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05 Feb 2019 / courts Print

Obituary: Cork barrister Jane Anne Rothwell

Since Jane Anne Rothwell’s passing on 7 October last year, some beautiful tributes have been paid to her.

However, I think one that she may have relished the most was the mark of respect shown to her by members of the judiciary, her colleagues at the Cork Bar and the Southern Law Association, and the courthouse staff, who stood on the steps of the court house, Washington Street, on 9 October as her hearse passed by.

This very public and unprecedented tribute demonstrated to remarkable effect not alone the high regard that members of the legal profession had for Jane Anne as a barrister, but also the place that Jane Anne held in all our hearts.

Irish flag

Not many people know that the Irish flag was flown at half-mast over the court house in Washington Street that day. Jane Anne would have loved that, but might also have mischievously commented: “And why wouldn’t it?”

Jane Anne graduated with a law degree from University College Cork in 1997 and was called to the Bar in 1999.

She devilled in Dublin’s Four Courts under the watchful eye of the late Don Seligman BL before returning to her native Cork in October 2000, where she devilled with David Holland SC.

Like many junior practitioners, Jane Anne tutored in company and tort law in UCC and lectured in Griffith College, Dublin from 2000 to 2005.

Jane Anne was an examiner in media law for the Irish Academy of Public Relations and represented the Cork Bar for many years on the UCC Law Faculty Liaison Committee.


She practised predominantly on the Cork and South-Western Circuits, and it was not long before she made an impression – that of a highly skilled, astute and competent barrister, with oodles of personality and charm to match.

She demonstrated a dogged determination in the pursuit of justice for her clients, and her style was combative, to say the least.

Over time, her practice evolved so that, in more recent years, much of her time was spent in the cut-and-thrust of the family law courts.

This area of law suited Jane Anne, in that she had a unique ability to connect with people from all walks of life, and had the capacity to make clients feel at ease in very stressful and emotional situations.

Senior counsel Michael Gleeson encapsulated Jane Anne perfectly with his words at her funeral Mass.

He first warned the non-lawyers among the congregation that certain “aspects of her personality might lead one to believe that her career was something akin to a Cork remake of Legally Blonde before continuing: “If you were lucky enough to retain Jane Anne as your barrister, you got somebody who would fearlessly and fiercely assert and protect your rights in court.

“You got someone who was ‘full-on and all-in’ on your behalf. She was a formidable opponent on her feet in court, that is, if you were unwise enough not to settle with her before the hearing.


“She was intelligent, hardworking, tenacious, but always fair in combat. Any conflict or disagreement was put to one side at the end of the case when you left court.

She adhered to the highest standards and traditions of the Irish Bar and was consequently held in the highest esteem by her legal colleagues, whether barristers, solicitors or judges”.

Jane Anne truly was a champion for her clients, in that she was unrelenting, formidable and brave, but on the turn of a penny, could be hilarious, outrageous and sparkling.

A friend and colleague recently commented: “What other colleague could lend your daughter a disco ball for her 18th birthday at a moment’s notice?”

Jane Anne threw herself into all aspects of life at the Bar. She was appointed honorary secretary of the Munster Bar, a role which she held from 2004 to 2018.

In addition, she instigated the inaugural Cork Bar conference to Barcelona in 2004, and used her boundless energy and enthusiasm to ensure that it continued every year thereafter.

Jane Anne was a delegate to the Ireland programme of the International Academy of Trial Lawyers.

In 2009, she was hosted by James McManis and his wife Sara Wigh, where she spent time working in the legal firm of McManis Faulkner in San Jose, California and afterwards attended the annual meeting of the IATL in Atlanta, Georgia.

Jane Anne was also called to the Bar in Northern Ireland on 26 October 2012 in the illustrious company of Paul Sreenan SC, Paul Gallaher SC and Dermot Gleeson SC, to name but a few, who were also called that day.


Aside from her professional life, Jane Anne grew up in Cork as the eldest sister of Jonathan and Karl in an exceptionally tight-knit family.

As her parents John and Parfrey quickly learned from very early on, in debates with Jane Anne, there was always only going to be one winner, no matter what the topic!

Those debates could have involved such important issues as John’s alleged incorrect use of a spirit level, to Parfrey’s choice of wallpaper, and while it might not have been readily admitted at the time, Jane Anne was usually right!


She married her husband Steven O’Neill on 15 September 2012. During their years together, they spent as much time as they could in Waterville, Co Kerry, where they both loved hillwalking, spending time on the beach with their dog Holly, or entertaining family and friends.

They shared a common love of music, albeit with greatly diverse tastes, with Steven (a wonderful pianist and self-taught trumpet player) tending towards the classical, whereas Jane Anne’s interests lay somewhere between ’80s pop culture, the Eurovision and pure opera.

She would argue strongly that there were not too many people in Ireland who had attended more Madonna concerts than she had.

Jane Anne was a champion of the arts in Cork. She was appointed chairwoman of the Cork Midsummer Festival in 2013 at a difficult time for that festival, and rejuvenated it with a vigour and gusto that few possess.

She was an inspirational leader and was passionate about the arts, particularly as a Cork woman, recognising the importance of protecting and promoting the cultural life of the city.


She gave her time selflessly, utilising her powers of persuasion to secure funding for the festival, as well as using every opportunity to sell tickets and festival membership to family, colleagues and friends alike.

Such was Jane Anne’s impact, that the pre-Christmas run of Asking for It in the Abbey Theatre was dedicated to her as the inspirational chair of the Cork Midsummer Festival. This would have given her immense joy and pride.

Jane Anne has the distinction of becoming the first, full female member of the Cork Grocers’ Club, which was established as a gentleman’s club in 1862, and had previously only allowed women to become associate members.

During tributes paid to her at Cork courthouse on 11 December, the club chairman (and a colleague at the Cork bar) said that, when Jane Anne first approached him about the matter of making ladies full members, his comment was: “Over my dead body, and blackbirds will turn white first!”

As one can imagine, in the face of some considerable opposition, Jane Anne duly rose to the challenge and set out on a solo campaign to bring about change. In May 2018, against all the odds, she succeeded in changing the membership rules of a club that had remained unchanged for over 150 years.

For my part, Jane Anne was not only a colleague but a fiercely loyal and trusted friend, a confidante like no other.

Having shared an office together for almost 18 years, our work and personal lives were very much intertwined. With Jane Anne by your side, life was never dull.

She exuded a sparkle that was infectious. She was hilarious, particularly in her detailed descriptions of events that happened in her life, both personal and professional.

She was a phenomenal story teller, never omitting a detail.

On 11 December, Judge Sean Ó Donnabháin said of Jane Anne: “The dignity, courage and cheerfulness with which she met the challenge of her fatal illness, and transcended it, was an example to everyone. We should all look at the way she dealt with adversity and learn from it.”


Jane Anne truly did represent an example of how we should live our lives. She was loved and will be remembered as a person with a glittering and sparkling personality, an infectious laugh, who could light up a room when she entered it, and phenomenally courageous to the end.

A very bright light has gone out in the Cork Bar that will never be rekindled.  

Jane Anne Rothwell is survived by her husband Steven O’Neill, her parents John and Parfrey Rothwell, her brothers Jonathan and Karl, parents-in-law, sisters-in-law, nieces, nephew, uncles, aunts, cousins, colleagues, and a wide circle of friends.

Helen O'Driscoll
Helen O'Driscoll is a Cork-based barrister
Helen O'Driscoll is a Cork-based barrister