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Extract Barristers have held positions of influence since the foundation of the Irish State

Niamh Howlin shares an extract from her book, Barristers in Ireland, published by Four Courts Press.

BARRISTERS WERE THE branch of the legal profession mainly engaged in advocacy or court work.

They were traditionally self-employed individuals who worked from a communal workspace called the Law Library. While this book examines what it was like to work as a barrister in twentieth century Ireland, not everyone who qualified as a barrister actually practised at the Bar; some went on to careers in commerce or finance, or served the State as elected representatives, or public servants.

Howlin_Barristers In Ireland

A number of barristers had success in broadcasting, sport and the arts. For some, working at the Bar was combined with activities in these other spheres.

The foundation of the State

There was a long tradition of barristers playing significant roles in Irish public life, and from the very foundation of the State in the 1920s, the presence and influence of barristers was evident. This continued throughout the century.

Members of the Bar were involved in the drafting of the 1922 and 1937 Constitutions and the designing of the new courts system. They were the civil servants, public commentators, judges, elected representatives and government ministers of the new State.

Constitutional development

A number of the barristers who were interviewed for the book discussed their involvement in drafting constitutional amendments at various points in the eighties and nineties. They also contributed to the national debate on these major constitutional and social issues; for example, the views of many barristers were evident during the abortion debates of the early 1980s.

Much of the drafting of the Eighth Amendment was done by members of the profession, and the pro-choice anti-amendment campaign included a number of high-profile barristers.

One of the interviewees commented on political activism at the Bar:

“In the eighties there was the abortion referendum… there was the divorce referendum and there was certainly a lot of activism within the Bar, a lot of political activism within the Bar and there would have been large numbers of people in the Bar who would have supported the move for divorce. There were also large numbers against it.”

As well as revising the constitution, barristers were of course actively involved in constitutional litigation, particularly during the period of the Supreme Court’s judicial activism from the 1960s.  

Niamh Howlin Image Mr Hugh Mohan SC, Chairman of the Council of The King’s Inns, Mr Rossa Fanning SC, the Attorney General of Ireland, Dr Niamh Howlin (author) and Sara Phelan SC, Chair of the Council of The Bar of Ireland.

This judicial activism did not operate in a vacuum. Advocates such as Donal Barrington played an important role in taking on cases of public importance, crafting novel arguments, carrying out research and presenting the court with well-reasoned advocacy.

Elected representatives

Aside from contributing to the constitutional frameworks of the state, many barristers were elected to public office, representing different parts of the political spectrum.

Three Irish presidents have been barristers: Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh; Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese.

For almost half of the period covered by this book, the office of Taoiseach was held by someone who was a qualified barrister: John A Costello, Jack Lynch, Liam Cosgrave, Charles Haughey, Garrett Fitzgerald and John Bruton. Several people who served as Tánaiste in the twentieth century were also called to the Bar, including Michael O’Leary, Dick Spring and Brian Lenihan (snr). As one barrister, Paddy MacKenzie, observed,

“Tánaistí and ministers and parliamentary secretaries abounded, falling over themselves in the Library with joy when their party came into power, and trooping back when they were kicked out. Their political friends seldom let them down and they usually ran into good business.”

Kevin O’Higgins, James FitzGerald-Kenney; James Geoghegan and Brian Lenihan (snr) were all called to the Bar and served as Ministers for Justice. Other high-profile barrister-politicians in the twentieth century, typically associated with either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, included Fionán Lynch, John Maurice Kelly, Tom O’Higgins, James Dillon, John Lymbrick Esmonde, Sean MacBride, Declan Costello, Theodore Conyngham Kingsmill Moore, Patrick Lindsay, Seán O’Leary, Brian Lenihan (jnr), Eoin Ryan, Michael McDowell and David Andrews.

former-presidents-mary-mcaleese-left-and-mary-robinson-right-join-president-michael-d-higgins-at-iras-an-uachtarain-for-a-dinner-to-commemorate-the-75th-anniversary-of-role-of-the-president-of-ire Former presidents Mary McAleese (left) and Mary Robinson (right) join President Michael D Higgins at Aras An Uachtarain. Both women are qualified barristers. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The relative dearth of women in the Oireachtas during this period is reflected in this list of barrister-politicians, as is the twentieth-century dominance of the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael parties. As one TD (a former solicitor) said,

“I believe that the Bar is one of, if not the most, conservative collection of workers in the country… It is no accident that the main conservative parties in the country are heavily supported by barristers and they are to be seen to the fore in each of those parties.”

High-profile barristers involved with the Labour Party included Patrick Hogan and of course Mary Robinson. The Bar Council was entitled to nominate barristers for the cultural and educational panel, one of the five vocational panels for the Seanad. Such a preponderance of lawyers in parliament was common to other common law countries in the twentieth century.

Public servants

In the first decades of the new state, as well as holding public office, members of the Bar served the state in other ways. They were court officials, superintendents of An Garda Síochána, members of state bodies, civil servants and of course, members of the judiciary.

Miriam Hederman O’Brien, for example, had a long career in public life following her call to the Bar in 1954. Among other contributions, she chaired the Commission on Taxation, the expert group on the Blood Transfusion Service Board, the Commission on funding of the Irish Health Services and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission.

Other barristers worked in the Office of the Parliamentary Draftsman, the Law Reform Commission, the Department of Justice and the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Broadcasters, journalists and commentators

Some members of the Bar had multifaceted careers in public life as broadcasters, journalists and commentators. Television and radio broadcasters included Eoin ‘the Pope’ O’Mahony, Stephen Barrett, David Andrews, Conor Maguire, Colum Kenny and Vincent Browne. Liam Devally provided radio commentary for the Eurovision Song Contest in the 1970s. Denis Johnston worked as a BBC war correspondent during World War Two.

Literary and artistic contributions

There have long been links between members of the Bar and the arts in Ireland. Barrister-poets included Donagh MacDonagh and Máire Mac an tSaoi. One of the most well-known barrister-playwrights was Denis Johnston, who produced plays for both stage and television.

Other barristers who wrote plays included Marion Duggan, and Joseph Malachi Muldoon. Kenneth Deal and Rex Mackey’s plays were broadcast on RTÉ Radio. Both Richard and Bernard Duffy saw their plays staged in the Abbey. Donagh MacDonagh’s ‘Happy as Larry’ was performed not only in the Abbey but in London’s West End and later, as a musical on Broadway.

Actors and novelists also feature, as well as singers, including Liam Devally and Cecil Barror. Supporters of and advocates for the Irish language at the Bar included Pádraig Ó Síocháin, who founded the national language revival movement. He was also a journalist, aviation enthusiast, filmmaker, rally driver and promotor of Aran knits.

Business and sporting life

As well as the Bar’s involvement in the arts, many barristers went on to posts which impacted on the commercial and economic life of the country. Some went on to take holy orders while others were military lawyers. Several were known for their sporting successes; for example, in cycling, Colm Christle won the first Rás Tailteann in 1953. Charles Vesey Boyle played rugby for Ireland, while Dick Spring played for Munster, London Irish and Ireland.

Gaelic games were also represented at the Bar, including well-known Mayo footballer Éamonn Mongey, Marcus de Búrca and of course, Jack Lynch.

While it is impossible to capture all of the activities of barristers beyond the Law Library, it is evident that barristers were prominent figures in Irish public life in the twentieth century. Arguably, no other group was as actively involved in the architecture of the State.

Later, they often took a lead on key political and social issues. The extent of their involvement in the artistic, cultural and literary history of twentieth-century Ireland may be surprising to readers; certainly this author found barristers popping up in unexpected places during the course of researching for the book.

Niamh Howlin is an associate professor at the Sutherland School of Law, UCD. She has published books on various aspects of Irish legal history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

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