Two Tragic Barrister Trip and Falls at Wilton Place, 1882-1911


The Grand Canal, Dublin, at Wilton Place, between Baggot Street and Leeson Street Bridge, by Edward Tomkins, via

From the Clonmel Chronicle, 20 December 1882:


The body of the late Mr. Robert Donnell BL was discovered in the Grand Canal, in the immediate vicinity of Leeson-Street Bridge, yesterday morning. It is believed that the unfortunate gentleman accidentally fell into the water and drowned. The previous afternoon he left his residence, at Stephen’s Green, South, at about one o’clock, in order to pay a visit to some friends of his who reside in the neighbourhood of Leeson Park, and it is surmised that whilst he was walking along the edge of the canal, which is dangerous and unprotected at this part, he stumbled and fell into the canal and was drowned. A dark object in the water attracted the attention of a passer-by on the following morning, and on a search being made the body of the deceased was discovered and drawn out of the water. He had a sum of money in his possession, and his watch was found to have stopped at half-past six o’clock. The body was at once taken to the City of Dublin Hospital, Baggot Street, where it now lies pending an inquest. The deceased acted as assistant secretary to the Bessborough Land Commission, and after the passing of the Land Act of 1881 he was named sub-commissioner, but was unable, owing to ill health, to undertake the duties of the office. He was for five years Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Economy in the Queen’s College, Galway, and his ability as a lecturer was universally acknowledged.”

The brilliant Robert Donnell, from Balliuamakard, Co Tyrone, was a graduate of Queen’s University, Belfast, who had been called to the Irish Bar in 1864, subsequently becoming a member of the North-East Circuit, where he specialised in property law. Presybterian by religion but liberal in politics, as a member of the Convocation of QUB he argued for the right of Catholics to obtain degrees and in his early years at the Bar had been instrumental in the preparation of the Irish Land Act 1870.

His subsequent book on that legislation, ‘A Practical Guide to the Law of Tenant Compensation and Farm Purchase,’ was described by the Coleraine Chronicle in glowing terms as

a text book for the professional man, and an exposition of the law which tenants ought to understand thoroughly… every section, copiously annotated, being made as plain and intelligible as the contents of an ordinary spelling book, while the arrangement is so concise, and the index so complete, that every person having to use the Act, can at once place his hand upon the particular provision affecting his case.”

The title page of Mr Donnell’s book on the Irish Land Act. All Mr Donnell’s books had quotes on their title pages. This one is ‘The magic of PROPERTY turns sand to gold’, by Arthur Young. The full text is available to read on here.

Indeed the book was so good that the Londonderry Standard of May 1871 said that Tenants Rights Associations should not lose a moment in engaging its author to represent them.

Later the same year, the Freeman’s Journal, when correcting, at Mr Donnell’s request, a misrepresentation of an argument made by him in court, described him as a junior barrister of acknowledged ability and great promise as a successful advocate. Subsequently, the Dublin Weekly Nation extolled him as one of the most able and rising Juniors at the Irish bar and a frequent advocate of the tenant cause in many well-contested cases.

Mr Donnell’s professional career culminated in his appointment, in 1874, as Assize Crown Prosecutor for the County of Louth, a promotion described by the Belfast Morning News as “made on grounds that might, with advantage to the public service, be more frequently advanced,” in other words, on merit. The same year, he was spoken of as a Liberal candidate for Parliament. That Mr Donnell also had his enemies, however, became evident when an agent of Tory landlord Mr Pakenham denied him the use of a courthouse for one of his Land Act lectures.

Mr Donnell’s interests lay in the field of social science as much as in law. Formerly Whately Professor of Political Economy at Trinity, in 1876 he was appointed Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Economy at Queen’s College, Galway. In his inaugural address, he said that it would be his aim as Professor to develop an Irish political economy explaining the economical phenomena of our country and its time, noting the evils of our social state, and finding, in historic investigation at home, or in comparison with economical circumstances and conditions abroad, the explanation of, if not the cure for some of those evils.

The same year he published his second legal work, ‘Reports of 190 Cases in the Irish Land Courts,’ all while maintaining a busy practice on the North-East Circuit.

Mr Donnell’s second land law book. This time the quote is “We’ll keep our customs, what is law itself but old- established custom?” (Sir Walter Scott) Possibly a reference to the Ulster custom of tenant-right? The full text of the work is available to read here.

The last reported case in which Mr Donnell appeared was in July 1882, a few months’ prior to his death. According to the Belfast Newspaper,

“a severe illness had quite shattered his health last spring but he recovered in the autumn sufficiently to enable him to move about and to attend to a portion of his business.”

The same newspaper suggested that Mr Donnell’s death might have occurred due to his frail physical condition having caused him to lose his footing when attempting to cross the lock, though this was somewhat contradicted by a report in the Leamington Spa Chronicle that he had been seen walking up Grafton Street, apparently in excellent health, a few hours previous to his demise.

At the subsequent inquest held in the City of Dublin Hospital, Baggot Street, David Redmond, lock keeper, deposed that at about 7.15 p.m on the evening of 18th December 1882, he observed the Deceased’s corpse floating in the water about 100 yards above the dock. between Charlemont Bridge and Leeson St Bridge. The face was downwards at the time and in the direction of the centre of the Canal, but the water was only three foot deep at that point. The cause of death was drowning, and there were no marks of violence on the body.

The jury returned an open verdict.

By January 1883, Mr Donnell’s law library had been sold at auction in the Literary and General Salerooms, D’Olier Street, and by February a new Louth Crown Prosecutor had been appointed to replace him. He was not, however, to be wholly forgotten. In 1884 the Londonderry Sentinel reported that a monument to the deceased was to be erected in the Corporation Cemetery, Belfast, taking the form of a broken column, six feet quarter at base, rising to a height of twenty-two feet and bearing the following inscription:

In memory of Robert Donnell, MA LLB Barrister at Law, who died at Dublin December 1882, aged 42 years. An accomplished scholar, an able lawyer, a good citizen, and a sincere friend. This monument is erected by those who admired his intellectual gifts, and appreciated his worth, as a testimony of their friendship and a lasting memorial of one whose memory is worthy of being commemorated.”

Twenty-nine years later, it happened again…

Wilton Place, Dublin, by Flora Mitchell, via

From the Dublin Daily Express, 18 September 1911:


The body of a well-dressed man was found floating in the Grand Canal at Wilton Terrace, near Baggot Street Bridge, this morning. It is surmised that in crossing by the footbridge at this place the Deceased fell into the water. A gold watch and chain were the only property found on the body, which has been identified as that of Mr. William Albert Fitzhenry, MA LLD, a barrister residing at 26 Upper Mount Street. The body was discovered by a lockkeeper named Ross. Deceased was called to the Bar at Michaelmas term, 1902, and was well known as a grinder.”

The answer to what exactly was a ‘grinder’ was provided by the Strabane Weekly News of 23 September 1911 which noted that the deceased, who was attached to the North-West Circuit, had prepared for their professional examinations a large percentage of the young solicitors of the last 10-15 years, particularly those from that Circuit.

This newspaper notice regarding a new Irish solicitor records him as having read for his legal examinations with Mr FitzHenry.

The inquest into Mr FitzHenry’s death was again held at nearby Baggot Street Hospital, the Coroner, Mr Christopher Friery, being himself no stranger to barrister drowning cases, having presided at the inquest into the tragic yachting death of Michael Joseph Dunn KC a few years previously.

Mr Friery, addressing the jury in relation to Mr FitzHenry’s death, said the curious fact about the case was that the deceased’s gold watch, which was found on him, was going at the time, and had not been stopped by the water. He described Mr FitzHenry as a well-known barrister and an excellent tutor, who had trained many students. Near where the deceased’s body was found there was a crossing, and although there was very little danger at the place (clearly things had improved, in terms of canal bank safety, since 1882), there was always the possibility that you might slip, especially during the night.

Mr FitzHenry’s family home at 26 Upper Mount Street today, via Not far from the Grand Canal.

The Coroner went on to say that the deceased had some financial trouble at one time, and had some other worries lately, which was scarcely necessary to enter into the details of, as none of them, in his view, were sufficient to account for self-destruction, or anything of that nature. It would be very cruel on the memory of this poor man and a severe blow to his family to think that he destroyed himself. The more charitable construction would be, especially as the evidence would probably bear it out, that he accidentally fell in and was drowned. No one knew how he got into the water, but the fact that his hat and stick were found in the water with him would go to show that he had stumbled in. If a man contemplated destroying himself he would have left those things after him. It was not suggested that the place was in anywise dangerous.

The lock keeper at Leeson Street Lock again deposed to finding a body in the lock opposite Wilton Terrace at half past five on the morning of 18th September 1911. It was not a dangerous crossing at the lock gate, but it was possible for one to slip in at night and fall into the water.

A juror – Did you see any signs of a scuffle or violence about the place? No.

The Coroner – The poor gentleman hadn’t an enemy in the world, and therefore there is no ground for suspecting foul play.

The Coroner read the following extract from a letter written by the deceased to one of his children the evening before:

I have a cold, and some worry that I must talk over with you all. It prevents me sleeping. I am going to try a good quiet walk after I post this.”

The foreman of the jury – That is quite sufficient.

Police Constable 116R said he was called by the lock-keeper, and he had the body taken out of the water. It appeared to have been only a short time in the water, and the watch was still going. He brought him at once to the hospital on the stretcher. He tried to restore animation, but failed.

The jury found that the cause of death was drowning.

The Coroner ended by saying that there were a lot of young solicitors throughout Ireland who would be sorry to hear of Mr FitzHenry’s death.

A newspaper notice of Mr FitzHenry’s call to the bar in 1902

Mr FitzHenry, a former auditor of the Law Society Solicitors Apprentices Debating Society, had been born in 1862 and practised as a solicitor before being called to the Bar in 1902. Perhaps his mid-life change of profession had contributed to his earlier financial difficulties? They appeared to have been resolved, in any event, by 1911, as he left the substantial sum of £387.6s.5d in his will.

An obituary in the Fermanagh Times described Mr FitzHenry as “an exceedingly aimable gentleman, he was most popular, and his death has caused very wide-spread and sincere regret.”

The same stretch of the Grand Canal today, via Wikimedia Commons

The distance from Baggot Street Bridge, where Mr FitzHenry met his end, and Leeson Street Bridge, beside which the body of Mr Donnell was found, is a very short one. It seems an odd coincidence that two such popular and successful members of the same profession (and almost the same Circuit) would have met their deaths in almost exactly the same spot a generation apart, in a location some distance from the usual barrister haunts of the time.

Mr FitzHenry would have been old enough, perhaps, to remember the death of Mr Donnell. Did the memory of one subconsciously call to the other? Or is there something in that stretch of the canal that bodes ill for the shining stars of the Irish Bar? If so, those of us whose lights burn less brightly can take consolation from the thought that we are thereby less at risk from the hazards of its murky waters!

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