John Keating (judge)

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John Keating (c. 1630–1691) was an Irish judge who held office as Chief Justice of the Irish Common Pleas. He had a reputation for integrity, impartiality and benevolence, but was dismissed from office after the Revolution of 1688, and later committed suicide.

Family and early career[edit]

He was born in Dublin, the second son of Edmund Keating and Elizabeth Eustace of Harristown, County Kildare; his mother was a sister of Sir Maurice Eustace, later Lord Chancellor of Ireland. Keating, like his uncle Maurice, combined his membership of the Church of Ireland with a notable tolerance in religious matters, which led to claims in later life that he was secretly a Roman Catholic.[1]

He graduated from the University of Dublin in 1655 and entered Lincoln's Inn in 1657: it was said that his knowledge of the law was deficient compared to that of his fellow students.[2] In 1661 he returned to Ireland and became Deputy Clerk to the Irish House of Commons. This job involved a great deal of travel between Dublin and London, and Keatiing displayed impressive energy in performing his duties, on one occasion completing the return journey in twelve days in the depth of winter.[3]

He entered the King's Inns in 1663 and quickly gained a reputation as a gifted barrister. His uncle the Lord Chancellor recommended him to James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormonde, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, whose friendship was then the usual path to judicial office. Keating was content for the time being with the minor position of Attorney General to the Duke of York; he admitted that he could not afford financially to give up his practice at the Irish Bar, and that he did not wish to arouse the envy of his older colleagues. In 1675 he was appointed judge of the county palatine court of Tipperary, which was generally regarded as a sinecure rather than a major judicial office.

Chief Justice[edit]

Given Keating's previous reluctance to accept a seat on the Bench, his appointment as Chief Justice of the Common Pleas in 1679, with no greater judicial experience than as the palatine judge in Tipperary, may seem surprising. Even more surprising was the choice of a judge suspected of Roman Catholic leanings, since the anti-Catholic hysteria engendered by the Popish Plot was at its height, and it was rumoured that Keating himself might be accused of complicity in the Plot. Very likely, as Elrington Ball suggests,[4] Charles II chose Keating precisely because his well-known tolerance in matters of religion meant that he was unlikely to succumb to the prevailing anti-Catholic hysteria. In particular, he was expected to quash an unfounded charge of treason against Richard Power, 1st Earl of Tyrone and duly did so. In the following years he gained an impressive reputation for integrity, impartiality and mercy, and perhaps as a result, made political enemies on all sides. He was offered the office of Lord Chief Justice of Ireland in 1681, but declined it.

His reputation for mercy did not extend to cases of cattle theft, a serious social problem at the time: in such cases he was prepared to drive hard for a conviction, and in the leading case of R. v Cavenagh[5] in 1689, he broke with precedent in refusing to allow two convicted cattle thieves to plead benefit of clergy for a first offence: both were hanged.

Dismissal and death[edit]

During the politically turbulent years 1688–1691, Keating was in a particularly difficult position since unlike most of his colleagues he was very anxious to retain office. During James II's first year in Ireland, Keating showed himself a staunch loyalist, praying publicly for the King and referring to the Glorious Revolution as an "invasion". James was seemingly impressed, and Keating was given a prominent place in the opening of the Patriot Parliament of 1689; yet within days his enemies had him dismissed from the Privy Council of Ireland.[6]

The collapse of the Jacobite cause placed Keating in an impossible position. He could not seriously have expected to continue in office, yet he undoubtedly made friendly advances to the new administration. These met with a cold reception: Keating was dismissed from office, imprisoned for a time and apparently threatened with impeachment. He committed suicide early in 1691.[7]

Marriage[edit]

In 1659 he married Grace Holte, daughter of the prominent Royalist Sir Thomas Holte of Aston Hall and widow of Sir Richard Shuckburgh. Grace died in 1677; Keating erected a memorial to her in Palmerstown Chapel, Dublin, paying eloquent testimony to their happy marriage.

There were no children (Grace was much older than her husband), but she had two children by her first marriage: Sir John Shuckburgh (1635–1661), first of the Shuckburgh Baronets, and Grace, who married Sir John Bernard, 2nd Baronet.

Character and reputation[edit]

Historians on the whole have dealt kindly with Keating both as a man and as a judge. The more critical among them, like Elrington Ball, accused him of clinging to office in an undignified manner, and the Cavenagh case certainly shows that he could be ruthless enough when he thought it necessary. Yet there is impressive evidence of his good qualities. Duhigg,[8] in a celebrated passage, called him: "the great ornament of the Irish Bench...a great magistrate who in a slippery or stormy period exercised official station with mild manners and untainted integrity. This great man was calm, patient and humane in the trial of prisoners; clear, laborious and consistent in the discussion of civil suits; faithful to his King and country in the indulgence of political principles; and attached to God in the exercise of Christianity."[9]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Ball F. Elrington The Judges in Ireland 1221–1921 John Murray London 1926
  2. ^ Ball Judges in Ireland
  3. ^ Judges in Ireland
  4. ^ Judges in Ireland
  5. ^ 12 State Trials 629
  6. ^ Langan P. St. J. "Irish Material from the State Trials"; Northern Ireland Legal Quarterly Volume 19 ( 1968 )
  7. ^ Langan Irish Material from the State Trials
  8. ^ Duhigg B.T. History of the Kings Inns Dublin 1806
  9. ^ History of the Kings Inns