independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

A lonely pint for the man who was once the toast of Tralee

Two years ago, Brian Curtin was the toast of Tralee. Revered in legal circles as an astute, loquacious lawyer, the newly-appointed judge was one of Kerry's best-loved sons. A man of the people who had broken the mould in a profession that rarely mixes outside its elite club, he had a common touch that appealed to juries and put those around him instantly at ease.

His love of drama and commitment to theatre enhanced his image in the town. In his previous life as a barrister, his charismatic presence could dazzle a courtroom. His polished acting skills were a huge asset to local drama groups and he was regularly seen treading the boards of Tralee's playhouse as the leading man.

With his cultured accent and eloquence, the London-born judge had also developed a successful career as a broadcaster, presenting a weekly news review on Radio Kerry. His sharp wit and insight into current affairs built up a loyal following, and his Sunday morning show fast became one of the station's most popular.

Wherever Brian went, good company was sure to follow. At night, he would hold court in his local pub, Baily's Corner on Tralee's main street, telling yarns and cracking jokes for the town's lawyers and media. Gregarious, full of fun, the life and soul of the party is how they remember their old friend.

But this week, as he stared into his pint in Baily's bar on a windy Wednesday night, cold-shouldered by his colleagues and ostracised by the people of Tralee, Brian Curtin cut a tragic figure alone at the counter. It is a scenario he has got used to since May, 2002, when he was arrested on charges of possession of child pornography.

Regulars who would once have jumped to share a pint with him turned the other way, embarrassed by his presence, reluctant to be seen in the company of a man who has been found innocent in law, but has still not explained how he came to be arrested for having pornography on the hard drive of his computer.

Since the charges were brought, Judge Curtin has been the victim of a number of violent assaults in the town. In one incident on a Sunday night last Christmas, he had dropped into a jazz session in the popular Greyhound Bar in the town when a man burst in and punched him with a force that knocked him to the ground. In the process, Jacinta Powell, a female patron who was standing behind him, was injured and ended up in casualty with a broken foot.

"In some ways, we wish he would go to ground for a month or so, go off to the sun or something for a while," said Gary O'Donnell, owner of Baily's.

"The dust needs to settle on this whole mess for a while. At the moment, he is attracting controversy wherever he goes, and though the courts have found him innocent, there is a lot of anger out there against the whole thing."

On the quiet street where Curtin lives, a modest estate called Ard na Li in the suburbs of the town, similar murmurings are heard.

"Of course people are concerned," said one young mother living locally. "He was a very good neighbour and well-liked, but you can't expect something like that to be brushed under the carpet and forgotten about. The court of law has found him innocent, but the court of public opinion wants an answer as to how his credit card number got into the hands of the American police.

"Did this so-called Trojan virus jump out of the computer and swipe his American Express card out of his wallet? Isn't it only fair to want answers to these questions? For his own sake even, why won't he come out and explain what happened in public to restore his reputation?"

Candidates on the campaign trail for the June local and EU elections say the Curtin controversy is the number one issue on the doorstep.

"More than anything, people are so angry and yet not in any way surprised that the system has failed in this way," says Pat McCarthy, Fine Gael's Director of Elections in Tralee. "It has only served to enhance their cynicism in the state and the criminal justice system."

Judge Brian Curtin's refusal to shun the limelight and lie low, as the people of Tralee might have hoped he would do, is typical of a man whose pride and self-confidence have always driven him to hold his head high. When he started dating 16-year-old Lindsay Crean from the remote island of Fenit, a girl almost 35 years his younger, friends and colleagues were dumbstruck, but it didn't sway his judgement.

"He would parade her around the town, drop her off at school, take her to plays," says Aidan O'Connor, reporter with The Kerryman.

"Whatever about the age gap, it was the huge intellectual gap people couldn't get their heads around. Brian loved current affairs, talking about George Bush and Iraq, and you couldn't understand what he had in common with a schoolgirl. But he certainly didn't flaunt the relationship until she was 18."

The affair ended before Judge Curtin was arrested and Crean has since started a new life studying in Galway.

Today, the broken judge spends most of his time with his widowed father, a retired builder whose only child was the source of so much pride when he was appointed to the bench in 2001.

His wife, Miriam McGillicuddy, a solicitor and Labour candidate in the forthcoming council elections, gained custody of their daughter Charlotte after the couple's separation six years ago. He maintains a close relationship with Charlotte, who is still at school but is believed to have been sent to relatives in the US to avoid publicity during the trial.

Acquaintances describe the judge as a doting father who would take his daughter to Disneyland on holidays. The pair were regularly seen at Sunday Mass together.

But splashing out on foreign trips was one of the few extravagances in Curtin's life. Despite his ?130,000 salary as a Circuit court judge, he indulged in few of the luxuries of wealth enjoyed by his colleagues on the bench. The small bungalow he lives in is unadorned and rundown, its weed-lined walls and chipped paintwork standing in stark contrast to the manicured gardens and trim houses on the rest of the street. His car is an old Mercedes.

Curtin's short career as a judge has not been without controversy. In 2002, his handling of a child abuse case provoked widespread criticism when he gave a two-year-sentence to 63-year-old Cork paedophile Jack Deane, who was convicted of abusing three girls under the age of seven. The families of the girls, one of whom committed suicide three weeks before the trial, were outraged at the sentence, 18 months of which were suspended. Judge Curtin said that he took the suicide into account when making his decision.

Today, as the clock ticks on his future, those who knew Judge Curtin in his heyday can't help but feel a twinge of sympathy as they have watched his ignominious fall in the last two years.

"He has gone from being the entertaining, animated lawyer to someone who looks more like a dazzled rabbit these days," says Aidan O'Connor. "I saw him walking in the pouring rain one day, soaked to the skin with a plastic Dunnes bag in either hand, and thought he was a homeless man before I realised who it was.

"He looks so frightened, and on that level people feel compassion for him - but no one is saying they're glad the system messed up.

"Brian is a deeply intelligent man and is streetwise enough to know that his credibility is badly damaged, and that it would be extremely hard to dish out punishments after this. Right now, he is battling between this tough reality and his insistence that he is innocent."

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