Historical background

Barristers have been practising in Ireland for over 450 years. In 1541, The Honorable Society of King's Inns was established when a lease was granted by Henry VIII for the use of Blackfriars monastery (now the location of the Four Courts). The Society was moved to its present location on Constitution Hill in 1800.

The benchers of the Honorable Society of King's Inns (benchers include all the judges of the Supreme and High Courts and a number of elected barristers) admit candidates to the degree of Barrister-at-Law. They may then be called to the Irish Bar by the Chief Justice. Barristers are subject to the professional standards set by The Bar of Ireland.

The Irish legal system is based on the common law, which originated in England. This type of system attaches great significance to judge-made law. A decision in one case is legally binding on all subsequent cases with similar facts unless it is reversed by a higher court or on appeal. Other sources of law in Ireland include the Constitution, Acts of the Oireachtas (statutes) and the law of the European Communities.

Under the Irish justice system, court hearings in contested cases are conducted in an adversarial manner. This means that each side presents its case and seeks to challenge that of its opponents through the evidence of its own witnesses, cross-examination and legal argument.

From the 18th Century to Present

The centre of Irish Law in the eighteenth century was the Four Courts in Christ Church Lane, a narrow street in Dublin’s Liberties. The Law Courts were always the scene of incredible activity, especially during sessions and market days. By the end of the century the Four Courts had moved to Inns Quay, where James Gandon designed the Georgian building that is still in use today.

The four courts sat simultaneously and no doors separated them from the large public hall. They were the: Courts of Exchequer, Chancery, Common Pleas and King's Bench. Unlike Britain, Irish barristers were allowed to practice in all four courts.

The courts were popular theatres of entertainment for spectators. Witnesses, defendants and barristers all had their groups of supporters who would cheer on their favourites. Court cases usually involved a noisy battle of wits, as insults were freely traded, and the winner was whoever was the sharpest. A good barrister was considered a major catch – and many women attended the Four Courts hoping to catch a glimpse of their heroes in action.

Some 711 barristers practiced in Ireland in 1793, compared to only 604 for the whole of England and Wales. Many barristers had a social conscience and became involved in political radicalism. Many leading politicians in the House of Commons were barristers, where their oratory and vast experience of public speaking was a great advantage. Each of the provinces had its own circuit and Barristers went ‘on the circuit’ twice during the year.

The leading law figure in Ireland was the Lord Chancellor. This was a political appointment and usually carried a great deal of prestige and power. One of the most notorious Lord Chancellors was ‘Black Jack’ FitzGibbon, later Earl of Clare, who opposed reform in the 1790s. John Scott was Lord Chancellor in the 1780s and was known as ‘Copper Face Jack’ because of his tanned complexion. The Lord Chancellor was a major figure in the Irish House of Lords.

The 1798 Rebellion was a defining event for modern Irish republicanism. Many of the key people involved were barristers. Disillusioned with the slow pace of reform in Ireland, barristers (influenced by the French Revolution of 1789) believed that radical change was necessary, and they sought to break the connection between Britain and Ireland completely.

Theobald Wolfe Tone, a founding member and leader of the Directory of United Irishmen, studied to be a barrister and later practiced at the Irish Bar. He was educated at Trinity College Dublin and finished his law degree in 1789. He was called to the Irish Bar that summer and decided to practice on the Leinster Circuit. But he switched to a career in politics.

He served on the Catholic Committee agitating for reform, before founding the United Irishmen. Moving to France, he enlisted French aid for various Irish invasion attempts. In 1798, his plans for an extensive Irish Rebellion almost succeeded. However, he was captured while attempting to land at Buncrana, Co. Donegal, with a French army. Tried for treason in Dublin, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. He committed suicide in prison to avoid the hangman's noose.

Another key member of the Directory of United Irishmen was Thomas Addis Emmet, one of the greatest barristers in the country. However, he was arrested in March 1798 and was in prison when the rebellion broke out throughout the country.

Many other barristers were willing to take up the cause. John and Henry Sheares were two notable barristers who were executed for their role in the Rebellion. Although the 1798 Rebellion failed, it offered hope and inspiration to future generations of Irish revolutionaries.

One of the finest barristers and orators in Ireland in the eighteenth century, John Philpot Curran was born in Cork and educated in Trinity College Dublin. He studied at the King’s Inns and was called to the Bar in 1775. Initially he was a failure as a speaker but he worked to overcome his deficiencies and soon became one of the finest barristers of his time. Renowned for his caustic wit and satirical brilliance, he came to prominence in 1780 when he prosecuted a nobleman who had assaulted a priest.

Curran was also interested in national politics and entered the Irish House of Commons in 1783 as MP for Kilbeggan, Co Westmeath. However, he lost his chancery practice in 1789 because of the hostility of the Lord Chancellor, the Earl of Clare.

In the 1790s, he defended the leading United Irishmen, including Hamilton Rowan, William Drennan, and the Sheares brothers. In 1798, he made courageous efforts to save the lives of Lord Edward Fitzgerald and Theobald Wolfe Tone.

A vehement opponent of the Act of Union, he was frustrated in his attempts to prevent it being passed. In 1807, he was appointed Master of the Rolls. One of his daughters, Sarah Curran, fell in love with the patriot Robert Emmet and was embroiled in the abortive 1803 rebellion.

The major short-term consequence of the 1798 Rebellion was the decision of the British government to abolish the Irish parliament and rule directly from London. Between 1799 and 1800 the Act of Union was debated vigorously in the Irish House of Commons.

The barrister George Ponsonby humiliated the government ministers in numerous encounters and another lawyer, William Plunket, contemptuously dismissed the Chief Secretary, Viscount Castlereagh, as “a green and sapless twig”.

The Bar even met publicly to declare its opposition to the Union. Even so, despite the excellent arguments employed, the Union was passed - thanks in part to bribery and corruption - and the Irish parliament ceased to exist on 1 January 1801.

One of the most romantic and inspirational of all the Irish revolutionaries is Robert Emmet. His doomed relationship with Sarah Curran, his failed rebellion at the age of 25 and the brilliance of his speech from the dock, captured the popular imagination and created a powerful and enduring legend. WB Yeats declared that Emmet was the leading saint of Irish nationalism.

Born in Dublin, Emmet was the youngest son of the state physician. Educated at Trinity College Dublin, he was a leading member of the College Historical Society until his expulsion for radical activity in 1798.

Robert Emmet was the third member of his family to study at the King’s Inns. He entered in 1795 while still a student in Trinity College Dublin. His eldest brother, Christopher Temple Emmet, had become a barrister in the 1780s and was so brilliant that even Benjamin Franklin in the United States heard about his exploits. It was said that even before he was called to the Bar he knew more law than any judge or bishop in the land. His middle brother, Thomas Addis Emmet, was a leading revolutionary in the United Irishmen and later achieved fame as a lawyer in the United States. Prevented from pursuing a profession after 1798, Robert Emmet visited the European continent where he discussed plans for liberating Ireland with Napoleon and (Charles Maurice de) Talleyrand the French diplomat.

He returned to Ireland in 1802 and soon became involved in a conspiracy for a new rebellion. His youthful idealism and military talent proved insufficient, however, and his attempt to seize Dublin on 23 July 1803 was a dramatic failure. Captured soon after, Emmet assured his place in history with his extraordinary speech from the dock that is rightly considered to be one of the greatest courtroom orations in history. He died on the scaffold the next day.

On 19 September 1803, Robert Emmet was tried for high treason at Green Street Courthouse. He was found guilty by the jury. Given permission to speak from the dock he delivered a courageous speech which contained some of the most powerful oratory of all time.

It ended with the heroic request: “When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then and not ’til then, let my epitaph be written”.

The judge, Lord Norbury, was so moved by the powerful oratory that he burst into tears. This speech became required reading for aspiring orators in the years ahead and Abraham Lincoln memorised it in its entirety. As President, Lincoln pardoned a young Confederate spy during the Civil War after he made a speech that reminded him of Emmet.

Thomas Addis Emmet, the older brother of Robert Emmet, was a brilliant barrister in Ireland in the 1790s. On one occasion, in a grand theatrical gesture of defiance, he took the illegal oath of the United Irishmen in open court.

Imprisoned in 1798, he decided to emigrate to the United States in 1804. Despite some opposition from supporters of Britain, he was allowed to practice at the New York Bar and soon established himself as one of the finest lawyers of his time. His reputation was such that he was often asked to argue cases before the Supreme Court. In 1812 he became Attorney General for New York.

Thomas Addis Emmet became a leading figure in Irish-American societies and was widely respected for his contribution to the development of the new legal system in the United States.

The most important Irish politician of the nineteenth century, Daniel O’Connell was also one of the most distinguished barristers of his day. He was called to the Irish Bar in 1798 and quickly came to prominence when he launched a savage attack on the Act of Union. When the Union was passed in 1800 he dedicated his life to its repeal.

He won a reputation as a brilliant barrister, combining spellbinding oratory and a shrewd grasp of the law. Known as ‘The Counsellor’, he opposed the controversial proposal that the Crown would have the right to veto the appointment of Catholic bishops and archbishops in Ireland ("the Veto").

He began working on ways to secure Catholic Emancipation. In 1823, he was a co-founder of the Catholic Association and toured the country, drawing huge crowds to his fiery meetings.

Despite being a Catholic, in 1828 O'Connell stood for election in Co Clare and was victorious. This forced the British government to address the question of Catholic emancipation, which it conceded in 1829.

O'Connell's final court case was in October 1829 when he won a sensational victory in Cork defending the Doneraile conspirators.

Retiring from the Bar, between 1830 and 1847 he turned his attention to repealing the Union. This campaign was less successful and despite his use of "monster meetings" it ended in failure.

He died on 15 May 1847 at Genoa while on a visit to Italy.

After the death of Daniel O'Connell it was a number of years before parliamentary agitation was tried again. The rise of the Irish Parliamentary Party led to demands for Home Rule – a return to an Irish parliament in Dublin that could legislate on domestic affairs.

The first leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party was Isaac Butt, one of the most skilled barristers of the day. However, it was only when Charles Stewart Parnell succeeded him as leader that real progress was made in the struggle for Home Rule.

Parnell’s close associate was the barrister, Tim Healy. Healy later broke with Parnell in 1890 over the controversy surrounding the divorce of Kitty O’Shea, the woman who lived with Parnell. Healy had a prodigious memory and could recite books by heart. He became the first Governor General of the Irish Free State (1922-28).

This famous orator and politician began his career as a barrister. He was born in Dublin and educated at Trinity College, before entering the King’s Inns where he was called to the Bar in 1877.

After winning a national reputation with his powerful speaking and analytical ability, he was made a QC (Queen's Counsel) in 1887. In 1892 he was appointed Solicitor General for Ireland. In the same year he entered the British House of Commons as MP for the University of Dublin, which he represented until 1918.

When he successfully defended the Marquis of Queensberry in 1895 on a libel charge, he destroyed the reputation of Oscar Wilde with his devastating style of cross-examining. As a reward for his years of service he was knighted in 1900.

Opposed to the attempts to secure Home Rule for Ireland, in 1910 he became leader of the Irish Unionist Parliamentary Party. Although today Carson is closely identified with Ulster Unionism, at the beginning he was a committed Southern Unionist, who only used Ulster tactically in an attempt to wreck Home Rule for the entire 32 counties.

In 1914 he and the Ulster Volunteers threatened armed resistance, thus derailing the third Home Rule Bill. After the outbreak of World War I he threw his support behind the British military effort and moved steadily away from controversy. In 1921, he resigned as Unionist party leader and was appointed Lord of Appeal and created Baron Carson of Duncairn.

Patrick Pearse, the leading Irish revolutionary of the twentieth century, had an early interest in the law and trained to be a barrister at the King’s Inns and was called to the Bar in 1901. He practiced at the Bar for a time, but instead of pursuing a legal career he decided to spend his life challenging the existing authority in the country.

First, this took the form of encouraging Irish nationalism through native culture and language. He joined the Gaelic League in 1896 and edited their journal An Claidheamh Soluis. A cultural activist, he also established St Enda’s bilingual secondary school in Dublin (1908).

Disillusioned with the slow pace of reform, Pearse turned to a more radical philosophy. In 1913, he became a founding member of the Irish Volunteers (mirroring the approach of another barrister, Edward Carson, and his Ulster Volunteers) and was made a member of the military council of the IRB. The culmination of his new revolutionary strategy was the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin.

Pearse was President of the Provisional Government and read the Proclamation of Independence from the steps of the GPO. However, distraught at the number of civilian casualties, he ordered an unconditional surrender after a week of heavy fighting and persistent shelling. For his role in the Rising, Pearse was executed on 3 May 1916 at Kilmainham Jail in Dublin.

The major changes in the Irish legal system in the first half of the twentieth century merely reflected the dramatic changes taking place politically. First, many people embraced a more radical nationalism after the Easter Rising of 1916, culminating in independence.

In 1921, the country was partitioned with the creation of the state of Northern Ireland. Both events had a major impact on the law and were heavily influenced by lawyers.

The failure to secure Home Rule before the outbreak of the World War I led to attempts to obtain independence through other means. The Easter Rising of 1916, which was organised by Patrick Pearse, marked the beginning of a radical new phase in Irish nationalism.

The execution of the leaders brought about a dramatic shift in public opinion and in the general election of 1918 the Sinn Féin party won a majority of the Irish seats. They refused to go to Westminster and instead set up their own parliament in Dublin – The Dáil, declaring independence from Britain in January 1919. This led to a bitter conflict, the Irish War of Independence, which ended in December 1921 with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty that established the Irish Free State.

The Irish Bar was also divided by partition, with the creation of a separate Bar for Northern Ireland. Barristers had to choose in which jurisdiction they would practice. The King’s Inns provided books for the use of the members who practiced in the North. To this day close relations are maintained with the Bar of Northern Ireland.

On gaining independence, the Irish Free State maintained its common law system that it had developed over the previous centuries. However, some nationalists were unhappy with the terms of the Treaty and the country fought a divisive civil war between June 1922 and May 1923.

During this period anti-Treaty forces occupied the Four Courts. The ensuing shelling and explosions created much damage and destroyed priceless historical records in addition to all the books in the Law Library.

The major legal change in Ireland during this period was the drafting of a new Constitution in 1937. Eamon de Valera saw the Constitution as consolidating an independent approach to self-government and of removing many of the remaining unpopular links with Britain.

The name of the Irish Free State was changed to Ireland, or Éire in the Irish language. This Constitution was adopted by the Irish people in a referendum on 1 July 1937 with 685,000 in favour and 527,000 against. This was the first constitution ever adopted by popular vote. In 1938, Douglas Hyde became the first Irish President.

Later, in 1948, the Government led by the Taoiseach John A. Costello repealed the External Relations Act, formally declaring Ireland a Republic.

Frances Kyle became the first Irish woman to be called to the Bar in November 1921 and Averill Deverell, who was called to the Bar later that same day, was the first woman to practice at the Bar in Ireland. Although the current male to female ratio is approximately 60% to 40%, women have accounted for more than 50% of entrants over the past five years.

Down through the years many people who trained as barristers, but who became famous in other spheres, have made immense contributions to Irish history, law, politics and literature. They include Bram Stoker, author; John B Yeats, artist; Denis Johnston, playwright; and Máire Mhac an tSaoi, poet.

Today the Bar continues to play a major role in the life of the Irish State. Barristers pursue justice in the Irish courts and protect and guard the rights of every citizen.

Just as importantly, the Bar continues to provide Ireland with many of her most prominent orators, politicians and statesmen. For example, of the 10 Taoisigh since the founding of the State, six trained to be barristers: John A Costello, Liam Cosgrave, Jack Lynch, Garret FitzGerald, Charles Haughey and John Bruton.

Mary Robinson, Ireland's first woman president, was also a successful barrister before pursuing a career in politics and then human rights. Her successor, Mary McAleese was also a barrister and law lecturer.

Seán MacBride, who was the only person to be awarded both the Nobel Peace Prize and the Lenin Peace Prize, was also a barrister. He also received the American Medal for Justice and UNESCO's Silver Medal.

Many of the most successful Irish commissioners to the European Union were barristers. Of the six Irish Commissioners since 1973, four have been barristers: Richard Burke, Michael O'Kennedy, Peter Sutherland and David Byrne.

The Bar in Ireland has changed considerably over the past 200 years. The most radical change has been the rapid increase in the number of people qualifying for the Bar. The number of barristers in Ireland has tripled in the last 20 years and doubled in the last 10 years. There are now approximately 2,300 practicing barristers. Many more are qualified as barristers but are working in the public service, or are employed by companies and other organisations.

The Law Library is located at the Four Courts in Dublin and has been described as "a place which is in fact the fair or market where barristers are hired"*.

Membership of the Law Library offers many advantages to practicing barristers. Through the Law Library they have access to a vast legal library, computer services and legal databases, in addition to consultation rooms, computers and other communication services and robing rooms.

However, perhaps the most valuable contribution of the Law Library is that it enables members to benefit from the advice of other colleagues, particularly more senior practitioners. It allows them to meet and to discuss the appropriate action to be taken in relation to cases.

In recent years modern practice has placed demands on the Bar that could not be met from within the confines of the Law Library in the Four Courts. To meet those demands The Bar of Ireland has built modern premises to provide legal research facilities, offices, consultation rooms and the Dublin Dispute Resolution Centre (DDRC).

Barristers based in the Four Courts have always been involved with the local community through meals on wheels, schools and various other projects. Being a large body within a disadvantaged area, it was felt that a more organised approach should be taken to building links between the local community and the Bar.

The Community Liaison Scheme was set up to raise money for projects and improve our knowledge of local events and our participation. This has led to mock courts with local schools, children’s plays and parties at Christmas, a ‘computers-for-schools’ programme and donations to local groups that are building links within the community.

This scheme will be developed over the coming years to ensure that the Bar is a good neighbour and remains part of the locality. There is also ongoing work with non-governmental organisations and various charities which need legal assistance or advocacy training (how to campaign or act on behalf of someone or some ideal).

The Bar in Ireland has changed and progressed over the years but has always maintained its independence and integrity while serving the cause of justice.

* McDonnell Bodkin M, "Recollections of an Irish Judge" 1915 at page 84