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The first triumvirate

25 Feb 2019 / people Print

The first triumvirate of legal women trailblazers

On 30 November 1908, Enda B Healy (auditor of the Solicitors’ Apprentices Debating Society) addressed the AGM on the topic ‘Women’s suffrage’.

He predicted that women would be enfranchised, contemplating at some future time that they would be lawyers, perhaps even judges.

The Common Law precluded women from acquiring their own legal identity and capacity for centuries, including entry to the legal professions.

World War I was the catalyst for change. The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 enabled women to enter the legal and other professions on the same conditions as men.

Attempts

There were attempts by women to enter the solicitors’ profession prior to the act, with proceedings issued in 1914 by Gwyneth Bebb and three companions. In Bebb v Law Society, the Court of Appeal in England and Wales held that “a woman was not a person within the meaning of the Solicitors Act 1843”. Thus continuing the Common Law prohibition on women.

Madge Anderson in Scotland was the first woman law graduate from Glasgow University in 1917 and, on graduation, she became indentured for three years. Thus, in 1920, she applied for admission as a law agent (solicitor) but was refused as she was not a man.

She issued proceedings, Anderson A Petitioner, and was successful on appeal. Lord Ashbrook held that “the act of 1919, in this matter of admission to the legal profession, has put the petitioner in the position of a man”.

He directed her admission, the first woman admitted as a solicitor in these islands.

The jurisprudential position of a woman evolved from the 1914 decision, that a woman was not a person, to the 1920 decision that a woman is in the position of a man.

Royal assent

Once the royal assent to the 1919 act was given (23 December 1919), the Law Society of Ireland took a pragmatic decision to admit women.

The February 1920 Council meeting recorded that two women had lodged applications. Gamble, the president of the Society for 1920/1, remarked: “Its developments will be viewed with considerable interest and curiosity, and already lady candidates have entered upon the course of study and training”.

The two women were Mary D Heron from Downpatrick, indentured to her uncle TM Heron, Belfast, on 7 February 1920, and Helena M Early from Swords, indentured to her brother Thomas Early on 22 June 1920.

The third woman indentured was Dorothy Mary O’Reilly (née Browne) from Skibbereen on 5 November 1921, to Jasper Travers Wolfe, one of the most remarkable solicitors of his generation.

Two of the three were apprenticed to family members, confirming the familial entry to the profession in the 1920s.

Partition of the legal and political jurisdiction of Ireland occurred on 1 October 1921, with the commencement of the Government of Ireland Act 1920.

Thus, Heron and Early were entitled to practice in both jurisdictions, and O’Reilly in the Irish Free State only, as her indentures post-dated 1 October 1921.

The standard apprenticeship term was five years, but Heron, as a graduate of Queen’s University, was entitled to a reduced term of three years, as were Early and O’Reilly, who were law clerks.

Mary Dorothea Heron

Heron’s achievement as the ‘first lady solicitor’ in Ireland received recognition in her native Belfast, where three newspapers carried a report of her success on Saturday 3 February 1923.

The Belfast Telegraph noted her academic success in Victoria College and Queen’s University, that she was placed second in the Final Examination, and was awarded “a special certificate for distinguished answering, being the first lady solicitor in Ireland”.

She was described by reference to her male progenitors: “Miss Heron is the daughter of Mr James Heron M Inst Tech, and a granddaughter of the late Professor Heron DD. She served her apprenticeship with her uncle, Mr TM Heron, solicitor, Mayfair, Belfast.”

She started practice with him on admission, practising from 1923-46, but did not take out a practising certificate. The explanation is provided by Teri Kelly (‘Profession’s perfect parity’, Gazette, Jan/Feb 2015, pp20-1): “There was a perception in these early years that women solicitors were engaged as assistants in conveyancing or probate work – many women did not hold practising certificates, which was a convention permitted by the Law Society at the time.”

This convention applied in both jurisdictions until 1974, and extended to include male assistant solicitors who did not attend court. The Law Society of Northern Ireland does not have any record of Heron.

It also allowed Helena M Early to be the first woman practising solicitor in Ireland, and Kathleen Donaghy the first woman practising solicitor in Northern Ireland. Heron retired in 1946 and died at Portstewart on 9 October 1960, aged 64.

Helena M Early

The contrast with Heron is that Early was a law clerk, aged 32, when apprenticed to her brother – which means that she had considerable experience.

She was placed first in the Preliminary Examination in May 1920 and was joint first in the Intermediate Examination in June 1921.

Another first was her appointment as the first woman commissioner for oaths by the Lord Chief Justice in January 1922, while an apprentice.

Liberation

In an interview with the Irish Independent on 5 November 1970, titled: ‘Too late for liberation?’, Early declared: “This liberation movement is taking too long. Women should be far more active than they are. They’ve been underestimating themselves for too long.”

She was 83 at the time of the interview, reported to smoke 60 cigarettes a day, and “fell in love with her job” and did not marry.

She “took up” law in her brother’s office when she was 16. She recounted her election as auditor of the Solicitors’ Apprentices Debating Society for 1921/2, saying the men were not too pleased, but they accepted her and she enjoyed her time in office.

The next woman auditor, Kathleen Ryan, was not elected until 1970, with The Irish Times carrying a photograph of both that year.

She practised with her brother at 63-4 O’Connell Street, in the courts (particularly the District Court), and was a familiar figure.

She combined practice with left-wing political activism.

She was President of the Ireland-USSR Friendship Society, which was in existence between 1945 and 1966, with the purpose “to combat all falsehoods designed to misrepresent the peaceful aims of the Soviet Union”.

 Recreation

Her first entry in the Law Directory was in 1924, with her last entry in 1971, then aged 84. Recreation for her was bridge, and she “had won major competitions in the past”.

Exercise was a game of golf at Milltown. She concluded the interview by stating that she works because she likes to “keep her hand in”.

Her concluding remarks are indicative of the year they were made – 1970: “Women make very good solicitors. There is nothing to stop them working even if they are married.”

She died on 1 August 1977 at Blackrock.

Dorothea Mary O’Reilly

Dorothea Mary O’Reilly was admitted to the Roll under her maiden name of Browne, the entry was amended following her marriage to ‘DM O’Reilly’, which is the name by which she became known.

She worked as a law clerk for one of the most remarkable Irish solicitors, Jasper Travers Wolfe, Skibbereen, Co Cork.

A Methodist and Crown solicitor in West Cork, he was the subject of IRA animosity – they attempted an ambush on him in his car.

She became indentured to him on 5 November 1921, aged 28.

 Achievements

She emulated the first two women’s achievements, receiving the Silver Medal in the Final Examination. She was admitted to the Roll on 17 November 1924.

She met Patrick F O’Reilly, a fellow apprentice, whom she married. They founded a firm in Dublin (PF O’Reilly & Co), which continues in practice with her grandson Peter O’Reilly as the third-generation solicitor. Peter O’Reilly said that his grandmother practised all her life, specialising in property.

He recounts the narrative of the proposed ambush of Jasper Travers Wolfe, adding that his grandmother “was holding his gun”.

He also recounts that O’Reilly was ranked higher than her husband in the examinations, who contended “he was beaten by love”.

Her husband was in politics, serving in the Senate from 1951-4. She retired in the 1960s and died on 26 March 1973, survived by her husband and three sons.

The advent of these three women to the profession acted as a beacon to subsequent generations.

But very few women entered the profession in the ensuing decades, with two in 1925 (Early and O’Reilly) out of a total of 999. In 1930 there were nine, 1940 had 27, 1950 had 44, 1960 had 62, 1970 had 71, and the year 1980 had 359 women and 1,791 men. The figures for 2017 show women as the majority: 5,001 to 4,664.

The second sex

The revolution in Ireland – according to Kevin O’Higgins, Vice-president of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State – was conducted by the most conservative revolutionaries, borne out by the restrictive and discriminatory legislation enacted against women.

Successive Free State governments recognised and propagated the idea of women’s place in the home.

Additionally, there was a dearth of legal work: Eugene Sheehy, in May It Please the Court (1951), recounts attending Kilkenny Circuit Court in the 1930s, when there was one case with 23 barristers present.

Women now comprise 52% of the profession. The Law Society stated: “To our knowledge, this is the first time a female majority has existed in any legal profession in the world.”  

Maud Crofts, the second woman solicitor in England and Wales, provided a coherent and compelling explanation of women’s expectations: “We women want not privileges but equality.”

 

Practising certs by gender

 

PCs

Total

Men

Women

1923

1,397 (incl NI)

1,397

0

1925

999

997

2

1930

1,032

1,023

9

1940

1,420

1,393

27

1950

1,374

1,330

44

1960

2,122

1,960

62

1970

1,349

1,278

71

1980

2,150

1,791

359

1990

3,539

2,593

946

2000

5,527

3,386

2,141

2010

8,326

4,402

3,924

2014

9,232

4,609

4,623

2017

9,665

4,664

5,001

 

 

 

 

 

 

John Garahy
John Garahy is a retired solicitor who has completed an MPhil in modern Irish history