Sir William MacMahon, 1st Baronet (1776–1837) was an Irish judge of the early nineteenth century. He was a member of a Limerick family which became prominent largely through personal influence over the Prince Regent. He was the first of the McMahon Baronets of Dublin.
He was born in Limerick, son of John MacMahon, comptroller of the port of Limerick, and his second wife, Mary Stackpoole; his father's relatively low social standing was something of a handicap in his career. He was educated at the University of Dublin, and called to the Bar in 1799, practicing on the Munster circuit. He was made Serjeant in 1806 and King's Counsel in 1807. Despite what was called his "spluttering" manner, and a tendency to verbal gaffes, he built up a very large practice, second only to that of Daniel O'Connell, whom he remembered with gratitude for having befriended him, at a time when most other barristers looked down on him as the son of a minor official.
Family and political connections
William married firstly Frances Burston, who died in 1813; and secondly Charlotte Shaw. Of his ten children, who included his heir Sir Beresford MacMahon, 2nd Baronet, the most notable was Charles MacMahon (1824–1891) who had a distinguished career in Australia as politician and who was the second Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police from 1854-58. Charles MacMahon was also Speaker of the Victorian Legislative Assembly between 1871-77.
William's most valued relative was undoubtedly his much older half-brother, Sir John McMahon, 1st Baronet (1754–1817) who in 1811 was appointed private secretary to the Prince Regent, later King George IV, and who in the remaining six years of his life was considered to have great influence over the Prince. Certainly he was able to obtain favours for his family: William noted cynically that barristers who had previously despised his family's lowly origins soon began fawning on him. When John Philpot Curran retired as Master of the Rolls in Ireland John was able to obtain the office for William, then only 37; this is said to be one of the few occasions when the British Royal family has directly intervened in a judicial appointment. William, like his brother, became a baronet. From 1811 he lived at Fortfield House, Terenure, County Dublin, which had been built in 1805 by Barry Yelverton, 1st Viscount Avonmore.
Judicial career and reputation
In previous centuries the office of Master of the Rolls in Ireland had been a notorious sinecure for politicians, who were not necessarily lawyers, or even Irish.However the appointment of Sir Michael Smith in 1801 had marked an effort to turn the office into a full-time judicial position which would attract first class lawyers. Given William's youth, and the blatant nepotism involved, his appointment might have been expected to cause controversy. In fact, according to Elrington Ball, there was no protest and the appointment worked out far better than had been feared: William had a reputation for integrity, was popular and hospitable, and a fairly good lawyer. An obituary notice published soon after his death in January 1837 seems to bear this out: MacMahon is praised for integrity and lack of political prejudice and as an exceptionally painstaking and conscientious judge; while the writer admitted he was very slow in giving judgment this was attributed to his desire to ensure that justice was done.
- Geoghegan, Patrick M. King Dan- the rise of Daniel O'Connell Gill and Macmillan Dublin 2008 pp.72-3
- Rigg, James McMullen (1893). "MacMahon, William". In Lee, Sidney. Dictionary of National Biography. 35. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
- Geoghegan pp.72-3
- Ball, F. Elrington The Judges in Ireland 1221-1921 John Murray London 1926
- Gentleman's Magazine April 1837