I made a return visit to one of my alma maters a few weeks ago, courtesy of the son of an old school friend. When George Robinson and myself shared classrooms in the Christian Brothers School in St. John’s Lane, little did we think that such a place as the Kings Inns existed in our capital city. Even if we had heard of it, which I have no reason to believe we did, its very name would have marked it out as a place unlikely to ever become part of our life experiences.
Kings Inns, the last of Gandon’s great public buildings, lies at the top of Henrietta Street, which itself leads off Bolton Street in Dublin. The magnificent building, the foundation stone for which was laid just three years before the 1798 Rebellion, was completed in 1817. It was built to replace the original Kings Inns which had been located on the site of a dissolved Dominican Friary and which today is the site of the Four Courts building. From the 18th century the Kings Inns controlled entry into the legal professions in Ireland and this situation continued until the end of the 19th century when the Incorporated Law Society obtained control over the education of solicitors. The Kings Inns, or more precisely the Benchers of the Kings Inns, still retain control over the education and admission of barristers.
I was a student of the Kings Inns up to 1976 when I qualified, and like all Bar students had to take a number of dinners in the Kings Inns each term prior to being called to the Bar. The tradition of taking dinners was a throw back to the days when law students learned what little they required of legal practices and procedures by dining with barristers and judges in the Kings Inns. Suitably gowned students of 30 years ago shared tables with each other, while the judges and senior members of the Bar sat at the top table which was positioned on a level a little higher than that occupied by the students. There was in those days no mingling between students and judiciary, the learning process of earlier years having taken the more structured form of late afternoon lectures which ended prior to the evening dinners.
I was reminded of all this when I returned to the Kings Inns as a guest of the Auditor of the Law Students Kings Inns Debating Society who happens to be the son of my old school pal, George Robinson. Garret Robinson is the holder of an M.A. from Trinity College and is about to finish his Kings Inns studies prior to being called to the Bar. His address to the assembled judges, barristers, students and guests was titled “Profiles in Courage - Graduates of the Kings Inns and their contribution to Irish life”. Chairman of the night was Judge Joseph Finnegan, President of the High Court and speaking to the address were Judge Finlay Geoghegan and Judge Frank Clarke, both judges of the High Court.
Delivering his address on the 175th anniversary of the Society, Garret Robinson recalled the members of the Irish Bar who perished during the 1798 Rebellion, paying particular attention to Theobald Wolfe Tone who was himself called to the Bar in 1789. Tone had connections with Athy for as a member of the Leinster circuit he attended sittings of the Athy circuit court which were held in our present Town Hall.
As I listened to Garret my gaze passed to the portraits which filled the dining hall of the Kings Inns, portraits which I had seen on many occasions in the past. When the proceedings ended I went to examine them more closely and found even further links with Athy. First to catch my eye was a portrait of Conor Maguire, Chief Justice from 1946 to 1961 and father of our own Dr. Brian Maguire. Dr. Brian is now retired having served the communities of Athy and Fontstown for many years.
Just over the entrance door to the dining room of the Kings Inns is a portrait of Lord Downes who was Chief Justice for 19 years until he resigned in 1822. On his retirement he was created a peer as Lord Downes of Aghanville in the county of Offaly. He died four years later, unmarried, and was succeeded in the peerage by his cousin, Sir Ulysses Burgh who lived in Bert House. The second Lord Downes was a member of the Athy Borough Council which was dissolved in 1840 and it was Lord Downes who presented to the people of Athy the clock which now adorns the front facade of the Town Hall.
Another portrait to which my attention was drawn was of another former Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. He was Thomas Lefroy who with his brother Ben were boarders in a school run by Mr. Ashe in Athy in 1791. Thomas entered Trinity College the following year, from where he graduated with a B.A. at the age of 20 years in 1795. After Trinity he travelled to England to stay with a Lefroy aunt in Hampshire where he made the acquaintance of the young daughter of a local rector, Rev. George Austin. The girl in question was Jane Austin and the romance between Lefroy and Austin resulted in the portrait of Mr. Darcy in Austin’s literary masterpiece, “Pride and Prejudice” which many believe to be based on Thomas Lefroy. Lefroy was appointed Lord Chief Justice of Ireland at the venerable age of 76 years and he continued in that position until he was 90 years old.
Garret Robinson completed his address with the following words. “As we go forward it is necessary to know our history and thus decide our forward journey”. Perhaps “inform” rather than “decide” might have been a more appropriate word choice to underpin the importance of history in helping us to understand and appreciate from where we have come and how we have arrived at where we are today. It was a fine address, dealing as it did with those privileged people who in the past were called to the Bar and who in one way or another played their part in the history of this island of ours.
Another man mentioned in the address was Kevin O’Higgins, who while Minister for Justice in the Cumann na Gael Government was assassinated in 1927. Of interest to us is that O’Higgins’ father, Dr. Tom O’Higgins, was a member of the Board of Guardians for Athy Union and medical officer for Stradbally. He was murdered in his own home by local republicans on 11th February 1923. Last weekend the national newspapers carried the obituary of Michael J. O’Higgins, a former T.D. and Senator who died aged 87 years. It was reported that he was born in Crookstown, the son of Dr. T.F. O’Higgins who was a brother of the earlier mentioned Kevin O’Higgins. Dr. T.F. O’Higgins was dispensary doctor in Fontstown from 1915 until 1922 and two of his sons, the recently deceased Michael and his brother Tom were both Fianna Gael T.D.’s. Tom also filled the position of Chief Justice from 1974 until 1985.
The Kings Inns is steeped in legal history, a history which, by and large, seldom if ever touches many of us. However, Garret Robinson is now part of that history for as the 175th auditor of the Kings Inns Law Students Debating Society, his address will be forever preserved in the library of that great legal institution. For Garret and his parents, George and Cora Robinson, the night of 25th February 2005 was an important occasion and one I was proud and honoured to have shared with them.