Opening speech at Sally Smyth’s “The Judicial Suite” exhibition by Professor John Harbison (then the State Pathologist) - The Law Library, Dublin on 24th February 2003

"My lords, ladies and gentlemen, to introduce myself, John Harbison, I am a cousin of the artist’s husband if that’s the right way to put it. And, I have been asked to open (I suppose is the correct word) this display of art of a new type that really at first I did not know much about. But I had a half-hour’s intense tutorial from the artist and will attempt to do some tiny bit of justice to what is an extraordinary collection of pictures when you begin to know what they are about.

And a lot of them are about various cases in the law courts, I don’t know how far I’m going to get with any individual one but I did find in the introductory book however things which were much more familiar such as the finding of three bodies in the city morgue, if any of you have read the programme, unfortunate peoples who during the troubles were killed… where do I go from here?

I also noticed that there was some reference to an unfortunate prisoner kept in a controlled festering condition which I’m sure was very painful, but in so doing he escaped entrapment by the Brits, and that doctor, he was a genius to do it, but lucky that the British orientated Medical Council didn’t strike him off for doing such a thing… but anyway, he saved a good Irish life.

I will attempt, as I say, after this tutorial to say a little bit about the pictures and the overall gist of them. I have no idea of the profound concepts which they refer to, much of it about supression of Irish liberty by the former colonial power and others I had thought… for instance two of them… with a little knowledge of dentistry I felt looked like dental roots in an inflamed state, but… No. 1 for instance, entitled Convicted, they were what I thought were nooses hanging down for the hangman but apparently they were not, but related to the infliction of self-harm by prisoners upon themselves for whatever reason; they hoped to embarrass their jailers I suppose.

Then looking below here at the reference to the Ansbacher Bank, we seem to know about the salting away of loot in that establishment and this, perhaps the tiny gold square in among the black background of the impoverished, while all the gold is salted away in the Ansbacher Bank. And elsewhere… there was an extraordinary event which was No. 10, The Burning of Bridget Cleary in 1895, in which, it would appear that there were people in this country with a firm belief in fairies still. Of course there’s a certain class of male which still exists in that category, but that was not what the artist intended of course.

There was one called Wound which is rectangular. I daresay I still have the skull in my possession. I have certainly examined the skull, with a number of rectangular markings; they were not due to any form of witchcraft but merely an unfortunate citizen of this city who had a file, the pointed end on which the handle normally goes, being driven into his head on several occasions. So I have actually seen square stab wounds. I bet the artist wasn’t aware of that particular one, I shall possibly get her a picture of the square stab wound.

There is a picture Stalking of Innocence, with another one in the distance, which looks certainly threatening. Next to that, No. 9, which represents a courthouse with a possible victim, though I may be wrong, standing slightly to one side. Interesting, in view of recent financial scandals, to see The Cayman Islands in a very stark maplet shall we say, with Grand Cayman and Little Cayman; I think the bank was on the bigger one, and I think it needs no great introduction.

There is one here, not The Book of Evidence… one to do with swearing (which one is it ?) in which I felt so bold as to make a remark myself about swearing because I have long since ceased to swear in court and I don’t mean using bad language, having had a difference of opinion with a registrar in the court, because I picked up a half testament – whether it was new or old it certainly had been wrenched (bent (?)) in half and the registrar of the court, who’s the real boss of the court not the Judge (I hope there isn’t a judge here that’s annoyed with my reckoning that they seem to call the shots); so I said to the Judge “Your Lordship, I see nothing wrong with this (admittedly perhaps) slightly tacky looking testament” and the registrar said “put it down …!”. So eventually, having tried not to put it down the Judge said “You better do as you’re told” and I didn’t know what it was about, and I went down to the chief registrar (the registrar’s the man who runs the court, the Judge just tries the case) and I said “I had a row upstairs with one of your men concerning swearing the oath, he wouldn’t let me use one particular book" (I had my own suspicions on what it was but anyway I’ll tell you the result first.) I said “listen, can I affirm from now on and never take the name of God into it” I said, “without putting all my evidence to date, a dozen years or more, at risk ?” “Oh” he said “Yes you can.” So I have never sworn on oath since, I have always affirmed, but what was the reason ? I suspect that some canny registrar or underling had torn a bible in half to remove the new testament so that you’d have the old testament part only, for a member of the Jewish faith to do his swearing … I don’t know, I never found out the answer. But, some lawyer here might enlighten me about this extraordinary going on. I should come back to the painting, I beg your pardon !

Now, No. 21 represents an identity parade, people in a row at the top of the picture which… I must say there have been miscarriages of justice I think in Britain over identification (facially) suggests that in this day and age perhaps if not fingerprinting, DNA can after all be had from one hair root, and I’ve already plucked half a dozen out with one sweep of my hand. But even to pluck one hair in Ireland would of course infringe your constitutional rights in this country, since one hair can of course convict a person.

I am trying to say a little more but fear that I’m running out of fuel somehow. I am intrigued by this repetition of not just squares but rectangles and one in particular I think relates to The Book of Evidence, No. 17 which would be the proportions of an open book. Books of evidence are a loosely bound item with all the information against an accused person, which would be produced in court.

What of others should I state ? Yes… as a mere pathologist, really I don’t know… I certainly know that one I thought was a venorial cape that was No. 5. I must confess… I’m colour blind, something I’m… (laughs) I can still see quite well on the colour front, but there’s a clever Japanese gentleman, Mr. Itsikara who had a clever way of diagnosing colour blindness, and I was definitely suffering from it… I can assure you however I can tell stop from go in a set of traffic lights otherwise I wouldn’t be here to tell the tale. And, in fact it is a credit to the artist that these colours look particularly vivid to me, the reds especially, so perhaps we’ve found a cure for my dreaded complaint !

I think I have probably said sufficient to allow discussion to take place. I also noted the heroic history of the artist’s mother and the reference to Kilmainham Prison. I myself have been in Mountjoy on a couple of occasions I must admit not by order of the Judge, but we exhumed in Mountjoy ten men who had been executed by the Brits and they were laid out in neat rows, in fact they may have been transferred from one part of the Joy to another. And, I had with me an anatomist who is sadly now dead who was an expert and confirmed to me the fractured cervical vertebrae to show that these men were judicially hanged. That at least was some consolation to the relatives if they were not aware of it because it meant that they died instantly, or lost consciousness instantly, rather than being left to strangle on the end of a rope. But, I better not make people lose sleep or get nightmares on whether people do strangle on the end of a hangman’s rope or not. Happily we have ceased executing people in this country and hopefully never will have to again. We did borrow the English hangman, we never found an Irishman who would descend into such infamy as to hang his fellow humans.

Right, I will end by congratulating Sally, she took me ‘round on a sort of mission of conversion to understand the profundity of her thought about these cases; often women; others, solicitors who have suffered, (I better be careful in these hallowed walls) from miscarriages of justice, or we’ll have a pretty hairy cross-examination in the next murder trial I’m being quizzed on by one of their number… but it is inspiring to realise what looked at first like a few quite simple red squares, black lines, had in fact a profound meaning, often deeply felt and sometimes even tragic.

So, Sally may I congratulate you for, most importantly, educating me and therefore I think probably educating many of us here with this magnificent display of, well, I suppose what one would call modern art which I am now beginning go know a fragment about, and hopefully that we would all educate ourselves by this remarkable and beautifully framed, and decent large sized pictures so those with eyesight like mine can see them from even a distance off. So, Sally thank you for inviting me along and sorry for not doing full justice to these pictures of yours, and I hope you all enjoy watching them. And thank you very much for listening…