James Henry Monahan

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James Henry Monahan (1803 – 8 December 1878) was one of the outstanding Irish judges of his time, and one of the first Irish Roman Catholics to achieve judicial eminence.

Background and education[edit]

Monahan was born in Portumna, the son of Michael Monahan and his wife Mary Bloomfield. He went to school in Banagher and graduated from the University of Dublin with a gold medal in 1823. He joined Gray's Inn in 1826, and the King's Inn in 1823.

Judicial career[edit]

Monahan was called to the Bar in 1828 and became a Queen's Counsel in 1840. He was appointed Solicitor-General for Ireland in 1846 and Attorney-General for Ireland in 1847, and briefly represented Galway in the House of Commons. During this period he was principal counsel for the Crown in numerous State trials, including those of John Mitchel, Thomas Francis Meagher, Charles Gavan Duffy, and William Smith O'Brien. As a lawyer, he was noted for his self-control even in times of acute crisis. [1]

In 1850, Monahan was appointed Chief Justice of the Irish Common Pleas and held that office till 1873. [1] He was generally agreed to have been one of the best Irish judges of his time: Elrington Ball states that during his long career he had the complete confidence of the Bar and the public,[2] and it is notable that the Fenian trials of 1865-6 did not damage his reputation as they did that of his colleague William Keogh. He had the reputation of being "a thoroughly learned lawyer" but also one who brought strong common-sense to bear on a problem. Even Lord Westbury, the English Lord Chancellor, who disliked him, said patronisingly that Monahan "does know his law".[3] Although he was impulsive and hot-tempered off the Bench, he was usually calm and controlled on it, and famed for his ability to "crush" counsel. Under stress according to one vivid description, he would "pace up and down the bench like a caged lion".

Of the civil trials he presided over the one which probably aroused the most interest was the Yelverton case, one of several cases heard in a number of countries where Major Yelverton, hoping to make a wealthy marriage, tried to rid himself of the inconvenience of his existing marriage to Miss Longworth. In Ireland initially he failed, as the lady's legal team convinced the jury that the marriage was valid (their verdict was reversed on appeal).

Personality and family life[edit]

Off the bench Monahan was a somewhat alarming personality : he was fierce in manner, impulsive, and give to peppering his conversation with swearwords. Lord Westbury, while grudgingly admitting his legal ability, referred to him disparagingly as "that voluble Irish savage".[4] His many friends, however, insisted that his fierce manner concealed a genuine warmth of character.

He married Fanny Harrington on 16 June 1832; they had two sons and six daughters.[1] The marriage was a happy one and Fanny's death was a great blow to her husband; during his last years he visited her grave at Glasnevin Cemetery each week.


  1. ^ a b c FitzGerald 1894.
  2. ^ Ball, F. Elrington The Judges in Ireland 1221-1921 John Murray, London, 1926
  3. ^ Delaney, V.T.H. Christopher Palles Allan Figgis, Dublin 1960
  4. ^ Delaney, op. cit.


Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Martin Joseph Blake
Sir Valentine Blake, Bt
Member of Parliament for Galway Borough
February–August 1847
With: Martin Joseph Blake
Succeeded by
Martin Joseph Blake
Anthony O'Flaherty
Political offices
Preceded by
Abraham Brewster
Solicitor-General for Ireland
Succeeded by
John Hatchell
Preceded by
Richard Moore
Attorney-General for Ireland
Succeeded by
John Hatchell
Preceded by
John Doherty
Chief Justice of the Irish Common Pleas
Succeeded by
Michael Morris