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women in legal profession
Mary Dorothea Heron. Centre: with her niece Elizabeth Campbell around 1935. Far right: Heron, circa 1957

15 Feb 2021 / people Print

Hitting a century

Eleanor Christina Murray was the 43rd female solicitor to qualify in Ireland, signing the Roll on 14 January 1938, writes Joan Byrne (partner, O’Flynn Exhams LLP). 

Just over 100 years since the solicitors’ profession was first opened to women, the Gazette is delighted to augment previously published accounts with additional biographical details of two of these women pioneers.

December 2020 marked the 101st anniversary of the removal of the discriminatory ban on women joining the professions. The Law Society published a booklet last year with the biographies of some of these women, as well the cover story of the January/February 2020 Gazette.

These are now enhanced by additional biographical detail on the first woman solicitor (Mary Dorothea Heron), and Eleanor O’Shea (née Murray), the 43rd woman to qualify as a solicitor, in 1938.

This information was contributed by Mary Dorothea’s niece, Linda Roberts, and by solicitor Joan Byrne (O’Flynn Exhams LLP, Cork) on behalf of Eleanor’s family.

These biographies further enrich the Law Society’s institutional archive and add to our appreciation of the first 100 women solicitors.

First woman solicitor

Mary Dorothea Heron was born on 19 August 1896 at 68 Harcourt Street, Dublin, the home of her maternal grandparents, writes Linda Roberts.

Dorothea’s mother was Mary Lyster Jameson, who graduated with a first-class honours degree in classics from the Royal University of Ireland in 1894. Mary married James Heron on 9 August 1895, at Rathgar Presbyterian Church, with Rev Prof James Heron, father of the groom, officiating.

Mary Jameson was one of four surviving children of William Jameson (1826-1897), a solicitor, and Henrietta Dorothea Jameson (1837-1926), the daughter of the Bishop of Meath, Rev Joseph Henderson Singer.

Mary had three brothers, one of whom, Claude, was also a solicitor. After her husband’s death, Dorothea Jameson – known as Dora – moved to Greystones, and there was regular contact with (and visits to) the Jamesons after Mary’s marriage.

James Heron was county surveyor of Co Down. He was the eldest of 13 children. His parents were James Heron (1836-1918) and Margaret Turrettin (1837-1915). His father was a Presbyterian minister, who was later professor of church history at the Assembly’s College, Belfast, and Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland from 1901-1902. He wrote The Celtic Church in Ireland and other books. He was from Rathfriland, Co Down, and was the first person in his family to attend university.

Dorothea, known as ‘Deasy’ within the family, spent her childhood in Downpatrick. She was the eldest of five surviving children. Her brother James was born in 1899, Pauline in 1903, Patrick in 1907, and Faithful in 1911.

All of the children were brought up as Presbyterians. Dorothea was precocious and, already, in the 1901 census, before she was five, she could read. I have a copy of an illustrated edition of The Lays of Ancient Rome, by Lord Macaulay, inscribed ‘Mary Dorothea Heron, from her Father and Mother, August 19th 1901’.

This was for her fifth birthday. In 1905, she received Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha as a Christmas present. I am glad to say that her beloved Dublin grandmother, Dorothea Jameson, gave her The Book of Dragons by Edith Nesbit for her Christmas present in 1903, so she did also enjoy lighter reading!

Exceptional student

Dorothea attended Victoria College in Belfast, where she was an exceptional student. Both sides of her family encouraged her and the younger children to believe that education and earning your living were vital for both men and women.

The school was a major influence on Dorothea. It had been founded in 1859 by Margaret Byers, the first cousin of Dorothea’s grandfather, Rev Prof James Heron. Margaret was a passionate advocate of women’s education.

She offered her female students academic courses in subjects such as history, philosophy, and science, as well as the classics, necessary for university entrance. She encouraged her students to aim for higher education and the professions.

Dorothea enjoyed learning, and it came easily to her. In 1913, she was awarded a full set of the Brontë books for Latin composition, and a complete set of Shakespeare for her performance in classics, French, English and maths at the examinations held at Easter 1914.

Dorothea went up to Queen’s University, Belfast, in 1914. In 1918, she gained a second-class honours degree in classics. In 1921, she was awarded a first-class degree in law. Like many women of her generation, her chance of marriage had gone with the losses of the First World War.

She began working for her uncle Thomas Heron at his Belfast practice, TM Heron, from 1923 (the year she qualified as a solicitor) until 1946. Thomas had played rugby for Ulster. Dorothea worked as an assistant solicitor, specialising in probate.

Her nephew Ian Brewster, who worked in Belfast in the early 1960s, observes that Dorothea was a woman ahead of her time, and that, at the time she was working, most clients of solicitors were men and expected to have a male solicitor. Dorothea’s sister, Faithful, felt that her talents and intelligence were not used to their full potential.

Devastating blow

Within a year of her starting work, the family had the devastating blow of the death of both parents. Mary Heron died on 9 November 1923, and James Heron on 16 February 1924. Faithful, who was only 12 when her parents died, remembered this as a very difficult time, and believed that she owed a great deal to Dorothea.

James had completed his civil engineering degree, but Pauline was part-way through her medical degree, and Patrick and Faithful were at school.

It says a great deal for Dorothea’s strength of character that she kept the family together and encouraged her three younger siblings to complete their education. Pauline gained a first-class honours degree in medicine at Queen’s.

Patrick was awarded a degree in civil engineering, while Faithful was the first woman graduate in agriculture in Ireland. James and Patrick set up their own civil engineering firms. Thus, Dorothea was juggling work and family responsibilities decades before it was ever talked about.

The bonds between the five siblings were close. Jane Stevenson (James’s daughter) recalls that Dorothea used to visit James and the family at Acton Bridge, Cheshire, occasionally during the years of the World War 2.

Jane has clear memories of Dorothea between the ages of four and nine, and remembers her aunt’s voice and face, always smiling, and of her very pleasant personality. In hindsight, she feels that, in personality, Dorothea was very like her father James and their brother Patrick.

Increased responsibilities

By 1946, Dorothea’s family responsibilities increased again. This may explain her retirement from work. The return of Michael Heron, Thomas Heron’s son, from the RAF to his father’s legal practice in 1946 may also have been a factor.

For many years, Dorothea had shared a house in Stranmillis, south Belfast, with her uncle, Samuel Heron, an architect who worked in the city with Hobart and Heron. A moving population of student members of the extended family came and went, as her niece Elizabeth Addis recalls.

After the untimely deaths of Elizabeth’s mother Pauline (in 1931), and of her father John Campbell, Elizabeth went to live in 1943 for ten years with her guardian Dorothea and her great uncle Samuel Heron.

From their house, she attended school and college. Elizabeth remembers rationing and a shelter under the stairs during World War 2. She recalls that Aunt Deasy was very exact in all her arrangements and, of course, looked after all of Elizabeth’s affairs until she reached maturity. She describes Aunt Deasy as a very private person and that, even after ten years under the same roof, she did not know her well, although they were very fond of each other.

My parents, Faithful and James Brewster, and their eldest son Ian joined the household after my father’s discharge from the RAF in 1945, while he undertook a postgraduate diploma in public health at Queen’s. A second son, Hugh, was born in November 1946.

The house had four bedrooms, and it must have been a busy one. Ian remembers meeting his Great Uncle Sam off the tram along the Stranmillis Road on his return from work. He also remembers Dorothea corresponding with the extended family, including her Uncle Claude and Aunt Emily Jameson, by then living in Bath.

Elizabeth recalls weekend visits, first by train during the war, and later in Great Uncle Sam’s car, to the farm belonging to Great Uncle Sam at Newtown, near Rostrevor, Co Down. Newtown was a base for visits from the extended family and for meeting up with the Heron cousins who still lived in the Rathfriland and Rostrevor area.

The whole family enjoyed picnics, and there are many small, faded photos of large groups of the extended family with a picnic basket at various favourite sites.

Rostrevor retirement

About 1954, Samuel Heron retired to Newtown. Dorothea went, too, to look after him. Samuel’s brother Thomas (Dorothea’s former employer) and his wife Norah also retired to Rostrevor. Faithful and James Brewster, my three brothers and I used to spend our holidays with Aunt Deasy and Great Uncle Sam. Various cousins would visit or call in, and Elizabeth rejoined the household.

Winifred Smith, Patrick’s elder daughter, remembers visiting when staying with her maternal grandmother in Rostrevor. She recalls that her Aunt Deasy was kind and thoughtful and would cook her roast chicken and boiled onions, and take her up the garden to pick raspberries for pudding. She felt that Aunt Deasy was careful not to rush her, but would let Winifred come to her, and then be glad to show her things.

After her Uncle Sam died in March 1957 at the age of 85, Dorothea moved to Portstewart, to be near her sister Faithful and family, who lived near Coleraine. My brothers and I remember visits to see her, Ian on his bicycle. We were always made welcome.

My first ever overnight stay away from home was with Aunt Deasy, who made me feel safe, and encouraged my love of reading. Her bookshelves included the classics, novels, plays, poetry, biographies, theology, philosophy and detective stories. Family picnics with Aunt Deasy at the seaside were also enjoyed. Alas, Dorothea did not have long to enjoy her retirement. She died on 9 October 1960, aged 64.

Fittingly, Dorothea is buried with her Uncle Samuel in Clonallan Parish Graveyard, Warrenpoint, Co Down. The simple inscription reads:

Heron
Samuel Mayne Reid
Newtown, Rostrevor
And his niece Mary Dorothea Heron

What themes come out of these recollections of Dorothea’s nephews and nieces? All agree on a strong sense of family duty and loyalty. She had a high moral code. She was quiet, unassuming and modest, and never mentioned her working life or her academic achievements. She did not like or seek the limelight.

She was an intensely private person. She was self-contained, although often surrounded by family members. Her strongest relationships were within the family, and her family can see some resemblances in her character to that of her siblings. That all of her 11 nieces and nephews pursued higher education and professional careers is a tribute to their Aunt Dorothea.

Eleanor Christina O’Shea (née Murray)

Eleanor Christina Murray was the 43rd female solicitor to qualify in Ireland, signing the Roll on 14 January 1938,writes Joan Byrne (partner, O’Flynn Exhams LLP).

Eleanor was born on 1 January 1915 to John and Mary Murray (née Bowe). The family lived at Marymount, Emmet Place, Youghal, Co Cork. Eleanor had three brothers and two sisters – James, John, Edward, Maureen and Tep.

Her father John was a successful master builder. Ella, as she was known, accompanied him to his various sites. She was also his chauffeur and, as a very young girl, drove her father in his large American car.

She was an excellent driver and loved every minute of those precious times while on site. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, her ambition was to study architecture; however, her mother was not keen that she would study such a male-orientated discipline.

Ella attended Loreto Convent in Youghal and, for her senior year, transferred to the Ursuline Convent in Waterford. She chose to study law at University College Cork, where she qualified with distinction. She served her apprenticeship in the office of Gerald O’Flynn, South Mall, Cork, and took up a position in Dublin for a short time. She then set up her own practice at Emmet Place, Youghal. She also had an office in Tallow, Co Waterford, which she attended once a month.

While studying at UCC, she met fellow student Frank O’Shea, and they married some years later. They lived in Youghal and had their family: Ray, David and Colette. Another child, Eleanor, sadly died in infancy.

In the early 1950s, they moved to Cork and Ella closed her practice. By the mid ’50s, the family had relocated to Dublin. In the mid ’60s, when the family was older, Ella joined a law practice in Westmoreland Street, where she remained for approximately three years before retiring.

Ella had a very engaging personality. She had a great sense of humour and a ‘sense of devilment’. An example would be allowing her son Ray to accompany her on her trips to Tallow, carefully allowing him to steer the car while sitting on her lap.

She loved gardening, reading, baking, walking, travelling, swimming and sewing. She also had a great interest in wildlife and bird-watching.

Read and print a PDF of this article here.

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