extended.

The Irish R.M. of the series is one Major Sinclair Yeates, played by Peter Bowles, who basically does what he always does by playing a genial British establishment figure. Yeates is a retired army officer who has been dispatched as resident magistrate to the small town of Skebawn. The first series is set at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries, well over a decade before the Easter Uprising. In fact, these stories relate to a period of relative stability and peace on the island following the political tensions and violence of the Land War (1880–92).

In the opening episode Yeates encounters his landlord Flurry Knox and finds out exactly what mischief he and his associates can get up to.

On his first day in court, after being conned into giving only a caution to a serial offender for a minor offence, a chastened Yeates sticks Flurry’s fox hunting whipper-in in jail for a week for Saturday night fisticuffs, much to Knox’s chagrin.

The three series, which ran from 1983 to 1985, were based on the books of Edith Somerville, an Irish novelist and feminist, and Violet Martin, who wrote under the pseudonym Martin Ross. Interestingly, it appears that Somerville was an avowed Irish nationalist while Martin was a committed unionist. That didn’t stop them from collaborating on more than a dozen books, including three that spawned the TV series many decades later – Some Experiences of an Irish R.M., Further Experiences of an Irish R.M. and In Mr Knox’s Country.

The basis of the episodes are that Major Sinclair Yeates attempts to be a reasonable man in a society that relishes devilment. Two women feature prominently, his wife Philippa, a measure of understanding and support, and his housekeeper Mrs Cadogan, a defender of the home against outsiders.

Sinclair has also developed a close friendship with Flurry Knox, who has an unerring instinct for getting what he wants with just a wink and a smile. He is one of several Irish stereotypes, but the film-makers also poke fun at the English, including one crass upper class twit who provides some jolly hockey sticks type humour.

In one episode in the second series, Yeates must decide what to do with salmon poachers, and the village’s new dispensary doctor, who turns out to be one of Flurry`s old Trinity College pals, cons the Major into breaking into the local butcher shop to ‘’borrow’’ some meat.

In a subsequent episode, taking its cue from Whisky Galore, the book and film about a real-life grounding of a ship full of whisky on a remote Scottish island, a ship goes aground in a winter storm, spilling its cargo – barrels of rum – all over a beach, resulting in contraband caches. ‘’The real tragedy,’’ says a spectator in the magistrate`s chambers, ‘’is that so much good liquor was wasted on the stones’’.

Meanwhile, weaved into this tale of comical petty crime, is a sub-plot about Knox being challenged to a polo game by a visiting maharjah and his compatriots.

As The Clean and English fox hunters may once have cried: Tally Ho!

All three series – 18 episodes – of the The Irish R.M. are available on a boxset DVD.

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