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A Very Brief Encounter

It's 1913 and when a Longford woman's engagement to a rich Glasnevin resident is derailed, where does she turn for comfort - the Dublin Courts.

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4.4/5 (94 ratings)

Documentary Maker: Emily Sheerin

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Documentary maker: Sarah Blake

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A Very Brief Encounter

"Do you intend to marry me?" "Now, that will do... it's all over!"

100 years ago this year, Miss Emily Sheeran took Mr Patrick Duignan to court in Dublin, in an action for Breach of Promise to Marry.

The story was found by chance: another Emily Sheerin, a Dubliner, was looking through old newspaper articles about two great-grandfathers. Combined errors - mismatching names and the newspapers' incorrect spelling of her surname - uncovered a whole series of articles about this court case from February 1913, involving the eldest daughter of a Daniel Sheerin (sic), a farmer in Co. Longford. Emily Sheerin? The name's not that common - could she have been a distant relation? (Sadly, she turned out to be a SheerAn.)

The story seemed too good to be true - a tale of hectic efforts to marry Emily, a governess of all things, to "a single man in possession of a fortune"? A case that was decided on St Valentine's Day? You couldn't make it up. But it's true.

Patrick Duignan tries to deny the engagement ever happened. He's somewhat eccentric, so excellent fodder for the barristers. He also says he's 68, "though his family know him to be 73!" The newspapers drip-fed descriptions to readers at the time - the story even reached the Wanganui Chronicle of New Zealand.

How to retell a story like this? "Tribunal" actors: Joe Taylor and Malcolm Douglas are joined by Cathy Belton and Barry Barnes, to re-enact the courtroom scenes.

But who was Emily Sheeran, and why did her family risk going to court? Longford County Library's Archivist, Martin Morris uncovers more information and The Longford Leader's reports. He also arranges a little odyssey, with visits to the Sheeran's former farm in Clondra, to Clondra graveyard and to Mr James Cox in Roscommon, a relative of the family, who does know what happened Emily later.

The documentary mixes a not-too-serious look at Emily's story, with just what a "Breach of Promise" action entailed. Professor Maria Luddy, an historian and Breach of Promise enthusiast, rounds out the story, describing the world in which these cases could happen, the significance of newspaper reporting - and the barristers' "theatrical" leanings. Oh, and there is a scene on a train'd have to.

Narrated and produced by Emily Sheerin
Production Supervision by Sarah Blake
Sound Supervision by Mark Mc Grath

Professor Maria Luddy Head of History Department at Warwick University and author of 'Mattters of Deceit: Breach of Promise Cases in Ireland'.
Martin Morris Archivist, Longford County Library, Heritage and Archives Service.
Mr James Cox, Roscommon.

Courtroom re-enactments by Barry Barnes, Cathy Belton, Malcolm Douglas and Joe Taylor.

First Broadcast August 24th 2013

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