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History of the profession

History of the profession

By the sword divided

Those invited to attend the Law Society buildings in the Four Courts on 8 July 1921 for the unveiling of the Great War memorial were united in their wish to commemorate the 20 solicitors and 18 apprentices killed fighting for the British Empire; 155 solicitors and 83 apprentices served in the war.

Designed by Oliver Shepperd, the memorial was paid for by individual contributions from members of the Law Society, at a cost of £680.13s.2d.

History of the profession

History of the profession


The president of the Society, Charles G Gamble, made a speech of acceptance that was touching in its simplicity in acknowledging the debt to the dead, together with the aspiration for peace in Ireland for the living.

This aspiration was to be answered three days later, when the Truce announcing the conclusion of the Anglo-Irish war was announced.


In the latter half of 1921, the Law Society faced three difficulties: the question of allegiance to which State; the near certain partition of Ireland, with the loss of the Northern solicitors; and the Dáil courts.

The Third Home Rule Bill had been enacted as the Government of Ireland Act in August 1914, ominously providing for the separation of four, six, or nine Ulster counties from the State.

The historian Fearghall McGarry has proposed that the 1920 Government of Ireland Act was intended “to secure the Northern State” prior to negotiating with Republicans.

The British king opened the new Northern parliament on 22 June 1921 with an impassioned plea for peace in Ireland, thus enabling the British Government to begin peace negotiations.

 The 1920 act was stillborn, however. Its proposal for Home Rule was not acceptable to the revolutionary legatees of 1916, who had proclaimed a republic endorsed by the First Dáil in January 1919, and which was the object of the Anglo-Irish war.

Opposed partition

The Law Society vigorously opposed partition, establishing a committee in 1916 to examine the consequences, while continuing implacable opposition.

It refused to comment on the Northern Ireland solicitors bill or charter, though invited to do so.


Legally, the 1920 act had a fundamental and permanent effect on the court and legal systems. It commenced on 1 October 1921, partitioning the unified judicature system and fracturing the cohesion of the all-island legal professions, solicitors and the Bar, for the first time.

The Society accepted partition as a fact, but proposed that it retain jurisdiction over Northern solicitors by devolving its powers to a Northern law society for Ulster, which was rejected by the Northern Irish State.

The Law Society forged close relations with the Law Society of Northern Ireland upon its establishment in 1922, with five members of the ‘northern law association’ serving on its council to the present day.

It’s a truism to say that the Government of Ireland Act 1920 created the political and geographic Ireland that exists to present times.


A halcyon period followed the Truce. There was widespread relief that war had ended. The Dáil courts had been established by the First Dáil in 1919 as part of the alternative State created in opposition to British rule.

The existing courts continued to function but were severely constricted and curtailed, only effective in areas of practice (such as probate and workmens’ compensation) not dealt with by the Dáil courts. Solicitors’ incomes were reduced by war and conflict, and the Law Society permitted solicitors to appear before Dáil courts.

The Irish Law Times and Solicitors Journal said: “If solicitors had not been allowed to appear, they would have been reduced to breaking stones.”


Negotiations to create a new State free from British rule began between five Irish plenipotentiaries and the British Government in October. One of the five was a solicitor, EJ Duggan.

The Articles of Agreement for a Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland were signed in London on 6 December 1921, causing immediate dissension in Sinn Féin. The Dáil cabinet approved the articles on a split vote of four to three.

The Law Society Council meeting on 7 December 1921 received a motion from Sir John O’Connell praising the agreement.

The Council decided to defer discussion to a special meeting on 2 January 1922. Prior to the meeting, the Second Dáil met at the Senate chamber of UCD, Earlsfort Terrace, and debated the ratification of the Treaty, with increasing acrimony and bitterness.


The issues were the signing of the Articles of Agreement without President de Valera’s prior approval, the creation of ‘dominion’ status, the oath of allegiance to the king and, crucially, the failure to secure a republic.

At the special Council meeting, Sir John’s motion was criticised as ‘too political’, and was withdrawn.

The Council members were aware of the Dáil debate and passed a motion “recognising the injury done to the material well-being of the community by public uncertainty and consequent disquietude, [the members] do hereby express an earnest hope that the deliberations may result in a decision bringing peace to our country”.

The resolution was sent to the politicians and the press. The Society recognised the ‘consequent disquietude’ as inimical to the prosperity of the country and the solicitors’ profession.

There was not enough work – as evidenced by solicitors canvassing prisoners in the Bridewell for instructions.

A functioning government of some description was required to preserve solicitors’ livelihoods.


The Treaty was ratified by a vote of 64 to 57 by the Second Dáil on 7 January 1922, with the Provisional Government formed on 16 January 1922. Michael Collins was appointed chairman.

Two solicitors, EJ Duggan and Patrick Hogan, and one solicitor’s apprentice, Kevin O’Higgins, were members of the government. O’Higgins was never admitted to the Roll as a solicitor; he was called to the Bar in January 1925.

Both pro and anti-Treaty forces attempted to avoid an outright shooting war, though there were many violent incidents.

Armed men

TA Colfer, solicitor, New Ross, wrote to the Council in February 1922, stating that he had been ‘kidnapped’ by armed men and required to give a promise not to act for landlords in the recovery of rent.

The meeting of 21 June noted the ‘death by murder’ of Francis Fitzmaurice, solicitor, Dunmanway, on 27 April 1922, one of three Protestants killed that evening – “the perpetrators were not identified”.


The anti-Treaty forces fractured, with direct and immediate consequences for the Society. Major General Rory O’Connor and his forces occupied the Four Courts’ complex on 14 April 1922, including the solicitors’ buildings.

The secretary of the society, WG Wakely, went three times to O’Connor to recover the books of the Society. The Society moved to 33 Molesworth Street and continued administration and lectures for apprentices, with examinations being held at the Royal College of Surgeons.


The ‘pact’ election of 16 June 1922 contributed to the decline of relations between pro and anti-Treatyites, with contests increasing in number and intensity.

Additionally, the British retained a force of 6,000 troops in Ireland, with artillery and air support, and pressed the Provisional Government to act against the anti-Treaty forces, threatening unilateral action.

Matters reached a head on 28 June 1922, when the Four Courts’ garrison refused an ultimatum to surrender and the Provisional Government forces began a bombardment – the Civil War had begun.


On 30 June, the Four Courts and Public Records Office were destroyed, including the solicitors’ buildings, with the loss of hundreds of years of historic records.

The responsibility for the explosions and fires in the Public Records Office is much contested in the historiography.

The Roll books and registers of the Society survived the destruction, housed as they were in the strongroom built in 1899 when the Society acquired responsibility for admission to the Roll.

The war memorial was recovered from the ruins and re-erected in the (new) solicitors’ buildings.


The Law Society held the intermediate examinations in July at the Royal College of Surgeons.

At the Council meeting on 12 July 1922, “the secretary reported the intermediate examinations held on the 4 July during the military operations: 25 out of 42 attended; 17 who did not attend could re-enter without fee. All passed.”

Attendance was both difficult and dangerous. James Lockhart Russell, an apprentice from Ballymena, travelled by ferry to Wales and thence to Dublin!


Between July 1922 and May 1923, 100 apprentices passed the Society’s examinations, comprising the last cohort to be eligible to practise in both jurisdictions.

This cohort included the first three women to be admitted to the Roll: Mary D Heron from Belfast, Helena M Early from Swords, and Dorothea M O’Reilly (née Browne) from Skibbereen. Their admission was made possible by the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919.

The Society’s difficulties were resolved, albeit with regret, by partition and the loss of the Northern solicitors.

Dáil courts

The Dáil courts were abolished on 25 July 1922. Mary Kotsonouris, lawyer and historian, described their demise as “an obvious duty”.

The Irish Free State was born on 6 December 1922, and the Law Society pledged its allegiance to a law-bound State, participating in the administration of the courts.

Patrick J Brady, president of the Society, said “solicitors’ work was intimately associated with the general administration of the country.

In fact, in a sense, it could be described as semi-official”. Brady was the Irish Parliamentary Party MP for the St Stephen’s Green ward (1908-18) in the House of Commons, nominated to the senates of the Parliament of Southern Ireland and the Irish Free State, and elected to the Senate in 1928.


A fellow member of the Society had a different experience. The Council meeting of 6 December 1922 noted a letter from Sean Ó hUadhaigh, solicitor, saying that “he was unable to interview clients in military custody”.

The council referred the letter to the Minister for Defence, seeking a meeting. The minister’s reply – “send statement in writing” and enclosing regulations for interviewing prisoners – was noted at the Council meeting on 13 December 1922.

Mrs Ó hUadhaigh wrote to the Council on 2 March 1923 stating: “Mr Ó hUadhaigh now in jail with no charge”, and requesting assistance in seeking his release.

The Council resolved to write to the minister.


Mr JA Long, assistant solicitor to Mr Ó hUadhaigh, wrote a letter considered by the Council meeting on 25 April 1923 “asking the Council again to take steps to have Mr Ó hUadhaigh be brought to trial”. The Council resolved to write to the minister.


Matters improved for Mr Ó hUadhaigh – he was the first chairman of Aer Lingus and Law Society president for 1947/8.

History of the profession

  • The Government of Ireland Act 1920 created the political and geographic Ireland that exists to present times
  • In 1921, the Law Society faced three difficulties: the near certain partition of Ireland, with the loss of the Northern solicitors; the question of allegiance to which State; and the Dáil courts
  • Solicitors’ income was reduced by war and conflict, and the Law Society permitted solicitors to appear before the Republican-established ‘Dáil courts’