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A scholar and a gentleman
Seán Ó Ceallaigh Pic: Cian Redmond

04 Apr 2024 / people Print

A scholar and a gentleman

Seán Ó Ceallaigh celebrates 70 years qualified and practising as a solicitor this year, having qualified in Trinity term 1954. Mary Hallissey met Seán and his son Cormac at their Phibsborough practice in Dublin

Seán Ó Ceallaigh is a solicitor with a venerable pedigree, having entered the profession in Trinity term 1954 – making for a remarkable 70 years of service to his clients.

The Cork native has Mayo roots and came to Dublin to study law at UCD, where he was a keen debater with the Solicitors’ Apprentices’ Debating Society of Ireland.

Born on 10 July 1931, Seán is a keen linguist and has tackled up to nine languages, having a particular grá for the Irish language and other Celtic tongues. He also campaigned in his time for the Law Society to engage in a greater use of the Irish language in the profession. Seán is also a published poet and a scholar with a wide range of interests.

The father of nine remains living in his Castleknock, Co Dublin, home with Pauline, his wife of almost 62 years. He still cuts the grass occasionally and maintains his zest for life.

Front-room practice Seán studied for his BA and LLB in UCD, which was in Earlsfort Terrace at that time, and remembers getting the bus out to the countryside that was then Belfield. He was on the path to the solicitors’ profession and won the silver medal in the preliminary exam – the gold medal was won by his friend Paul Callan SC.

Seán did his apprenticeship with his uncle Martin Kelly of Fitzgerald & Kelly in Kilkenny, before establishing his own practice in Dublin. He opened his practice at the age of 22 in the front room of the boarding house where he lodged in Phibsborough, Dublin 7.

His landlady, a Mrs Reed, obliged by answering the door to prospective clients, while a nearby shopkeeper delivered telephone messages. His son Cormac now carries on the practice 70 years later in a building just across the street, with his nonagenarian dad acting as a consultant.

Court pleadings

Seán ran a broad general practice, from conveyancing to probate to workplace-accident cases, but particularly enjoyed litigation and pleading cases himself in the courts, where his debating background stood to him.

His legal practice gradually expanded, and branch offices were eventually established in other Dublin suburbs. His son Cormac began working as a ‘runner’ in the office in his teens and learned his trade from the ground up.

“I never despise humble beginnings,” Cormac laughs. “I got to know the nuts and bolts of how things worked.”

Cormac subsequently studied law at night at the College of Commerce in Rathmines, before eventually joining his father in the practice, which also has a niche in charity administration.

Vivid recall

Seán has a vivid recall of his peripatetic childhood in Munster as the son of a garda superintendent, and of doing the civil-service entrance exams, though he felt a calling to the law.

He entered the profession at a time when there were just four High Court judges in the country, so he has seen significant changes and expansion in the legal world.

One of his endeavours in the 1970s was establishing the Family Building Society, which helped to secure mortgages for working people before its eventual takeover by the EBS.

Seán recalls the firm making a big investment, at that time, in a fax machine – and remembers the days when a client drawing down a mortgage would engender a very big sense of occasion.

Nowadays, he continues to come into the office each week, helping out by reading title documents. A keen correspondent, he had a letter to the editor published recently in the Sunday Independent, about Ireland rejoining the Commonwealth.

Beir bua Seán!

Mary Hallissey is a journalist at the Law Society Gazette.

Mary Hallissey
Mary Hallissey is a journalist at Gazette.ie