JUDGES, barristers, solicitors, clerks, office staff and more joined together in Waterford’s Circuit Court last Tuesday (July 16) to pay tribute to the late Noel Whelan, who, as well as being a columnist, activist and political commentator, was a barrister in Waterford for the past 10 years.
“It seems like only yesterday that I paid tribute to Noel Whelan on his retirement as a prosecutor of the city and county of Waterford,” said Circuit Judge Eugene O’Kelly, leading the tributes. “He will be remembered around here as an immensely fine lawyer. He had a very sharp brain for complex legal problems but it was his role as prosecutor that he was outstanding in and will be long remembered in Waterford. He was a skilled, persuasive advocate and had to deal with many difficult and shocking cases, as well as the mundane ones. For each case he worked on, he had a deeply engrained sense of fairness and justice. He believed, correctly, that it was his function to present the evidence and let the people of Waterford decide on issues of guilt or innocence. That was the essence of Noel – fairness, justice and a great love for the Irish Constitution.”
Judge O’Kelly gave a special mention to whose tea bracks, Noel used to love. The Angela in question is Angela Hunt who used to run the cafe while the courthouse temporarily sat in Gracedieu. Speaking to the News & Star, Angela described Noel as a “country boy who loved the simplest of things”.
“He was a gentleman who was never intimidating,” Angela said. “We meet the nicest of people in the strangest of places. I was very lucky to have met him.”
Judge O’Kelly invited a number of speakers, representing various facets of the courts service, to share their memories, and tributes to Mr Whelan. First up was State Prosecutor Mr Frank Hutchinson.
“It’s a poignant honour to be making some public remarks on the death of our dear friend,” Mr Hutchinson said. “It’s just 15 weeks since Noel left Waterford to start his career at the inner bar. We really believed that he was going to have a hugely successful career that would end in high judicial office, or perhaps a chairmanship of some Government tribunal or commission. Alas that’s not to be and we now lament our friend.”
During Noel’s time in Waterford, he spent 1,000 working days in three different court houses and received over 800 prosecution briefs.
“Noel brought so many talents to his life of 50 years,” Mr Hutchinson continued. “We think of him firstly as a lawyer but of course he had other lives as a columnist, campaigner, writer, political strategist, a husband and a father. He did all of these things well but we did enjoy teasing him that he was in fact the Irish Times Fianna Fail correspondent. Noel was a great prosecutor because he founded on the logical concept of ‘what do we need to prove here?’ In his appalling handwriting, he would make a list of the essential proofs and then in a sort of mathematical way, link them to the witnesses and the exhibits that were available to him.”
Mr Hutchinson said that Noel had a particular way of making a victim in a case feel at ease, offsetting the often frightening and intimidating atmosphere of a courthouse.
“Many times, at the opening of a difficult consultation with a victim, he would make some remark like, ‘I’m from a family of 12 myself’ or ‘I come from a small village in County Wexford’ or ‘God I must lose a few pounds’. Such a self-effacing type of remark immediately transformed the tone of the meeting. We are profoundly grateful that Noel’s life coincided with ours.”
Mr David Bulbulia spoke on behalf of Noel’s fellow barristers.
“Noel was a tremendous colleague and was well regarded and respected by everybody,” Mr Bulbulia said. “In all the cases that I personally did against Noel I can never recall having a cross word with him. He never personalised cases and saw his role as prosecutor in the traditional sense despite being far from a traditional man. The word that I most associate with Noel is humanity. He brought a sense of humanity to his prosecuting. He didn’t just see a crossword puzzle, as so many lawyers sometimes do. He could also see the human stories, and often human tragedies that lay within. I remember inheriting one of Noel’s pupils – one who came to be fully fledged – and I remember asking her how on earth Noel found the time, with his enormous practice and family life, to be on television and radio every time I flick it on. She said, ‘you must understand, that’s his passion and his love’, which absolutely did come through in his writing, and his words on television.”
Speaking on behalf of the Gardaí, Waterford’s Chief Superintendent Chris Delaney said that it was difficult to talk about Noel Whelan “in the past tense”.
“We all knew Noel for what he was, the consummate professional who was extremely perceptive and able to read cases well in advance of us getting to trial,” Chief Supt Delaney said. “He could identify key areas, which required work and we learned an awful lot from Noel over the many years he was here. The huge workload that he managed, both in the city and county was remarkable but one abiding quality, which I can recall about him, was his calmness. In any type of a contested situation, he had that calmness about him that spread down to the investigations team, junior officers and throughout the organisation.”
Dave Morrissey spoke on behalf of the courts service, and in particular court registrar Margaret Bible who worked so closely with Noel down the years. He described Noel as an “advocate for the people of Ireland” and said that for all of the staff of the courts service down the years, he was a pleasure to work with.
County Registrar Mr. Niall Rooney used a line from Shakespeare to sum up his tribute to Noel.
“His life was gentle; and the elements, so mixed in him, that Nature might stand up and say to all the world – this was a man.”
On behalf of the Waterford News & Star and all of the journalists that worked in the company of Noel, it is fair to say that he had a deep respect for the role of the media in the courts. He spoke slowly and clearly and asked witnesses to speak up when it was obvious that they must do so. He provided assistance when it was needed and witty political banter during the many interludes, while a judge or Jury deliberated.
To his wife, Sinéad McSweeney, and son, Séamus, we offer sincere condolences. May he rest in peace.