Hugh Holmes QC, an Irish Conservative Party, then after 1886 a Unionist Member of Parliament (MP) in the Parliament of the United Kingdom and subsequently a Judge of the High Court and Court of Appeal in Ireland, is born in Dungannon, County Tyrone, on February 17, 1840.
Holmes is the son of William Holmes of Dungannon and Anne Maxwell. He attends the Royal School Dungannon and Trinity College, Dublin. He is called to the English bar in 1864 and to the Bar of Ireland in 1865.
Holmes becomes a Queen’s Counsel (QC) in 1877. He is appointed Solicitor-General for Ireland on December 14, 1878 and serves until the Conservative government is defeated in 1880. He becomes Attorney-General for Ireland in 1885–1886 and 1886–1887. He is made a member of the Privy Council of Ireland on July 2, 1885. He is a MP for Dublin University from 1885 to 1887.
Holmes resigns from the House of Commons when he is appointed a Judge in 1887. He is a Justice of the Common Pleas division of the High Court of Justice in Ireland until 1888 when he becomes a Justice of the Queen’s Bench division. He is promoted to be a Lord Justice of Appeal in 1897. Ill health causes his retirement in 1914.
Holmes appears to be a stern judge, who does not suffer fools gladly and often imposes exceptionally severe sentences in criminal cases. Although the story is often thought to be apocryphal, Maurice Healy maintains that Holmes did once sentence a man of great age to 15 years in prison, and when the prisoner pleaded that he could not do 15 years, replied “Do as much of it as you can.” His judgments do however display some good humour and humanity, and the sentences he imposes often turned out to be less severe in practice than those he announces in Court.
The quality of his judgments is very high and Holmes, together with Christopher Palles and Gerald FitzGibbon, is credited with earning for the Irish Court of Appeal its reputation as perhaps the strongest tribunal in Irish legal history. His retirement, followed by that of Palles (FitzGibbon had died in 1909), causes a loss of expertise in the Court of Appeal from which its reputation never recovers. Among his more celebrated remarks is that the Irish “have too much of a sense of humour to dance around a maypole.” His judgment in The SS Gairloch remains the authoritative statement in Irish law on the circumstances in which an appellate court can overturn findings of fact made by the trial judge.
In 1869 Holmes marries Olivia Moule, daughter of J.W. Moule of Sneads Green House, Elmley Lovett, Worcestershire. She dies in 1901. Their children include Hugh junior, Sir Valentine Holmes KC (1888-1956), who like his father is a very successful barrister and a noted expert on the law of libel, Violet (dies in 1966), who married Sir Denis Henry, 1st Baronet, the first Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, Elizabeth, who marries the politician and academic Harold Lawson Murphy, author of a well known History of Trinity College Dublin, and Alice (dies in 1942), who marries the politician and judge Edward Sullivan Murphy, Attorney General for Northern Ireland and Lord Justice of Appeal of Northern Ireland.
Holmes dies on April 19, 1916, five days before the beginning of the Easter Rising.