A gentleman and a judge…

Many years ago, when then Judge John F Neilan was in the news (again) having made what were perceived to be controversial remarks from the bench, I got a call from RTE’s Morning Ireland.

They wanted to know if I thought there was any chance of the esteemed judge (who lived beside what was then the Roscommon Champion office) giving them an interview. I said I didn’t. They persisted. “Can you please get a message to him?” I knew a sitting judge was highly unlikely to speak to the media, but I had no problem with being a messenger.

That’s when I wrote a polite note (for RTE) to Judge Neilan, before walking across the road and putting it through the letter box. My job done!

When I met John on one of his frequent walks a day or two later, no words were necessary. Just a wry smile and a roll of the eyes.

For years afterwards, any time I met him on his walk I’d ask if – now that he was retired – he was ready to give us the ‘tell-all’ interview. He’d always joke about it.

I was very saddened to hear of John’s death last week, which followed a period of illness. Abbey Street (and our county) has lost a very distinguished resident.

He rose to considerable heights in his legal career, while all the time remaining rooted in his own town and community.

During his time ‘on the bench’ Judge Neilan was often in the headlines, reflecting his outspoken style and fearlessness (he was very happy to criticise or hold the establishment to account, and was a passionate advocate for the marginalised and vulnerable).

Post-retirement, he retained a great interest in public affairs, and a boundless love for Roscommon. Very modest and unassuming, he was thoughtful, with fascinating, forthright and very sensible opinions – and a great sense of humour. A gentleman, he will be greatly missed in Abbey Street, and further afield. My sympathies to the Neilan family on their loss. May he rest in peace.