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02 Apr 2019 / Law Society Print

Obituary: Pioneering first woman president

When Moya Quinlan qualified as a solicitor in 1946, she was one of just two women in a class with more than 50 men.

Nevertheless, she would go on to become the first woman to be elected a Council member of the Law Society of Ireland in 1968, and its first woman president in 1980.

When she passed away peacefully at the age of 98 on 12 February, she left behind a transformed solicitors’ profession, in which 52% of all practitioners are women. 

Although with characteristic modesty she never saw herself as a pioneer in her profession, the quiet power of her example and her gentle encouragement to generations of women solicitors undoubtedly contributed much to that transformation.


She had roots in a revolutionary generation. Her grandfather, Henry Dixon, was solicitor to Arthur Griffith, was interned in Frongoch and, as documents record, gave legal advice to Pádraig Pearse in his purchase of St Enda’s School.

Moya Dixon was, herself, born in the revolutionary period, in 1920, to Peggy (née Doorley) and Joseph Dixon.

Following school in Sion Hill College in Blackrock, Dublin, near where she lived throughout her life in Monkstown, she began studying law with the Incorporated Law Society.

She followed her father into the family solicitors’ practice, now Dixon Quinlan solicitors, in Parnell Square, where she spent her entire career. 

Many firsts

She balanced her career with a full family life. She met a Kerry man, Michael Quinlan, who was an accountant with the Richmond Hospital, at the Galway Races, and they married in 1952.

Their two sons Michael and Brendan arrived within the next few years.

She lived to see Michael succeed her as president of the Law Society (pictured), completing his term of office in November 2018. Among many firsts, it was the first time both a mother and son had served as president. 

Moya was continuously re-elected by the profession for an extraordinary 45 years as a member of the Council of the Law Society.

She topped the poll for many years and was elected to her final two-year term at the age of 91.

Nowhere else in the world, as far as anyone in Blackhall Place is aware, has there been an example of an elected member contributing actively to the governance of the legal profession in their 90s. 

Her interventions in debate became more rare as time went on. But, even to the end, she would rise slowly to her feet and unerringly skewer a point that needed to be made.  


Her contributions were always brief, clear and insightful. She had a very low tolerance for the unnecessary jargon and long-windedness of many lawyers, and she did not suffer such fools gladly. 


When she was elected president in 1980, before many of today’s Council members were born, it was very rare for a woman to lead a professional body in Ireland, or anywhere. For example, the first woman president of the Law Society of England and Wales wasn’t elected until 2002.

But Moya’s legacy in the Law Society extends beyond that achievement.

She was a key supporter of her great friend Peter Prentice, another former president, in the acquisition of the Blackhall Place building from the King’s Hospital School and its extensive refurbishment, which opened as the Society’s new headquarters in 1978.

This ensured the preservation of one of Dublin’s great Georgian buildings, and her passion for Thomas Ivory’s 1783 masterpiece knew no bounds. It is, in a way, her monument. 

Legal passions

Beyond Blackhall Place, she had other legal passions. She was appointed by Government as a member of the inaugural Legal Aid Boardin 1979, and constantly campaigned for proper funding of the State’s obligations to finance the Legal Aid Scheme.

Education minister Mary O’Rourke appointed her as chairwoman of the Primary School Curriculum Review, and her great friend, the late Dr Mary Redmond, appointed her to the first board of the Irish Hospice Foundation

Perhaps most remarkable of all was her service, from its inception, to the Employment Appeals Tribunal, established in 1977.

She was the legal chairwoman of innumerable divisions of the tribunal for some 35 years. Indeed, she sat for the last time as such at the astonishing age of 93. 


Her life was touched by great sadness with the untimely death of her husband Michael in 1981, in the month following the completion of her term as Law Society president. But she carried on, both with her family and career commitments, without complaint.

She adored her home-away-from-home in Ardmore, Co Waterford, and loved her walks there as much as she loved her walks on Dún Laoghaire pier.

Moya Quinlan was extraordinary for her longevity, legendary for her legal career, and loved for herself. She leaves behind her two sons, Michael and Brendan, daughter-in-law Sarah, grandchildren Emma, Michael, David, Pippa Kate, Daniel and Julieanne, great-grandsons Reg and Eric, and a solicitors’ profession changed by a pioneering woman who never saw herself as such. 

Moya Quinlan was born on 28 June 1920, and died on 12 February 2019. 

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a h-anam dílis.



Ken Murphy
Ken Murphy
Ken Murphy is director general of the Law Society