Although of medium height, his distinctive appearance and bearing made him readily recognisable as he walked each day between his house in Emily Square and his office in Duke Street. He was always dressed on office days in the dark suit much favoured by the legal fraternity, and had a walking stick and a hat which covered a head of white hair. He was generally accompanied, even on this short trip through the town, by his wife Monica, because Henry Grattan Donnelly, bearer of a name famous in Irish history, was blind. Despite this disability, he successfully carried on a flourishing legal practice in Athy.
Born in Belfast in 1884, he attended Clongowes Wood College in Clane and later King’s Inns in Dublin where he qualified as a barrister. He had a short spell practising at the Bar before his eyesight failed him, and at 26 years of age he was blind. He retired from the Bar in order to qualify as a solicitor, and in 1915, he established a solicitor’s practice in Baltinglass, Co. Wicklow.
Residing at Griesbank, Ballytore, the former home of Abraham Shackleton, the third master of Ballytore School, his expanding practice necessitated the opening of an additional office at Duke Street, Athy, in the early 1920’s. Branch offices were maintained in Baltinglass, which he attended once a week and in Dunlavin, where his attendance was once a fortnight. In his work he was greatly assisted by his wife Monica who read to him the statutes, the law books and the case law, a knowledge of which, is an essential requirement for the efficient operation of any law office.
In 1931 Henry Grattan Donnelly and his family moved to the Abbey in Emily Square, Athy which was vacated by Dr. Jeremiah O’Neill and his family when they went to live in Mount Offaly House on the Carlow Road. The Donnelly children included Deirdre and Mairead, both now married, Desmond who is a Queen’s Counsel in Hong Kong, Barry who is still practising in the firm founded by his father in Athy, and Michael a solicitor in his own law practice in Carlow. The Abbey is that part of the building nearest to the River Barrow, while adjoining it, and to its rear, is another house which in 1931 was occupied by Telford’s. Following Telford’s, it was to be home of Dr. Joe O’Neill and his young family, before he purchased Athy Lodge from Dr. Denis Kilbride.
As Henry Grattan Donnelly’s law practice developed, he was assisted by staff which included an apprentice solicitor, Donal Carbery, a cousin of the late Joe Carbery of St. John’s House. Johnny Watchorn, now a stalwart of Athy Lion’s Club and a director of Maxwell’s Garage, was his law clerk for six or seven years in the early 1940’s. Secretary in the office was Alice O’Rourke. Johnny Watchorn attended the local District Courts in Athy, Castledermot, Baltinglass and Monasterevin with Henry Grattan Donnelly, helping him with his various papers and taking notes. In the evening Johnny took on an entirely different role when he appeared in the Town Hall and other local venues as Magino, a ventriloquist act, which proved very popular during the 1940’s.
Just before the outbreak of World War II, Henry Grattan Donnelly, who up to then, always used a walking stick, went to Liverpool to receive training in the use of a guide dog. There he stayed for a few days, where with the help of Captain Liakhoff, a Russian expatriate, he became acquainted with the guide dog which was to be his constant companion for the rest of his life.
When he returned from Liverpool, Henry Grattan Donnelly was only the second blind person in Ireland to have a guide dog. The first was Stuart Browne of Oldtown, Nurney, who died quite recently. The alsatian dog, which Henry brought from Liverpool, accompanied him everywhere and it was a familiar sight in Athy, bringing his master to and from his offices in Duke Street.
Donal Carbery duly qualified as a solicitor, and left to practice elsewhere, but he returned following the death of Henry Grattan Donnelly at the age of 61 years in 1945. By then his son Barry Donnelly was an apprentice solicitor, but the services of a qualified solicitor were required to keep the practice operating until he qualified. On qualifying as a solicitor, Barry returned to Athy as the second generation of the Donnelly family in a law practice which continues today, still retaining the name of its founder, H.G. Donnelly.