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Judges are most exposed to 'life's unpleasant underbelly’
A 2002 photo of then Chief Justice of Ireland Ronan Keane, then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of England and Wales Lord Harry Woolf, and the late Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland Sir Robert Carswell Pic: RollingNews.ie

19 Sep 2023 / people Print

Judges exposed to 'life's unpleasant underbelly’

A tribute was paid by Church of Ireland Archbishop John McDowell at a memorial service for Lord Carswell, former Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, on Friday (15 September).

Lord Carswell, who was Chancellor of the Diocese of Armagh and the Diocese of Down and Dromore, died on 4 May.

The memorial service, at St Mark’s, Dundela, East Belfast, heard Lord Carswell described as a man of “judicious self-containment when it came to the things of the spirit”, but who demonstrated his commitment by the work he did.

Deeds not words

“As has been amply demonstrated in the testimony of Bob’s family, love grows chiefly by its deeds and not by its words, and in his deeds Bob exerted himself also in the service of the church,” said Archbishop McDowell.

Bob acted as the Primate’s Assessor at the General Synod on a number of occasions, offering advice on procedural matters, he added.

“A diocesan chancellor is strictly speaking the bishop’s adviser on the workings of the Constitution of the Church of Ireland, and I have no doubt that he carried out his duties in that respect with his usual diligence, accuracy and cheerfulness,” he said.

He cited Lord Carswell’s wide knowledge of human affairs, but also his insight into the human heart, as a mark of his contribution.

Paradoxical life

“I have often thought that judges lead a paradoxical life. Long periods of being silent when they are listening to evidence and to the arguments advanced by counsel.

“Followed then by a prodigious river of words as he or she writes a judgment, only too well aware that each word will be mercilessly scrutinised. Yet, blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy,” the archbishop said.

“Silence and words, and the lives of ordinary people, make up their daily toil and, perhaps, there was no one better equipped than Bob Carswell to live out that vocation,” he said.


An education in classics gave Lord Carswell a feel for the precision, form and flow of the written word, as well as sympathy and understanding of the tragedy of the human condition and of human frailties.

The archbishop recalled Lord Carswell’s outrage when revisers replaced the Tudor word “indifferent” with the word “impartial” in Cranmer’s Prayer Book.

With “a deep feeling for the steady cadences of Cranmer’s Prayer Book with their simple, memorable words … he cared greatly about their meaning too … and felt that the modern word was unable to carry the variety of connotation and nuance which the older word had achieved," the archbishop said.

Words convey truth

“He cared about the words of the liturgy because, imperfect as they are, words are the ultimate conveyors of truth,” he continued.

He particularly loved Compline, which, of all the Offices in the Western Catholic Tradition, is the one changed least by the 16th century reformation, the archbishop said.

“Perhaps, above all else, it is a service of comfort and reassurance before sleep, but it is also a service which appreciates the dangers and difficulties and messiness of life,” he said.

The archbishop said Compline’s opening words are stern: ‘Brethren, be sober, be vigilant, because your adversary, the Devil, roameth about seeking whom he may devour; whom resist, steadfast in the faith’.

“But its characteristic spirit is one of calm reassurance and quiet faith: ‘We will lay us down and take our rest; for it is thou Lord only that maketh us dwell in safety’.

“How soothing it must have been to think on those eternal words during the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s,” Archbishop McDowell said.

“Perhaps judges above all people are exposed more than most  to the unpleasant underbelly of life in all its forms – personal, institutional, corporate – and it would be a temptation in such circumstances to lose a sense of balance and perspective.

"I am pretty sure that Bob’s deeply embedded faith was a major factor in preventing that from happening,” Archbishop McDowell said.

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