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  • Thumb-Kissing Irish-Style August 30, 2014

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback


    Thumb kissing was the legal equivalent of crossing fingers in nineteenth-century Ireland. The witness is given the Bible, that as a good Catholic, should be a moment of high religious importance. But what would happen if you kissed say your thumb holding the book rather than the Bible itself? Well, it wouldn’t count would it! In fact, the Bible in court was referred to disparagingly as the ‘law Bible’. So common was this strategy that James Johnson suggested a new oath.

    Remember, witness! That, in swearing by the Holy Evangelist, you to take most special care, not to kiss the cross that is on the book, but your thumb that is on the cross – and then you are neither to tell the whole truth, nor any part of the truth, so help you Bob

    Legal officers had to be ready for thumb-kissing stratagems.

    Witnesses try in various ways to avoid taking what they consider a binding oath. A favourite plan supposed to relieve them from all obligation is, when being sworn, to kiss the thumb instead of kissing the book. Before Baron Pennefather, at Tralee Assizes,a witness did so. One of the counsel said, ‘The witness kissed his thumb, my lord.’ ‘Why did the witness kiss his thumb?’ asked the baron. ‘He is blind of an eye, my lord,’ replied Mr. Hurley, the clerk of the Crown.

    The clerk of the court was a charitable man, in this case.

    A tale (rather than the anecdote above) has one joker, on being accused of kissing his thumb, ‘Not kiss it your honour? Why, by this staff in my hand, if ever man kissed – I’d give my oath, an ‘ be the five crasses, I kissed it as sure as…’ The second time he kisses he avoids his thumb but manages to avoid the book too, kissing the air.

    Every so often though the judges got their own back. Carleton, that brilliant late nineteenth-century Irish short story writer describes one of those rare instants. Interestingly this was not an official court but one organized by the local Church to resolve a local robbery. The curate waited for the oaths to be made and then produced with a coup de theatre a black veiled box, the Donagh, a medieval book case, which could not just be dismissed as a ‘law Bible’.

    The witness now had to swear again and many ‘appeared ready to sink into the earth… many of them became almost unable to stand; and altogether the state of trepidation and terror in which they stood, was strikingly wild and extraordinary.

    Naturally the story finishes badly with the villain accidentally shooting his own daughter. Carleton had no sense of humour…

    Other oath dodging strategies: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com