Thomas Dongan (judge)

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Thomas Dongan (c.1590–1663) was an Irish judge of the seventeenth century. He should not be confused with his great-nephew Thomas Dongan, 2nd Earl of Limerick.

His career was dogged by accusations of recusancy and of disloyalty to the English Crown. He is best remembered as the father of Margaret Dongan, wife of the Dutch scholar Arnold Boate, who commemorated her lovingly in his book The Character of a Truly Virtuous and Pious Woman, and also wrote with affection and respect about her father.[1]


He was the fourth and youngest son of John Dongan of Castletown, County Kildare (died 1592), and his wife Margaret Forster, daughter of Walter Forster.[2] His father died when Thomas was still an infant. His eldest brother Sir Walter Dongan (1579-1626) was created the first of the Dongan Baronets, and was the ancestor of the Earls of Limerick.

Early career[edit]

Thomas entered Lincoln's Inn in 1615 but was expelled for recusancy.[3] It seems likely that he remained a convinced Roman Catholic all his life (although his son-in-law records that he raised his children as Protestants, and his first wife was also a Protestant), but by 1627 he had at least outwardly conformed to the Church of England, and was readmitted to Lincoln's Inn and called to the English Bar. He married an English wife, Grace Palmer of Nottinghamshire, and remained in England until 1640 when he returned to Ireland, where he was admitted to the King's Inn and called to the Irish Bar.[4]

Civil War and Interregnum[edit]

He acquired considerable wealth, although he was to lose almost everything he owned during the Irish Rebellion of 1641.[5] He acquired as his patron James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormonde. Ormonde sent him to the English Court with a recommendation of his loyalty, and he was appointed a justice of the Court of King's Bench (Ireland).[6] By 1648, when the Royalist cause had been utterly defeated in Ireland, he was said to be the only High Court judge still sitting in Dublin.[7] He was also in financial distress, which may explain his decision, which greatly harmed his reputation, to accept office under the new government of Oliver Cromwell. He acted as justice in Leinster and Ulster and sat on the High Court of Justice which tried and condemned Sir Felim O'Neill and other rebels in 1652-3. He gained no permanent benefit from his support for the Cromwelllian regime, and by 1659 he was reduced to such a state of poverty that the King's Inn excused him his fees and let him live free of rent in his chamber there.[8]

His family life was marked by tragedy: his eldest son William was killed at the storming of Leicester on the eve of the Battle of Naseby, and his first wife Grace died soon afterwards. His daughter Margaret died in 1651 and her husband Arnold Boate in 1653.[9]

He was a man with a strong sense of family loyalty, and during his brief period of influence during Oliver Cromwell's regime he is said to have used his position to assist his Royalist relative, who were threatened with forfeiture of their estates. In particular he protected Mary, Lady Dongan, the widow of his nephew Sir John Dongan, 2nd Baronet (who had died in 1650)), and her numerous children, two of who later held the title Earl of Limerick; probably as a result of Dongan's help, this branch of the family were able to retain much of their property.[10]


After the Restoration of Charles II, Dongan, who was now living in considerable poverty, was forced to beg to be reappointed to the Bench, despite his age, ill-health, and dubious political loyalties. Probably Ormonde, soon to be Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, who never forgot a friend, recommended him for preferment, and he was appointed a Baron of the Court of Exchequer (Ireland). Ball notes that his appointment came at the last possible moment, on the assumption that he was barely fit for office. This assumption was justified:[11] by 1663 he was pleading to be allowed to retire on health grounds, and he died soon afterwards.[12] He was survived by his second wife, his son John and his granddaughter Mariana Boate.


Elrington Ball's unflattering portrait of Dongan in The Judges in Ireland [13] should be balanced against the kindly and respectful portrayal of the judge by his son-in-law Arnold Boate, which emphasizes his family virtues. If his service under Cromwell led to accusations of treachery, or at least time-serving, it should also be remembered that he used his position to assist relatives in distress.[14]


  1. ^ Gilbert, John Thomas "Arnold Boate" Dictionary of National Biography 1885-1900 Vol.5 p.283
  2. ^ Ball , F. Elrington The Judges in Ireland 1221-1921 John Murray London 1926 Vol.1 p.340
  3. ^ Ball p.340
  4. ^ Ball p.340
  5. ^ Ball p.340
  6. ^ Ball p.340
  7. ^ Kenny, Colum The King's Inns and the Kingdom of Ireland Irish Academic Press Dublin 1992 p.120
  8. ^ Ball p.340
  9. ^ Gilbert p.283
  10. ^ Cunningham, John Conquest and Land in Ireland- the Transplantation to Connacht 1649-1680 Boydell and Brewer 2011 p.112
  11. ^ Ball p.271
  12. ^ Ball p.340
  13. ^ Ball p.271
  14. ^ Cunningham p.112