Ward

It was like a scene from a Mad Max movie or an old Western. A lonely farmer is hiding out in a shed, cradling his shot gun. He is terrified about burglaries and crimes in his area. One day, another man arrives in a car, with his son, and goes to the front of the farmer’s house, and then to the back. The farmer knows this as he has come upon the man’s son sitting in a car. The farmer rushes to his house and see’s the man acting suspiciously at his back door. He shoots at him to frighten him away.

The man reacts with rage and rushes at the farmer knocking away his gun and locking him into a fight. The visitor is beaten repeatedly with a stick but, despite his injuries, he manages to hobble away. However, the farmer, enraged and terrified that the man will come back for him, or that the son will, retrieves his gun, reloads it and runs after the fleeing man. He shoots at him again as he is lying on the road and the man is killed.

The dead man was a 42 year old Traveller called John ‘Frog’ Ward (pictured above) and the bachelor farmer was 60 year old Padraic Nally and the events of that crisp October afternoon ten years ago in remote Mayo would create huge controversy and divide the nation. For many, especially in rural Ireland, Nally was entirely within his rights, a lone hero, who had stoutly defended himself and his property from burglary, menace and attack. But for others Nallywas a vengeful, overly suspicious farmer who had ‘eliminated’ a fleeing Traveller. There was little ground in between, and the discussion only grew more animated as further details emerged about the two protagonists.

According to his son, Tom, the two Wards had been travelling the countryside, looking to buy old cars that they could sell on. They saw one such car near Nally’s house and his father went to investigate. However, Tom could not produce satisfactory evidence of this, or of other matters. He also wasn’t aware, he claimed, that his father was in fact, a volatile, violent individual, who had over 80 criminal convictions including for cases of assault against the Gardai. Indeed, at the time of the shooting there were four bench warrants out for his arrest – fact that shows the then (and continuing) utter farce of the Irish bail laws.

There also seemed to be previous history between Nally and Ward. Nally was convinced he had been almost robbed by Ward before, although his son denied this. In the months before the shooting, Nally’s house had been broken into a number of times, and items were taken.

Others, however, felt that Nally might have been exaggerating the danger he was in. Certainly, his own defence, in the public mind, was not helped by his frank claims during the trial (and repeated later on TV) of how he how he had tried to suppress Ward with an iron bar, but it was ‘like hitting a stone or a badger. You could hit him but you could not kill him.’ The statement seemed to suggest that Nally wanted to kill Ward, not injure him, an argument strongly made by the prosecution.

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It was an utterly divisive story, although those closer to the land were more sympathetic to Nally and he had, of course, huge local support, not least from other farmers who had also suffered from burglary and harassment. Eventually, Nally was put on trial and the case was heard in Castlebar, a most unusual departure and one that some said favoured Nally, as the jury would be locally drawn. It was the first time such a trial had been heard outside Dublin and was done so because the town had a major new courthouse.

However, in an even more unusual development, and one that would not favour Nally, the presiding Justice Judge Paul Carney agreed to the proposal by the prosecution that the jury could only record a verdict of guilty of murder or manslaughter, and not the third option of a full acquittal. This was on the basis that Nally had apparently gone beyond reasonable self-defence.  But this should have been a matter for the jury to decide and the ruling was appealed to the Court of Criminal appeal which directed that there be a re-trial, this time in Dublin.

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In the meantime, Nally (above) was convicted of manslaughter and was sentenced to six years jail. Some said it was too lenient, others said it was outrageous that he should be in prison at all. Pending his appeal, Nally swopped his farm for Mountjoy jail where he received almost 3000 letters of support, not just from all over Ireland, but from all over the world. He was a ‘stand your ground’ hero, a man who had forcefully defended himself when the system had let him and so many others down.

The case brought out some ugly anti-Traveller prejudice, but it also raised valid concerns about elements of persistent criminality in that community. Ten years on, public attitudes to Traveller culture have changed and much improved, assisted by the exploits of our Olympic boxers and TV shows like The McDonaghs and My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. The public recognises that violent feuds, bare-knuckle fighting and crime is only one part of Traveller culture – just as is gangland crime or drugs for the settled community – but it is a frequent and endemic part and that has to be acknowledged. This is especially the case in rural Ireland and in the rural West of Ireland. There is thus also a considerable gulf between how these things are perceived in Dublin and in other parts of the country.

In the specific case of Frog Ward, the feeling was that here was a long term violent criminal who had got what he deserved, regardless of whether he was a Traveller or settled. But is this the sort of society that we want, others asked, that an offender can be effectively ‘executed’ in the course of a crime?

As the prosecution put it at the re-trial, ‘what John Ward was up to on the day he was shot may be not have been for the good of the community, but the penalty for larceny is not death. Mr Nally had won the fight, it was over. The law doesn’t allow someone to kill someone, just in case that someone would have come back later to kill him.’

And Nally himself conceded this, admitting that if Ward had gotten away that day, he would have killed himself rather than go through it all again. ‘If he had gone away that day, they’d still be robbing my house and I’d be lying in my grave’ claimed the tortured farmer. ‘I’d have killed myself because I couldn’t take any more and there’d be no court case.’ Again, it implied that he wanted Ward eliminated.

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However, the jury did not see it like that, and after a lengthy deliberation, he was found not guilty and released to the great relief of his supporters and family. But Civil Liberties groups and Travellers groups were outraged. Either way, there were calls for the law to be clarified in terms of self-defence and defending one’s property, but, as so often in Ireland, it was not until two years ago that the subsequent 2010 Criminal Law (Defence and the Dwelling) Act actually became law. It strengthens the rights of the householder, especially if they are under serious physical attack. However, there is still a feeling among the public that the legal system is failing to protect them in that it allows serial offenders like Ward out on bail where they continue to offend.

In effect, the Ward shooting was actually a terrible tragedy, and not a typical occurrence. Nally was within his rights to shoot to defend himself when he feared he was under severe attack, but whether he was right to renew his attack after he’d scared off his attacker is another matter. But who are we to judge the mind-set of a terrified isolated man in the midst of a brutal attack?

As Nally recently told Mayo journalist Crona Esler, in a new book about the case called ‘Unless by Invitation’, ‘what happened on my farm – and what followed – had nothing whatsoever to do with Travellers. It was just me and another man….I felt I was under threat and in danger and I acted on the spur of the moment. A man lost his life that day and I’m sorry for the family of John Ward but I didn’t get up that morning thinking I was going to kill someone. I’m not that sort of person. I didn’t go looking for trouble. Trouble came looking for me.’

Ten years later, the case and its background might seem like a whole other Ireland, with its disturbing image of lonely farmers with shotguns, hiding out in sheds while violent criminals with multiple convictions cruise the land for robbery and opportunity. But the reality is that nothing has changed.

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