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Death of Sir Denis Stanislaus Henry, 1st Baronet

Sir Denis Stanislaus Henry, 1st Baronet, KBE, PC (Ire), QC, Irish lawyer and politician who becomes the first Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, dies in Belfast on October 1, 1925.

Henry is born on March 7, 1864 in Cahore, Draperstown, County Londonderry, the son of a prosperous Roman Catholic businessman. He is educated at Marist College, Dundalk, Mount St. Mary’s College, Chesterfield, Derbyshire (a Jesuit foundation) and Queen’s College, Belfast, where he wins every law scholarship available to a student in addition to many other prizes and exhibitions. In 1885, he is called to the Bar of Ireland.

During the 1895 United Kingdom general election campaign, Henry speaks in support of unionist candidates in two constituencies: Thomas Lea in South Londonderry, Henry’s native constituency, and E. T. Herdman in East Donegal.

Henry’s legal career flourishes. He becomes Queen’s Counsel in 1896, a Bencher of the King’s Inns in 1898 and ultimately Father of the North-West Circuit – but his interest in politics does not diminish. In March 1905, he is a delegate at the inaugural meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council and in the 1907 North Tyrone by-election he is the Unionist candidate, losing by a mere seven votes.

On May 23, 1916, Henry is elected as an MP in the South Londonderry by-election, the first by-election to be held in Ireland after the Easter Rising, which occurred a month earlier. The rebellion has had no discernible impact on the contest.

In November 1918, Henry becomes Solicitor-General for Ireland and in July 1919, Attorney-General for Ireland. He later serves as the first Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland from 1921 to 1925. In 1923, he becomes a Baronet, of Cahore in the County of Londonderry.

Henry marries Violet Holmes, daughter of Hugh Holmes, a judge of the Court of Appeal in Ireland, and Olivia Moule. They have five children, including James Holmes Henry, who succeeds as second baronet. It is a mixed marriage as Violet is and remains a staunch member of the Church of Ireland. Despite their religious differences, the marriage is said to be happy.

Henry dies in Belfast on October 1, 1925, aged 61, and is buried near his native Draperstown.

(Pictured: Sir Denis Stanislaus Henry, 1st Baronet, bromide print by Walter Stoneman, 1920, National Portrait Gallery, London)


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Birth of Sir James Comyn, Irish-born English High Court Judge

Sir James Peter Comyn, Irish-born barrister and English High Court judge, is born at Beaufield House, Stillorgan, County Dublin on March 8, 1921. Considered by many to be “the finest all-round advocate at the English bar”, he is appointed to the High Court of Justice in 1978, serving on the bench until his retirement in 1985.

Comyn is the son of Nationalist barrister James Comyn KC and of Mary Comyn. Through his father he is the nephew of the barrister Michael Comyn KC. Both his father and uncle had been political and legal advisers to Éamon de Valera, who at one point uses Beaufield House as a safe house. However, the Comyn brothers have a falling out with de Valera shortly before he comes to power in 1932, and Michael Comyn is passed over as Attorney General of the Irish Free State. As a result, James Comyn, who is then attending Belvedere College in Dublin, is sent by his father to attend The Oratory School in England. He spends six months as a trainee at The Irish Times under the editor R. M. “Bertie” Smyllie, but abandons journalism after a joke he added to an obituary is printed in the paper, leading to his demotion to the racing department.

Comyn then matriculates at New College, Oxford, where he reads law, graduating with Second Class Honours. In 1940, he defeats Roy Jenkins for the presidency of the Oxford Union, winning by four votes. After suffering the first of several breakdowns through his life, he briefly works for the BBC‘s Empire Service during World War II.

Comyn is called to the English bar by the Inner Temple in 1942, the Irish bar in 1947, and the Hong Kong bar in 1969. In 1944, he begins his pupillage with Edward Holroyd Pearce KC, later a law lord, and joins his chambers at Fountain Court. He practises in London and on the Western circuit, supplementing his earnings by teaching banking, a subject of which he knows nothing. On one occasion, he rises in Lambeth County court to cross-examine a female defendant in an eviction case. Just as he begins by saying “Madam,” the defendant opens her bag, takes out a dead cat, and throws it at him. The judge’s reaction is to tell the defendant, “Madam, if you do that again, I’ll commit you.” Comyn wins the case.

Comyn takes silk in 1961, and acquires a large practice as a senior, appearing in many high-profile cases. In 1964, he wins damages for libel for the former safe-breaker Alfred George Hinds against a Scotland Yard inspector by convincing the jury that Hinds is in fact innocent. In 1970, he successfully defends the Labour MP Will Owen, who is accused of providing information to the Czechoslovak intelligence services. In 1975, he defeats the government’s attempt to obtain an injunction against the publication of the diaries of former minister Richard Crossman.

Comyn is Recorder of Andover between 1964 and 1971 (honorary life recorder from 1972), commissioner of assize for the Western Circuit in 1971, and a Recorder of the Crown Court between 1972 and 1977. He is elected a bencher of the Inner Temple in 1968, and serves as chairman of the Bar council from 1973 to 1974.

Having refused a previous invitation by Quintin Hogg, Baron Hailsham of St. Marylebone to join the bench, Comyn is again nominated by Elwyn Jones, Baron Elwyn-Jones, in 1977, and is appointed a High Court judge in 1978, receiving the customary knighthood upon his appointment. Initially assigned to the Family Division, he does not take to the work and is reassigned to the Queen’s Bench Division in 1979. He has a reputation for leniency in sentencing, first acquired as Recorder of Andover. In 1980–81, he presides over an unsuccessful libel action by a member of the Unification Church, colloquially known as the Moonies, against the Daily Mail, the longest libel trial in England up to that time. His Irish background makes him the target of Irish Republican Army (IRA) action, and in 1981 the Provisional IRA burns his house in Tara.

Recurring bouts of depression lead to Comyn’s early retirement, on grounds of ill health, in 1985. In retirement, he divides his time between England and Ireland, whose citizenship he has retained. He writes a number of books, including memoirs, light verse, and books on famous trials. He also breeds Friesian cattle. He dies in Navan, County Meath on January 5, 1997 at age 75.


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Birth of Barrister Alexander Martin Sullivan

alexander-martin-sullivanAlexander Martin Sullivan, Irish lawyer best known as the leading counsel for the defence in the 1916 treason trial of Roger Casement, is born in Dublin on January 14, 1871. He is the last barrister in either Ireland or England to hold the rank of Serjeant-at-Law, hence his nickname The Last Serjeant.

A younger son of A.M. Sullivan and Frances Donovan, Sullivan is educated at Ushaw College, Belvedere College, Trinity College, Dublin and King’s Inns. He is called to the Irish Bar in 1892 and practises on the Munster Circuit.

Sullivan is appointed an Irish KC in 1908 and King’s Third Serjeant-at-law (Ireland) in 1912 advancing to Second Serjeant in 1913 and First Serjeant in 1919, the last holder of that position.

A moderate constitutional nationalist and supporter of the Irish Parliamentary Party, Sullivan is a prominent campaigner for the recruitment of Irishmen into the British Army during World War I. His opposition to Sinn Féin republicanism and his prominent role in conducting prosecutions on behalf of the Crown during the Irish War of Independence lead to at least one attempt on his life. As a result, he relocates to England in 1921 and establishes a career at the English Bar, having previously been called to the Middle Temple in 1899. He subsequently becomes a Bencher and Treasurer of Middle Temple. By courtesy, he is always referred to as Serjeant Sullivan, even though that rank no longer exists in England.

Sullivan remains a member of the Irish Bar, and returns at least once to appear in the celebrated case of Croker v Croker, where the children of the former leader of Tammany Hall, Richard “Boss” Croker attempt to overturn his will, which leaves his entire estate to their stepmother.

Sullivan is noted as a fearless advocate, who brings to his English practice the robust manners he had learned in the Irish county courts. He does not hesitate to interrupt the judge, and if he feels that he is not receiving a fair hearing, he is quite capable of walking out of Court.

In 1916 Sullivan is retained as lead counsel in the trial of Sir Roger Casement for treason. No English barrister will defend Casement, and Sullivan is persuaded to take the case by George Gavan Duffy, whose wife Margaret is Sullivan’s sister. Despite his rank of Serjeant at law and King’s Counsel at the Irish bar he is only ranked as a junior barrister in England. As the facts relied on by the prosecution are largely undisputed, Sullivan is limited to arguing a technical defence that the Treason Act 1351 only applies to acts committed “within the realm” and not outside it. The Act’s terms had however been expanded by case law over the previous 560 years, and the defence is rejected by the trial judges and by the Court of Criminal Appeal.

Sullivan writes two books: Old Ireland in 1927 and The Last Serjeant in 1952. He retires from legal practice in 1949. He dies on January 9, 1959.