From the files of the DIB…Accidental nationalist hero

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2009), News, Volume 17

38_small_1246632538O’Brien, Ignatius John, Baron Shandon (1857–1930), lord chancellor of Ireland, was born on 31 July 1857 in Cork, ninth child and youngest son of Mark Joseph O’Brien (chandler and brewer’s agent) and Jane, daughter of William Dunne. His father lacked business capacity; the family survived in genteel poverty through the labours and sacrifices of his mother. Five siblings died in his early childhood; O’Brien grew up lonely and acutely aware of the need to earn a living. He was miserable at the Vincentian School, Cork, which combined rote memorisation with frequent corporal punishment. O’Brien left Cork with considerable alacrity and bitterness at the age of sixteen, but developed retrospective fondness for it; his memoirs reminisce extensively about the city at the beginning of the railway age.
O’Brien’s mother sacrificed to send him to the Catholic University of Ireland, where O’Brien decided that Catholic episcopal opposition to the Queen’s Colleges was disastrous. Since he was disgusted by the dissecting room, he decided to be a barrister, working as a junior reporter during his studies.
O’Brien’s first employment was on the moribund Saunders’ Newsletter, and then on the Freeman’s Journal. He later recalled such painful experiences as being sent to the house where Isaac Butt lay dying to knock at intervals and ask whether he had died yet, and witnessing an aristocratic lady pronouncing the Maamtrasna murder trials excellent entertainment. He was called to the Irish bar in 1881. As a (literally) hungry young barrister, O’Brien reported judges’ decisions for the Irish Times and was Dublin correspondent for two Cork papers. His experiences led him to engage in extensive private charity in later life and to comment harshly on English wastefulness of food.
O’Brien developed a small Munster circuit practice and on 11 February 1886 married Anne, daughter of John Talbot Scallan (a prominent Dublin solicitor); they had been engaged for seven years. Early in 1887 the couple were contemplating emigration to New South Wales when O’Brien unexpectedly became a nationalist hero. The Dublin Castle administration invoked bankruptcy law to force Canon Daniel Keller, parish priest of Youghal, to surrender money entrusted to him in connection with land agitation. Keller refused to testify, claiming clerical privilege, and faced indefinite imprisonment. O’Brien suggested the employment of a writ of habeas corpus to argue the appeal, and succeeded through diligent attention to technicalities. This brought a significant bankruptcy and chancery practice; he later acquired a lucrative appointment as standing counsel to the Freeman’s Journal.
O’Brien became the first Dublin barrister to live outside the North and South Circular Roads. (Barristers held consultations at home and feared that solicitors would boycott anyone who moved into the suburbs.) He worked from a Merrion Square office, travelling to his Dundrum residence by bicycle. He became Queen’s Counsel in 1899.
O’Brien lacked interest in nationalist politics and was sickened by the Parnell split, but remained a home ruler. Aware that legal advancement required political patronage, he joined the vestigial Dublin City and County Liberal Association. He was elected bencher of King’s Inns in 1907 and was appointed second serjeant-at-law in 1910, solicitor-general for Ireland in 1911 and attorney-general in 1912.
In 1913 O’Brien was appointed lord chancellor. Though a hard worker, he was notorious for long-winded and self-important judgements. He favoured sweeping aside precedent and technicalities in favour of substantive justice. He loved the social side of his office and the ceremonies and amusements of the viceregal court.
O’Brien was nearly ousted as lord chancellor when a Liberal/Conservative coalition was formed in 1915, but survived after a public outcry orchestrated by the Redmondites. He drew up the martial law proclamation issued at the outbreak of the Easter Rising. O’Brien advocated immediate Home Rule to stabilise the Irish situation, but carried little political weight. He was dismissed as lord chancellor in June 1918 and ennobled as Baron Shandon. One Law Library wit suggested the title Baron Stepaside; another, mocking his childlessness, preferred ‘Lord Stillorgan’.
Shandon sold his Irish property after the IRA raided his house. He moved to the Isle of Wight, later acquiring a London home. In 1923 he was called to the English bar. Shandon was prominent in Lords debates on the Government of Ireland Act (1920), thereafter speaking occasionally on Irish and legal matters. He died in London on 10 September 1930.
Typescript ‘Reminiscences of Lord Shandon, Lord Chancellor of Ireland’ are in the Honourable Society of King’s Inns, Dublin. This lucid, melancholy work (insufficiently utilised by scholars) sometimes refers to the English as ‘we’ but expresses guarded optimism for the Irish Free State and praises the Cosgrave government for replacing justices of the peace (JPs) with paid magistrates and creating a demilitarised police force. Shandon emerges as a sensitive, mildly neurotic meritocrat, haunted by suffering through inefficiency and believing the British administration of Ireland under the Union to have been less brutal than stupid.

Patrick Maume is an editorial assistant with the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography. He is currently working on the publication of ‘Lord Shandon’s Reminiscences’ and would like to hear from any relatives and/or possible copyright-holders.
Enquiries: Dictionary of Irish Biography, 86 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2.


66 Ignatius John O’Brien, Baron Shandon, pictured alongside his obituary in the Irish Independent, 11 September 1930. (National Library of Ireland).


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