Thomas Molony


Thomas Molony

Thomas Francis Molony (d. 1949) was the last Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. [For a thorough overview, see: W.N. Osborough, Studies in Irish Legal History, Four Courts Press 1999, p 311 - 326.]

Early career and politics

Molony qualified as a barrister in 1887 and became a Queen’s Counsel in 1899. He served as Solicitor-General for Ireland (24 June 1912 to 10 April 1913) when he was appointed Attorney General of Ireland (10 April 1913 to 20 June 1913). Later in 1913, Molony was made a judge of the High Court for Ireland and from 1915 sat as a judge of the High Court of Appeal for Ireland. He was also appointed to several governmental inquiries, notably one on certain shootings including that of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington in the wake of the 1916 Irish Easter Rising.

In terms of his own politics, Molony has been described as "“a Home Ruler of the old stamp”". [W.N. Osborough, Studies in Irish Legal History, Four Courts Press 1999, p 316.] He was opposed to the partition of Ireland. When the Government of Ireland Act was being drafted he declined an invitation to travel to London to advise on proposals relating to the creation of a separate judiciary for what was to be "Northern Ireland". In correspondence with government officials, he expressed his particular disappointment that unlike previous Home Rule Bills, it was now proposed that the Irish judiciary would be divided. He opined that this would impose unnecessary expense, lead to duplication of administrative expenses and that the proposals were "“detrimental to the dignity and authority of the Bench...and would tend to...prolong the separation of the two parts of Ireland, which it is hoped ultimately to re-unite”". [ W.N. Osborough, Studies in Irish Legal History, Four Courts Press 1999.]

Defending his title

Molony was appointed the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland in 1918 under Letters Patent from the King under the Great Seal of Ireland. At the time of his appointment, this was the second highest judicial posting in Ireland, second only to that of the Lord Chancellor of Ireland. However, Molony’s position was shortly to be under attack. In 1920 the British Government began drafting Home Rule legislation which ultimately led later that year to the Government of Ireland Act. The draft legislation proposed that the "Lord Chief Justice of Ireland" would become the "Lord Chief Justice of Southern Ireland". Molony "“expressed disquiet at the apparent proposal to lessen the dignity and prerogatives of his own office”". [ W.N. Osborough, Studies in Irish Legal History, Four Courts Press 1999.] He sought the retention of the title of "Lord Chief Justice of Ireland", at the very least for as long as he still held that post personally. In a letter to the Chief Secretary for Ireland, Molony sought an amendment to the legislation to insert a clause to provide that “nothing in the legislation shall affect the rank, title or precedence of the existing Lord Chief Justice of Ireland” (i.e. Molony). The Chief Secretary responded to the effect that it would be anomalous for there to be a "Lord Chief Justice of Ireland" and a "Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland". Molony countered this by pointing to one such anomaly that was universally accepted: [ W.N. Osborough, Studies in Irish Legal History, Four Courts Press 1999.]

Molony corresponded with a number of other prominent members of the British administration including the Home Secretary. He argued that the withdrawal of his title was “unconstitutional and unjust” and that his option to retire was no answer at a time when his “retirement would certainly be regarded as a triumph for the forces of disorder”. Later, in October, Molony travelled to London to address a Cabinet Committee on the matter but this was not a success and Molony bemoaned how little interest in Irish affairs was taken by the government. As the Government of Ireland Bill left the House of Commons in November 1920, Molony sought the support of a number of Law Lords. Finally, the government compromised on the matter: An amendment to the effect that the "Lord Chief Justice of Ireland" would if he consented become the first "Lord Chief Justice of Southern Ireland" but would keep his title and rank (as well as certain non-judicial offices) was accepted.

Highest judge in the land

On 6 December 1922 (i.e the day the Irish Free State came into being), the position of "Lord Chancellor of Ireland" was abolished. [Schedule II, Part II, Irish Free State Consequential Provisions Act 1922, a United Kingdom statute] The leadership of the judiciary in the emerging Irish Free State now fell to Molony. That same year, the Irish civil war began. The Four Courts were burnt down. It was not an easy time to be a judge with violence raging and a new Irish government coming into power whose members had themselves shortly before been rebels. Molony made an effective and dignified attempt to proceed with "business as usual" and uphold the laws of the land. Among the most notable duties which Molony carried out during this time was to administer the oath of office to the first Governor-General of the Irish Free State.

Retirement

In May 1924, together with most other members of the Irish judiciary associated with the "ancien regieme", Molony retired as the Irish government established its own court system under The Courts of Justice Act 1924. The office of "Lord Chief Justice of Ireland" and indeed of "Lord Chief Justice of Southern Ireland" were abolished. His successor as leader of the judiciary was the first Chief Justice of the Irish Free State. Molony retired to England but was made Vice-Chancellor of Trinity College Dublin in 1931. Molony died in 1949.

References


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