‘Our Judges:’ Critiquing 24 Sitting Irish Judges, 1889-90

Though the grounds and means of complaint may have changed over time, there is nothing new about criticism of Irish judges.

As far back as 1826, one Daniel O’Connell petitioned for the removal of Lord Norbury, Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, on the ground that he was 85, afflicted with deafness, and lethargic stupor which rendered him entirely unfit for discharging the duties of his office, as he frequently fell asleep during the most important trials.

Throughout the 19th century, almost every judicial appointment was subjected to criticism from one or more organs of the press; the burning of effigies of judges who had given unpopular decisions was not uncommon, and there were a number of assassination attempts.

Even non-politically charged publications were not afraid to tweak judicial robes as popular interest in the judiciary peaked in the latter part of the 19th century. In 1889-90 Irish Society (Dublin) ran a weekly series, ‘Our Judges,’ in which an anonymous ‘Dublin Barrister‘ recounted in the most intimate detail the personalities and peculiarities of each individual member of the Irish Bench of the time.

Despite the shock of the pieces, most of the subjects were still alive in 1891 when the Graphic published the above two-page illustration of the Irish judiciary. Let’s see what ‘Dublin Barrister’ had to say about each of them.

I. Mr Justice Gibson

Brother of Lord Chancellor Edward Gibson, Lord Ashbourne, John Gibson comes in for some criticism for committing the fatal sin of ‘forgetting that he himself had once been a barrister.’ Possessed of the indescribable Gibson voice and accent, and prematurely white hair, he is described as ‘difficult’ when sitting as a Divisional Judge, particularly when his colleagues agree with him.

II. Mr Justice O’Brien

Extravagantly Celtic’ in nature, and ‘reminiscent of a Cardinal in appearance,’ Corkman and former Green Street prosecutor William O’Brien can be a terror to witnesses, ‘often recalling them to the box after they had stepped down and thought themselves safe.’  Although ‘occasionally angry, sometimes even storming with anger,’ he always comes into court in a good mood,‘amiable characteristics returning as soon as the storm was over.’ 

III. The Lord Chief Justice

‘Mickey’ Morris, ‘the most Irish of judges with his strong Galway brogue, his wit, his shrewdness, his great power of striking terror and his preference for common sense over law,’ got a tough time from ‘Dublin Barrister,’ who described his rulings as ‘unpopular’, and the judge himself as ‘dullness itself’ as a public speaker – comments so controversial that a colleague subsequently wrote in complaining. Possibly the writer had been personally offended by the Lord Chief Justice’s practice of ‘conspicuously reading the newspaper during counsel’s summing up in jury trials,’ while actually listening intently; his own subsequent summing-up being invariably excellent.

IV. The Lord Chief Baron

No criticism for Christopher Palles, described in glowing terms as ‘one of the most popular judges in Ireland, but besides popularity he commands the respect of all who know him… what an infinite variety of learning he possesses to be sure and with what ingenuity he applies it to everything – though sometimes it can be hard to understand his judgments… As conscientious and painstaking in small matters as in great, to the most trivial motion he gives his whole attention determined to do absolute justice to every party – according to law.  His love for the law is a governing principle in his nature and can only tolerate common sense when in strict agreement with law – though where he finds man a stickler for his legal rights without regard to the real justice of the case he will find means ‘within the law’ to bring him to  sense of fair and honourable dealing as between man and man.’ Although ‘generally somewhat pedantic and no means always in the sweetest of humour, when angry, the Bar never resents it, as they instinctively feel that his anger is founded on righteousness... In fact, the first person to comfort the victim is usually Chief Baron himself, who is magnanimous enough to make up by a kind, complimentary word later on for the annihilation he has wrought.’ 

Even disappointed litigants were reluctant to appeal Palles’ rulings -though he himself was never happier than when one of his judgments was on the way to the House of Lords. Once, as a junior barrister, ‘after hearing that some advice he had given in his professional capacity had resulted in pecuniary loss, [Palles] sat down at once and wrote a cheque for a sum of money sufficient to indemnify the unhappy client... it is to be hoped that such conduct was mere chivalry and generosity on Palles’ part, and that no obligation of the sort attaches to the opinion of Junior Counsel in general.’

The Irish bench was lucky to still have Palles; he nearly died due to the drains in the fetid Court of Exchequer in 1877. He survived to award one litigant 5 guineas for the loss of a beard in 1896.

V. Mr Justice Andrews

William Drennan Andrews is described as ‘thin and delicate, with the marks of study, and work, and scant response on his face, his countenance occasionally lighted up by mirthful enthusiasm and of a temperament the farthest possible removed from the phlegmatic.’ He is unusually energetic, and always three points ahead of counsel, thinking of new relevant cases, and sending to his private library for books which might assist. ‘Dublin Barrister’ describes Judge Andrews as possessing ‘what is, in a judge, more powerful than brilliance, namely a power of concentrating his faculties on every subject before him whether of interest or not.’ Although he can consequently take an hour to dispose of a motion of course, he jealously guards the rights of an accused, and, when in practice, was known as a hard working barrister, ‘who although loaded with briefs and importuned by annoying attorneys would nevertheless make time to give friendly advice and assistance to any other brother barrister that consumed him.’ 

VI. Mr Justice Harrison

A portly, round, comfortable man, who travels to the Four Courts each day in a comfortable brougham, ‘prosperity shines from [Michael] Harrison’s countenance, his person, his gait and his attire.’  A Northern Ireland man, he has great respect for commerce, strong common sense and moderation but ‘becomes a little talkative on circuit, especially in Ulster.’ He has ‘a useful faith in counsel’s competency to conduct his own case,’ and is extremely fair to the prisoner in criminal cases.  Without ‘brilliant talent or very deep learning,’ his judgments are ‘short, lucid and well expressed.

VII. Mr Justice Murphy

In the palmy days of Green Street, Limerickman James Murphy used to prosecute for the Crown. Originally ‘a man without too much of the milk of human kindness,’ he is now known as ‘a judge of tender feelings and generous emotions, sometimes so overcome by the pathetic side of a case that his feelings are apt to run away with a sober judgment.’ He is however, terrifyingly bombastic in sentencing. His ‘extreme solicitude for the convenience and comfort of jurors makes him very popular with Dublin businessmen.’

VIII. The Recorder of Dublin

Though not a judge of the superior courts, Frederick Falkiner, Recorder of Dublin, is as well known as any of its justices; every practitioner addresses him as ‘my lord’ and no member of the Bar dare appear before him unrobed – even during the long vacation when other judges allow counsel to appear in undress. Custom has surrounded him with all the dignity and circumstance of a judge; he despatches a vacant amount of business, his decrees ‘having recourse to every kind of device – common law, natural equity, legal equity and common sense’ – and he will exercise every means to promote settlement. Of a literary bent, he is ‘willing and able to illumine the dreary proceedings of the day by reflecting on them the gleams of his own refined thoughts and imagination as they come flashing through his mind – a single word will recall to him some scene in Shakespeare or an incident in the Arabian Nights.’ 

When his tipstaff, Robert Pierson, was tragically killed in the Phoenix Park in June 1905, the Recorder took personal charge of the collection for his family. Some of the cases which came before him were more amusing than others – read about one of the most pleasant ones here.

IX: Mr Justice Johnson

Of essentially ecclesiastical appearance, with a mild and polite urbanity of temper suggestive rather of the English cleric than the Irish lawyer, it is almost impossible to conceive Judge Johnson as having passed through ‘the rough and ready training, and the scrambling, more or less undignified‘ of the Irish bar.  An excellent explainer of law, he has no grasp of facts, thinking that he has a good knowledge of ordinary business matters, and insisting upon importing same (such as it is) into the sworn testimony of witnesses, usually with lamentable results. 

X. Mr Justice Holmes

According to ‘Dublin Barrister,’there is scarcely any part of the law that [Hugh] Holmes has not touched, and there is no part which he has touched but he has made it completely his own… Few men on the Irish bench have worked so industriously as him and fewer still have such a competent knowledge of law.’  In his early years on the bench, Holmes had an unfortunate habit of sending young barristers back to the Library to re-read their briefs, but has mellowed of late. His primary fault is informality; his delivery is like that of a university debater, not a judge, and he lolls on the bench rather than sitting up straight.

Holmes’ barrister son fought with other young barristers in the Boer War and was seriously injured. Holmes is also known for being the judge who reputedly wore silk top hat, tails and grey striped trousers when playing in an early Bar Golf Tournament.

XI. Mr Baron Dowse

Richard Dowse is the humorist of the Irish bench, ‘free to say anything or everything that comes into his head, whether it be apropos of the matters before him or not, provided only it be amusing.’ Highly intelligent, well-read and the most cynical man on the bench, an Irish patriot since his days in Trinity College, he consults ancient authorities ‘chiefly for the purposes of finding something amusing in them, and if he thinks them rubbish he says so.’ Though the Bar does not resent his joking ‘for they recognise its thoroughly good nature and as such are willing to take it,’ litigants are often horrified to see their case translated into a high class comedy for the entertainment of even more highly paid advocates, and his humour can be out of place in criminal proceedings, no matter how ludicrous the facts. Baron Dowse, who lived at 38 Mountjoy Square, died shortly after the above piece.

XII: The Lord Chancellor

Benevolent and powerful, ‘a man that stands well in the estimation of the companions of his youth,’ and ‘the object of a veritable worship at Trinity College,’ Edward Gibson, Lord Ashbourne, has ‘a way of looking at the facts and circumstances of each particular case, as it comes before him; of dealing with it on its own special merits; and of forming his decision with a general all-round satisfaction, that suggests rather the broad-minded, practical man of the world than the narrow, rule ridden intellect of the law.’  An indifferent lawyer, he had long ceased to practice at the Bar when appointed Lord Chancellor, seldom even paying a visit to the Law Court, preferring the House of Commons.  Now, ‘his dignified manners, his fresh ruddy face, his fine sonorous voice, his graceful courtesy to his colleagues and the Bar, is a valuable educational function for whosoever would cultivate a humane and polite side to his own character.’   Occasionally attends race meetings, and does not patronise the theatre in Dublin, though sometimes in London. 

Lord Ashbourne is now best known as being the father of Violet Gibson, who attempted to assassinate Mussolini. He lived in a haunted house at 12 Merrion Square; one of his sons died in mysterious circumstances in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel, Horsham, in 1922; another was a star player in the turn-of-the-century Bar Golf Society. Lord Ashbourne was instrumental in setting up the Bar Benevolent Society, which subsists to this day.

XIII. Lord Justice Fitzgibbon

A man about whose high position as a lawyer, as a judge and as an orator there is almost unanimity of opinion, Gerald Fitzgibbon the second can even make interesting a disquisition on contingent remainders. A wonderful orator, combining beauty and warmth of expression with sensible judgment and moderation, and the only public speaker in Ireland who makes an attempt at good elocution, he manages, when reading aloud his judgments, ‘to diffuse through the court some of the superabundance of his own intellectual light and energy so that people who never understood a legal judgment before will understand him, and glimmerings of the reason and simplicity of the law will shine into minds to which law has hitherto come in an complex and seemingly irrational form.’

Perhaps FitzGibbon’s legal skills had been honed by his presence in court from a young age?

XIV. The Vice-Chancellor

A personal symbol of the seriousness of the Court of Chancery, Corkman Hedges Eyre Chatterton resembles ‘a school master of 30 years ago warning his pupils that playtime is over.’  Always suspecting that an attack is being meditated upon the order of the Court, ‘he appears to believe that if the pressure of his authority were for one moment removed, the Bar would break out in open insubordination of the rules.’ He insists on inspecting all documents handed up to him, and even the slightest irregularity will bring down his serious displeasure. He particularly dislikes the introduction into affidavits of unnecessary and irrelevant matter, punishing it by an award of costs against the offending party.  Securing an adjournment in his court is ‘an enterprise of extreme peril and uncertainty, requiring considerable eloquence and prodigious pertinacity.’  However, where there is bona fide arguable matter he will listen with ‘a fortitude of endurance and fairness of mind that make him one of the best judges on the Bench.’  

XV. Judge Warren

Robert Warren, judge of the Probate Court, is described as a dignified, elderly gentleman, ‘with a long flowing white beard and the usual legal shaven upper lip,’ a serious man, with ‘high notions of the importance of every judicial position.’ The Probate Court being far from busy, he ‘does not sit every day, but when he does he does not break for lunch but has a sandwich on the bench.’

XVI. The Master of the Rolls 

Andrew Marshall Porter, Master of the Rolls, has a wide and varied knowledge of many matters outside the region of pure and simple law, demonstrating that ‘the deepest lawyers are often the most versatile in their accomplishments.’ His greatest judicial fault is that he is ‘preternaturally serious… inclined to become really angry, and lose all amenity of disposition ‘because the directorate of a company has acted ultra vires, or because a contracting party resists the specific performance of his contract.’ Consequently mornings in his court can be terrible, with ‘the white heat of Porter’s half suppressed anger’ being more than most counsel can bear before lunch.

Marshall Porter was to suffer tragedy in later life when his son, also Andrew Marshall Porter, was killed during the Boer War. More here.

XVII. Lord Justice Barry 

‘One of those hearty good fellows who make themselves agreeable to the whole world,’ everyone in Ireland, from clerks, to medical students, to dowdy ladies in provincial towns, seems to know Limerickman ‘Charlie’ Barry, though, on the bench, he has ‘a vehement – not to say violent -way of expressing his strong opinions which most people would diagnose as the symptoms of an intractable temper.’  A man of the world, indisposed to great exertion, his judgments are extremely short and persuasive, delivered in full round judicial tones with a curiously sibilant sound.  His ‘fine red setter dog’ accompanies him to the courts each morning, turning up him again at 4 o’clock to take him to the club after work. Dresses with ‘an attention to fashion unusual in an Irishman of his profession;’ his judicial bands, from London, are enormous, and of the finest muslin.

Lord Justice Barry and Lord Ashbourne once narrowly escaped being killed when a ventilator nearly fell on them in the Law Library. More here.

XVIII. Mr Justice Boyd

Apt to describe himself as half Scotch, half Irish, Walter Boyd gets his sternness from the Scotch side and the enjoyment of its effect from the Irish. Apart from sailing, his main desire in life is to bring home the terrors of the law to an anarchical people; something which he struggles to achieve in his role of Bankruptcy Judge.

Judge Boyd, like many barristers of the era, an expert yachtsman, did however have the satisfaction of catching a thief some years later. More here.

XIX. Lord Justice Naish 

A man of retiring studious deposition, with ‘no enthusiasm, no passion, no eloquence and no delusions’, the forensic success of John Naish is flatteringly described as ‘a mystery to the Irish Bar,’ though it is admitted that, as a judge, he ‘comes to very sound conclusions in a modest unobtrusive course of excellent reasoning.’ At the time of publication of this piece, he was in the South of France for his health, and died shortly afterwards. One of his final appearance was at the famous Bar/Vice-Regal Cricket Match in the Phoenix Park in May 1889.

XX. Judge Townsend

Eighty years old, dignified courteous and kind, it is impossible to imagine in [John Fitzhenry] Townsend’s court an unpleasant incident, a quarrel among counsel or an interchange of warm words between the bench and the bar.  His genial presence causes warm and kindly feeling to flourish in the little company around the barristers’ table, and everybody instinctively recognises that it is a professional duty to make the judge’s position as pleasant and as free from irksomeness as possible.’  Appropriately for an Admiralty judge, he is (like his colleague Judge Boyd) a capital sailor.

XXI. Mr Justice Monroe

The ‘brilliant and popular jury counsel’ John Monroe now spends his time as a Land judge, ‘arguing real property issues with Chancery Counsel.’  Though briefless for the first few years at the bar, spending his time chiefly in noting cases for Law reports, ‘once he finally got work he made the best advantage of it,’ displaying a ready knowledge, good judgment and ‘wonderful tact and dexterity in mastering difficult facts.’  Very popular at the bar, though sterner on the bench. An ‘exceptionally able and efficient judge.’

XXII. Judge Miller

Even after 23 years on the bench, Stearne Ball Miller, Armagh man and senior judge of the Court of Bankruptcy, remains ‘a man of perpetual youthfulness, who rises with the lark to ride every morning… His movements in court betoken a marvellous activity for a man of his years: his hands and fingers are in constant motion; he slaps the books down on the desk, and throws the papers about with a charming youthful disregard for the laws relating to falling bodies.’ 


XXIII. Mr Justice Litton

Edward Falconer Litton, the new appointment as Land Judge, is described as having ‘a cool, clear calculating head,’ and ‘the ability to dispose of a case with facility and despatch.’  A ‘particularly patient man, and scrupulously courteous to everybody,’ he does not long survive the publication of ‘Our Judges,’ dying after catching pneumonia on holiday the same year.  

XXIV. Lord Chief Justice O’Brien

Described by Irish Society as one of the few ‘Peters’ ever to rise to fame, no one refers to Lord Chief Justice O’Brien by anything other than his Christian name, often followed by the words ‘the Packer.’ Though no law officer ever received greater abuse than was heaped upon him when was was attorney general, ‘he could never be really hated; his good humour, his bonhomie, his plausibility and his courage was proof against his deadliest darts – his easy manners his jolly, well-favoured face, his strong minded determination to do what he conceived to be his duty (even though it should be the unpleasant task of packing the jury).’ Very popular with the bar, so far he has ‘committed no mistakes beyond remaining unaffectedly the old somewhat affected Peter,’ though he still suffers from a tendency to think himself an advocate, and ‘when there are no witnesses before him, will actually cross-examine the counsel at the bar.’

This piece came too early to include one of ‘Peter’s’ most famous moments as a judge – when he rebuked his former leading Senior for wearing a white waistcoat when appearing before him in court. Peter lived at Newlands Cross, Clondalkin, reputedly haunted by the carriage of another Lord Chief Justice assassinated while in office. The subject of a number of assassination attempts during his career, he also had a bumpy visit to Ennis, Co Clare when his judicial coach was hijacked by a local lad. His efforts on behalf of the Bar Cricket Club are well documented, as is the fact he favoured a quarter chicken and two roast apples for lunch.

Although many of the judges featured, such as Palles, the Gibson brothers, Porter, Boyd and Holmes, continued in office for decades and others enjoyed a happy retirement, four out of the twenty four featured – Naish, Litton, Dowse and Warren – sadly died within a year or two of the series being published – hopefully not out of shock!

Thanks to the anonymous ‘Dublin Barrister’, whoever he may have been, a record of their traits, and those of their longer-lived colleagues, survives to remind us that, no matter how much may have changed in the past 140 years, one current Irish judicial characteristic – that of magnanimous imperturbability in the face of criticism – is of long-standing!

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

Irish barrister sharing the history of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland, and other Irish courts.

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