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100 years of women in law 2

16 Mar 2023 / Law Society Print

An Early entrance

The Gazette continues its series marking the centenary of the first women in Ireland to qualify as solicitors. Helena Mary Early was the second woman solicitor to be entered on the Roll of Solicitors – but the first woman to be admitted in the new Free State.

The first woman to be entered on the Roll of Solicitors in the Irish Free State, Helena Mary Early, was born in Dublin and completed her apprenticeship in the office of her brother, Thomas Early. She was admitted to the Roll on 23 June 1923.

Known as Lena, she was born on 1 April 1888, the second-youngest of 13 children, to Peter and Margaret Early. Her father was a well-known innkeeper in Swords, Co Dublin.

Sadly, Lena was orphaned at an early age. As was the custom at the time, she went to live with her brother Tom, earning her keep as a nursemaid to his children. Tom was a solicitor in Dublin City Council, and she regularly visited his office to run errands for him, often to the bank.

On one occasion, the bank manager suggested that she might consider qualifying as a solicitor. She had no funds, so the bank manager provided her with a loan.

Several firsts

Despite being educated only to primary level, she managed to secure first place in 1920 at the modified preliminary examination for solicitors’ apprentices. She had the honour of becoming the first woman in Britain and Ireland to obtain liberty (under section 16 of the Solicitors (Ireland) Act 1898) to participate in the short-term, three-year apprenticeship. She was apprenticed in June 1920 to her brother.

Helena became the first woman auditor of the Solicitors’ Apprentices’ Debating Society in 1921-22, and her inaugural address on ‘The influence of the Irish abroad’ was well received. She was awarded the Gold Medal and Certificate for Oratory, the Gold Medal and Certificate for Legal Debate, and the Silver Medal and Certificate for Impromptu Debate.

She was admitted to the Roll in 1923 – the first woman to secure the distinction in the new Saorstát Éireann. Around that time, she was appointed a commissioner for oaths, and is believed to be the first woman in the world to have secured that distinction. She joined Tom in his practice in O’Connell Street, Dublin, while her younger brother John practised with a firm in Henry Street.

One day, when appearing in court, and before proceeding with his case against a man accused of rape, a young male solicitor sent up a note to the judge requesting to have the only woman present removed from the body of the court. The judge sent back a note saying that the lady in question – Helena – was appearing for the accused. She continued in practice until the mid-1970s.

Irish Soviet Society

Around the 1930s, she became interested in Russia and made a visit there. In the early ’40s, she became president of the Irish Soviet Society, although she did not consider herself a communist and was a practising Catholic. She had been a friend of Countess Markievicz and, during the mid-1940s, was actively involved in the Woman’s Social and Progressive League.

Helena smoked incessantly – said to be 60 a day shortly before she died in 1977, at the age of 89. How many she actually smoked herself is unclear, as she was known to be extremely generous in sharing them with others.

According to her niece, Nuala O’Brien, Helena always believed in the equality of the sexes and commented that she could do anything as well as any man.

With thanks to Nuala O’Brien (née Early), solicitor, and Brian O’Brien, solicitor, who provided much of the above information for the book Celebrating a Century of Equal Opportunities Legislation – the First 100 Women Solicitors, published by the Law Society of Ireland.

Read and print a PDF of this article here.