Documentary on One: A Very Brief Encounter

Headlines from Newspapers Image Name: Headlines from Newspapers
breach of promise Image Name: breach of promise
The Four Courts Image Name: The Four Courts


“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? You round up the brilliant “Tribunal” actors:  Joe Taylor and Malcolm Douglas are joined by the excellent 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 platform….you’d have to.

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


RTÉ Radio 1 Saturday 24August 1pm