Membership of the Society is open to anyone. Our Society includes members of the judiciary, practising lawyers, academic lawyers, historians, students and members of the general public.
The Irish Legal History Society examines, explores and engages with all issues relating to legal history on the island of Ireland, from earliest times to the present day. Founded in 1988, the Society holds two Discourses annually, as well as publishing scholarly works on a range of legal history subjects. On this website you can see our range of publications, you can find out about our recent and future events, as well as information about joining. We are proud to partner with Queen’s University Belfast to host the British Legal History Conference 2022.
On a cold December evening in Belfast, members of the Society assembled in the beautiful Harbour Commissioners building near Belfast's docklands to hear about Irish women and girls who arrived in the ports of New York and Toronto in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Professor Elaine Farrell from Queen's University Belfast and Dr Leanne McCormick from Ulster University provided a lively and engaging lecture on their Bad Bridget project, which considers the criminalisation of Irish women and girls in North America. Unusually among migration patterns at the time, these women and girls tended to travel unaccompanied, and many of them were in their teens or even younger. They found themselves before the courts and populating the prisons in staggering numbers, for everything from drunkenness to sex work to murder, and at one stage represented over 80% of the population of women prisoners in these cities. The lecture addressed how these women were portrayed in court and in the press, examining issues of gender, Irishness and the performative nature of court proceedings.
Attendees included the two patrons of the Society, Chief Justice Donal O'Donnell and Lady Chief Justice Siobhan Keegan. There was a lively discussion after the discourse, and Dr Coleman Dennehy proposed a vote of thanks on behalf of the Society.
(L to R: Prof. Elaine Farrell, Mr John Gordon, DL, Dr Leanne McCormick, Dr Coleman Dennehy)
The Irish Legal History Society Winter Discourse & Annual General Meeting will take place in the Belfast Harbour Commissioners Office from 5.30 on Friday, 1 December 2023
The Discourse will be given by Prof. Elaine Farrell (Queen's, Belfast) & Dr Leanne McCormick (University of Ulster)
The title of the lecture is 'The trials of Bad Bridget'
Attendance is, as always, free, but advance registration is necessary.
Those wishing to attend should sign up, via Eventbrite, HERE
Belfast Harbour Commissioners Office
Belfast BT1 3AL
5.30 Coffee and walk-around the building
6.00 Annual General Meeting
6.45 Winter Discourse
In 2021, the Irish Legal History Society announced its inaugural student essay competition. This initiative celebrates the rich legal history scholarship being carried out by students in Ireland and around the world.
The Society invited all students, undergraduate and postgraduate, to submit essays on the topic of Irish legal history. In the second year of the competition, we were again thrilled to receive a fantastic response from students! In light of the quality of the submissions, the ILHS judging committee decided to split the prize, awarding an undergraduate and a postgraduate winner.
The prizes will be awarded at an upcoming ILHS event where we look forward to officially congratulating the winners!
ILHS Essay Prize Undergraduate Winner
Maitiú Breathnach (UCD, BCL, 2023; currently studying for an LLM, Trinity College Dublin, in Intellectual Property and Information Technology Law)
ILHS Essay Prize Postgraduate Winner
Emma Quinn (NYU, MA in Irish and Irish-American Studies, 2024)
Q&A with the Winners
We asked Maitiú and Emma to tell us a bit about themselves and talk about their winning essays.
Maitiú Breathnach, ‘Hidden Trials?: The Case of the Easter Rising Field General Court-Martials’
My essay focuses on the field general court-martials of the participants in the 1916 Easter Rising. I consider the numerous procedural defects, arguably present in the operation of the court-martials, as well as confusion surrounding the exact legal basis under which they occurred. Key to my commentary is the case of R v Governor of Lewes Prison, ex parte Doyle  2 KB 254, which offers many insights into the above areas.
I chose this essay topic as I was interested in the interface between law and the Easter Rising. I was curious to consider the legal underpinning of the court-martials in the aftermath of the Rebellion, trials which proved to have a momentous impact on the course of Irish history.
The competition was introduced to me in the course of a stimulating legal history module taught by Dr Thomas Mohr and Dr Kevin Costello in UCD, which prompted me to enter.
I’ve recently graduated from U.C.D (BCL class of 23) with a First Class Honours in Law and am now enrolled in a Masters Programme in Intellectual Property and Information Technology Law in TCD. I’m currently an FE-1 candidate and my intent is to practice as a solicitor in the future. Some of my other interests include History, Classics and swimming.
Emma Quinn, ‘The Sovereignty of Silence: Women Witnesses to the Carrigan Report and the Rise and Fall of Professional Womanhood in Ireland, 1880-1937’
This essay traces the seeming incongruity between the identities of the witnesses testifying for The Carrigan Committee of 1930-1931 and the resulting draconian and punitive recommendations regarding sexual immorality and sex crimes in the Irish Free State. While two-thirds of witnesses called to testify in front of the committee were women in professional fields, the final report only explicitly mentioned the women participants once, underemphasizing their roles as experts and suppressing their novel suggestions to prevent crime, especially sexual education and pathways to rehabilitation. By tracing the various paths to professionalization that the women witnesses took, through healthcare, political activism, or charity work, this essay discusses how their gender aided their value as witnesses but also led to the occlusion of their testimony.
I am a dual degree master’s student studying Irish and Irish-American Studies at New York University and Library and Information Science at Long Island University. I am very interested in the complicated role that religious sisters play as both enforcers and transgressors of gender roles and acceptable behavior for women in both Irish and Irish-American contexts. When I read James Smith’s Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment for a seminar class led by Dr. Peter Hession, I was struck by the representation of professional women witnesses in this event so thoroughly defined by what Smith calls “Ireland’s containment culture.” I wrote this essay to explore that uneasy dichotomy, and in doing so discovered a generation of women doctors, activists, and charity administrators that advocated against the path that would eventually cause unquantifiable amounts of shame, suffering, and sexual control across Ireland for decades, with continuing aftershocks to this day.
Professor Norma Dawson, our former President, and subsequently Gold Medal Winner of the Irish Legal History Society was recently awarded an honorary LLD at the Faculty of Laws conferral ceremony at the University of Edinburgh.
Professor Dawson has been an honorary Professor at the University of Edinburgh since 2018.
The Irish Legal History Society would like to send our warmed congratulations to our former Councillor, Professor Jane Ohlmeyer, on her election as a Fellow of the British Academy.
On her election, Prof Ohlmeyer said "To be recognised by one's peers in this way is very special indeed. I am deeply grateful to the British Academy. I will look forward to working with colleagues in the years ahead to consolidate existing and nurture fresh collaborations between Ireland and the UK and beyond and to advocate for the importance of the humanities and social sciences and, more generally, for frontier research."
The President and members of the Irish Legal History Society were saddened at the passing of our former patron, Robert Carswell, Baron Carswell, former Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland.
He showed a great interest in legal history and the society was very grateful for both his patronage and his attendance at our meetings.
He passed away on 4 May 2023.
The 2022 Winter Discourse was given by Dr Donal Coffey (Maynooth University) in late November 2022 at the Law Society of Ireland in Dublin.
The title of his Discourse was ‘Constitutional Theory and Irish Legal Education, 1900-1950’.
The Discourse was attended by one of our patrons, The Hon. Mr. Justice Donal O'Donnell, Chief Justice of Ireland, as well as many members of the judiciary, academics, and lawyers in practice.
A response was given by Dr Niamh Howlin (UCD). The talk stimulated considerable commentary and questions immediately afterwards and discussion was carried on over dinner.
The talk was preceded by a welcome to the Law Society by its President, Maura Derivan. It was preceded by a talk on aspects of Law Society recognition of long service in the profession by former President, Mr James Cahill.
Picture Credit: (C) Robert D Marshall 2022
The 2022 Winter Discourse was the occasion of the awarding of three prizes.
Prof Norma Dawson CBE was awarded the Society's Gold Medal for her services to Irish legal history over a long and distinguished career.
The W.N. Osborough Composition Prize in Legal History was awarded to Dr Ben Hazard (School of History, UCD) for ‘Thomas Wadding, Waterford landowner and lawyer of Gray’s Inn, 1562–1613’.
The Irish Legal History Bursary was awarded to John Marshall to further his research in London on the Leinster lordship in the thirteenth century.
The three recipients are pictured above with the President of the Society, Mr John Gordon DL
The Royal Irish Academy has awarded the 2023 Academy Gold Medal in the Humanities to Professor Jane Ohlmeyer MRIA
Professor Ohlmeyer will be presented with her Gold Medal at a special ceremony in Spring 2023.
Professor Ohlmeyer has been a long-term member and supporter of the Society, and sat on the Council for many years. The President, on behalf of the Society, has written to Professor Ohlmeyer to congratulate her on this exceptional honour.
We were thrilled to receive a fantastic response to this competition. Spoiled by choice, and the standard of the entries received, our judging committee decided to split the prize, awarding an undergraduate and a postgraduate winner.
Jessica Commins (University of Amsterdam, formerly University College Dublin)
'On Both Sides of the Aisle: Ireland and the Abolition of Slavery Act 1833'
This essay seeks to rectify a key gap in the historiography of the Abolition of Slavery Act 1833 by exploring the role of the Irish public, MPs and West Indian Interest in the lead up to and the passing of the Act, demonstrating that Irish involvement was evident on both sides of the debate. While ordinary Irish men and women were key participants in the great parliamentary petitioning campaign of 1833 and a small group of Irish MPs led by Daniel O'Connell made commendable efforts to eradicate slave holding,the darker legacy of the Irish West Indian interest is rarely discussed. Analysis of the Houses of Parliament petitions and debates of 1833 demonstrate Irish MPs played a key role in the decision to grant twenty billion pounds in compensation to the slave owners, as well as a continued form of servitude for a number of years. The one hundred and ninety Irish men and women who received compensation demonstrate the slaveholding interest played an important role in Irish involvement in the Act, with evidence of this legacy still present in the Republic today.
As a young woman educated in Ireland, the prevailing narrative of Irish history is that of a plucky young nation shaking off the shackles of the colonial oppressor. This narrative often obscures the complex relationship that Ireland has historically had with colonialism and does not recognise Irish complicity in that system. While the narrative of 'No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish' and Daniel O'Connell's friendship with Frederick Douglass remains well known by the Irish public, our involvement in slavery is not. In the wake of campaigns demonstrating comtemporary instances of racism in Ireland, such as injustices caused by the Direct Provision system, it is clear attention needs to be paid to Irish involvement in colonial slavery and to wider participation in British imperialism.
Andrew Byrne Keefe (Harvard University, formerly University of Dublin)
‘An Act, a Fact, or a Mistake?: How Martial Law Contoured the Irish Rebellion of 1798’
Early modernists have identified the implementation of martial law as a key development in the history of the Irish Rebellion of 1798. Curiously, this punitive turn in Ireland’s legal history happened well before the rebellion’s most iconic moments, raising an important historiographical question: was the uprising consciously premeditated or were the rebels goaded by the British military? Relying on court-martial records from The Rebellion Papers, this paper attempts to account for the role of martial law in the rebellion by comparing how the due process rights of defendants and the severity and certainty of punishment varied across the four provinces. The findings suggest that martial law was implemented more punitively in counties where loyalists incurred greater damages from the rebellion and support an account of the rebellion as an unintended consequence of variation in enforcement by local officials.
I am a JD/PhD candidate in sociology and social policy at Harvard University. As a historical sociologist, I use mixed methods to study the origins of racial and economic inequality in the American criminal legal system. My dissertation, “Mad Laboratories of Empire: A Comparative Analysis of Criminal Procedure in Ireland, Jamaica, and Virginia, 1215 - 1688," relies on original source materials to investigate how English common law — the legal foundation of the American system — has contributed to harsher and more unequal levels of punishment in the United States and other former British colonies, relative to levels in countries that base their systems on civil law. To examine these original sources in comparative perspective, the dissertation also draws on secondary literature on criminal procedure in the early modern French, Spanish, and Portuguese empires. The results of my research promise to contribute to historical scholarship on racism and English criminal law as well as to research in global and transnational sociology that has connected the legacies of slavery and colonialism to mass incarceration and police militarization in present-day societies.
The Irish Legal History Society is deeply saddened to hear of the passing Dr Éamon Phoenix.
Dr Phoenix gave a superb paper to the society in March 2022 at Clifton House in Belfast entitled 'Sir Denis Henry (1864-1925): Barrister, Catholic Unionist Politician & First Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland'
He was well known and highly regarded in Belfast and across the island.
The Irish News, a paper he contributed to on a regular basis, reported his passing here.
The Winter Discourse will follow the Annual General Meeting of the Irish Legal History Society.
It will be given by Dr Donal Coffey (Maynooth University) and will be held in the Education Centre of the Law Society of Ireland, Blackhall Place, Dublin 7 on Friday 25th November, 2022.
The title of Dr Coffey's discourse will be ‘Constitutional Theory and Irish Legal Education, 1900-1950’.
Refreshments will be served from 4.30, followed by the Annual General Meetings. Dr Coffey's lecture will commence at 6.15.