Tribute to Professor WN Osborough

By Professor Patrick Geoghegan, President of the Irish Legal History Society



The Irish Legal History Society mourns the death of its founder, and former President, Professor W.N. Osborough MRIA, a wonderful friend and colleague, an inspiring teacher, and a giant in the world of Irish legal history scholarship.

As a distinguished lawyer and judge and former President of the Society has recognised: ‘Another great oak has fallen in the forest. We are unlikely to see his like again. He was a most distinguished scholar, a polymath, a renaissance man.’


It was Professor Osborough’s vision and determination that led to the creation of the Irish Legal History Society in 1988 and he established a steering group to draft the constitution, arranged the financial and administrative structure, devised a publicity campaign, and planned the publishing programme. From the beginning one of the greatest strengths of the Society was the all-Ireland nature of the organisation and many have commented on the connections it has fostered between  historians and practising lawyers North and South over the past thirty-three years. It is one part of his remarkable legacy.

Nial epitomised all that is good about the Irish Legal History Society and from the very beginning we all benefitted from his intellectual curiosity and dynamism, the generous way he shared his unrivalled knowledge, and his friendship and support.  In recent years we have honoured his contribution with the W.N. Osborough Composition Prize in Legal History and we plan to celebrate his immense contribution to the Society and to Irish legal history scholarship when this pandemic is over. Many tributes have been paid to him in recent days by former students and colleagues. For example, a former Attorney General for Northern Ireland mourned the loss of ‘this brilliant and loveable man, whose performative delight in our law was an enchantment’. A Pro Chancellor of the University of Dublin remembered ‘the gentleness of his manner and the breadth and acuity of his scholarship.’


Professor Osborough’s achievements go far beyond his contribution to the Society.   Over many decades thousands of students benefitted from his erudition and scholarship and from the incredible way he was able to get people excited about whatever he was teaching, first at Queen’s University Belfast, then University College Dublin, moving to Trinity College Dublin, before returning to University College Dublin where he served as Dean of the School of Law. One of his former students has noted that ‘He taught a generation of Queen’s law students to think, probably for the first time. We certainly are in his debt. He even made a connection in one lecture, I remember, between John Stuart Mill and violin playing. I am not sure if anyone else has managed this.’

As a scholar Professor Osborough was remarkable. A former editor of The Irish Jurist, his books include a history of the UCD Law School, a legal history of the Irish Stage, and a litigation topography for Dublin, as well as many ground-breaking articles. Upon hearing of his death, an Irish Supreme Court judge noted that ‘His contribution to legal history in Ireland was simply immense, but that should not obscure his legacy as a lawyer . He published an article  in  or around 1976 on Irish practice in relation to suspended sentences which  was an admirable piece of scholarship and which was still being cited in judgments in  recent years’.

Shortly before his own death, Judge Adrian Hardiman wrote in the Dublin Review of Books of how he ‘remembers with appreciation his [Professor W.N. Osborough’s] vivid treatment of the law of torts in University College Dublin in the early 1970s’ before going on to say that ‘his distinguishing feature is that his cultural hinterland is much broader than that of the average lawyer or law teacher and to my mind his legal insights are much the sharper and the more realistic for that.’

Professor Osborough was a brilliant scholar who inspired many generations of students with his insights and imagination. The Irish Legal History Society will never forget his friendship, his many kindnesses, or his remarkable contribution to legal history scholarship.

We offer our condolences to his children, his wider family, and his many friends and colleagues. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.


Mr Justice Donal O’Donnell and Prof Patrick Geoghegan speaking in remembrance of Prof Nial Osborough before the Spring 2021 Discourse can be viewed here.


Irish Times, 9 January 2021