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CONROY, JAMES GERVÉ, lawyer, politician, and judge; b. 12 April 1836 near Boyle (Republic of Ireland); m. 1870 Elizabeth O’Neill of County Antrim (Northern Ireland), and they had one son; d. 28 Jan. 1915 in Montreal and was buried in Belvedere Cemetery, St John’s.
James Gervé Conroy received his education in Ireland and informally in Paris. He was called to the bars of England and Ireland before emigrating in 1872 to Newfoundland, where he taught briefly at St Bonaventure’s College in St John’s. After he was admitted to the bar of Newfoundland the same year, he established a legal practice in partnership with John Hoyles Boone as Boone and Conroy. Sociable and public-spirited, Conroy was also active in community affairs: he served, for example, on the Roman Catholic board of education for St John’s and was founder and editor of the Catholic Terra Nova Advocate (begun as the St John’s Advertiser in 1875). Thence by an easy transition he entered Newfoundland politics at a time of heightened denominational tension and the still lively reverberations of the confederation debates.
Conroy was elected to the House of Assembly for the two-member district of Ferryland on the Avalon peninsula in 1874 and 1878, and after the retirement of Charles James Fox Bennett*, he helped lead the opposition to William Vallance Whiteway*’s administration. A whiff of the campaign trail of those times comes down to us in an anecdote about the redoubtable Pierre Ronayne, one of the chieftains of the small, and largely Roman Catholic, village of Tors Cove. The clergy strongly supported Conroy; none the less, Ronayne determined that he was not to address the voters. Taking up a position at the foot of Tors Cove hill, Ronayne and his followers laid their ambush, and as two horse-drawn wagons hove in sight bearing Conroy and Father Nicholas Roche, he declared, “Conroy won’t spake in Tors Cove tonight!” With his merry band he repulsed the advancing entourage of church and law with volleys of well-rotted squid.
Abandoning politics in 1880, Conroy was appointed in that year a stipendiary magistrate and judge of the Central District Court, where he served with his contemporary Daniel Woodley Prowse. One of the most delicate cases to be heard before him arose from the failure of the Commercial Bank in the crash of 1894 [see James Goodfellow*]; in February the following year charges against the directors of the bank were heard before Conroy, who found that there was a prima facie case against the defendants and referred it to the Supreme Court. The resulting proceedings became caught up in the complex network of relationships between judges, jurors, and defendants, an impasse that was resolved only with the appointment by the Colonial Office of a judge from outside Newfoundland.
Conroy remained on the bench until his death. An obituarist observed that “he belonged to the old school, and his examination of a witness was an interesting event.” Several of Conroy’s observations are still remembered in legal circles and among collectors of obiter dicta of the age. One defendant, up on a charge of issuing a hideous threat of what he proposed to do “for two cents,” while brandishing a large knife at the complainant, was found guilty of “offering, for hire, to perform a surgical operation for which he had not the proper professional qualifications.” On another occasion, finding Pierre Ronayne before him on a charge of smuggling, judge Conroy, looking down at the defendant over his glasses, remarked pleasantly, “Ronayne, I have got you at last,” and sentenced him to 30 days.
He died, after some years of failing health, while receiving medical attention in Montreal. His death occurred just a year and a day after that of his fellow magistrate Prowse. He thus escaped one of Prowse’s punctual and sometimes highly coloured obituaries, of which Conroy had once remarked (quoting Dr John Arbuthnot’s observation about bookseller Edmund Curll’s instant obituaries of Augustan London’s eminent dead) that “they have added a new terror to death.” He was a witty and much admired figure of his era.
Evening Telegram (St John’s), 29 Jan. 1915. Peter Cashin, My life and times, 1890–1919 (Portugal Cove, Nfld, 1976), 8–9. M. E. Condon, The fisheries and resources of Newfoundland, “the mine of the sea,” national, international and co-operative ([St John’s], 1925), 286. Directory, Nfld, 1877. DNLB (Cuff et al.). Encyclopedia of Nfld (Smallwood et al.), 1: 508, 691–93. Newfoundland men . . . , ed. H. Y. Mott (Concord, N.H., 1894). When was that? (Mosdell).