A Trinity of Women: The First Women Solicitors in Ireland

Published 13th June 2018
Mary Dorothea Heron, Helena Mary Early and Dorothea Mary Browne were the first three women to be admitted to the Roll of Solicitors in Ireland.

The first three women admitted to the Roll of Solicitors in Ireland were Mary Dorothea Heron from Downpatrick Co. Down, Helena Mary Early from Dublin city and Dorothea Mary Browne from Skibbereen, Co. Cork: the first two admitted in 1923, the latter in 1924. Their apprenticeships were made possible by the enactment of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, 1919, which received Royal Assent on the 23 December 1919, but the commencement date was the 27 April 1920, by which time Heron had signed indentures on the 7 February 1920. The Incorporated Law Society of Ireland took a pragmatic view, aware that two women had already been admitted to King’s Inns to be barristers. Early’s indentures were noted on the 20 June 1920, Browne’s on the 5 November 1921.

The War of Independence commenced in January 1919 and lasted until the Truce on the 11 July 1920, but the Anglo- Irish Treaty signed in London on the 6 December 1921 was not accepted by a significant minority as the six northern counties did not wish to be incorporated into a new Irish state. The proponents and opponents of the Treaty entered into bitter arguments, resulting in a civil war which commenced on the 28 June 1922, with the bombardment of the Four Courts, the seat of the courts and professions. The Four Courts complex was destroyed including the Solicitors’ Building. The Law Society proceeded with the examinations in the Royal College of Surgeons on the 4 July 1922, ‘during the course of the military operations’.

The Government of Ireland Act 1920, enacted at Westminster, provided for the creation of two Irish states, to the dismay of the southern Irish. The partition of Ireland came to pass, with the creation of Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State in 1922. The act had practical consequences for the three apprentices – two new legal jurisdictions were established, commencing on the 1 October 1921. The two law societies, the Incorporated Law Society of Ireland and the Incorporated Law Society of Northern Ireland agreed in 1922, that indentures dated prior to the 1 October 1921, ‘finish under Dublin’. Two of the three women were thus part of the last cohort of solicitors entitled to practise in both jurisdictions in partitioned Ireland. The three women, in common with their male counterparts completed their training against a backdrop of war and violence with considerable risk and approximately one thousand eight hundred people were killed during the civil war. Heron was a graduate of Queens University Belfast, B.A., LLB. Early and Browne were Law Clerks. The term of indentures was three years, for each.

Mary Dorothea Heron

Heron was from Downpatrick, Co. Down, she was the daughter of the ‘county surveyor’ for Co. Down, her mother was also a graduate. Heron was a Presbyterian, though her mother was a member of the Church of Ireland, perhaps less surprising, as her grandfather was a Presbyterian minister with a doctorate in divinity. She was the third generation of her family and the second generation woman to attend university, an exception to the norm in 1920. Critically her uncle Thomas, was a solicitor providing a pathway to enter the profession, she was 24 when she was indentured. Her entry was well marked, the president of the law society critiqued the 1919 act ‘its developments will be viewed with considerable interest and curiosity, and already lady candidates have entered’.

Heron was an excellent student, she was placed second in the Final Examination in January 1923, her success was noted in the Belfast newspapers on the 3 February 1923, carrying identical reports ‘she was placed second and was awarded a special certificate for distinguished answering, being the first lady solicitor in Ireland’. Heron was admitted to the Roll on the 17 April 1923, returned to practise with her uncle’s firm TM Heron in Belfast and practised in probate until 1946. She did not take out a practising certificate during those years, and is not included in the law directories or statistics, which has affected her place in the historiography of solicitors. Helena M. Early is represented as the ‘first woman solicitor to practise in Ireland’, with Kathleen Donaghy admitted Easter 1926, as the ‘first woman solicitor in Northern Ireland’.

In 2015 the Dublin law society in an article celebrating the then parity of numbers in men and women solicitors, noted there was ‘a perception in these early years that women solicitors were engaged as assistant solicitors in conveyancing and probate work, may not have taken out a practising certificate, which was a convention permitted at the time’. This convention existed until 1974, it was not gender specific, non-court attending male solicitors were included. Heron retired in 1946, and died on the 9 October 1960, aged 64. The Northern Ireland Law Society of Ireland has no knowledge of Heron, presumably because she never held a practising certificate, the Law Society of Ireland (Dublin) in 2017, commenting on the fact that the majority of the profession are now women says, ‘the milestone is striking in the context of the profession’s historical background: the first woman solicitor M.D. Heron was only admitted as a solicitor 94 years ago in 1923’. The statistics, in summary, are: 1923 men 1,397 women 0. 2017 men 4,664, women 5,001, sourced from the Law Society Gazette March 2018, the 1923 figures include Northern Ireland, the 2017 figures are Republic of Ireland only.

Helena Mary Early

Early was originally from Swords, Co. Dublin one of five children of a farmer, from a Roman Catholic family. Her brother Thomas was admitted to the Roll in Hilary term 1899, and she worked for him as a law clerk, she was placed first in the Preliminary Examination in January 1920, which was a necessary prelude to her signing indentures on the 22 June 1920, aged 32. She was elected Auditor of the Solicitors’ Apprentices Debating Society for 1920-1, which was an achievement, partly explained by her maturity and her political activism. The next woman auditor was not to be until 1970, the Irish Times on the 28 October 1970 carried a photograph of both.

Early placed first in the Intermediate Examination and fourth in her Final Examination in May 1923, she was admitted to the Roll on the 25 June 1923. She practised with her brother at 63-4 O’Connell Street, Dublin in the courts particularly the District Court, and was a familiar figure, she combined practice with left-wing political activism. She was President of the Ireland–U.S.S.R. Friendship Society, which was in existence between 1945—66, its purpose to ‘combat all falsehoods designed to misrepresent the peaceful aims of the Soviet Union’. This cause did not meet with universal approval, a meeting in the Mansion House was interrupted by neo-Nazis, in the consequent disorder two of the stewards Harry Ryan and Sean Dempsey were charged and convicted of assault, receiving a fine of £95 or three months in jail in lieu. Early, as president, signed the appeal to raise the money to pay the fine. The Friendship society operated on ‘a spasmodic basis during the 1950s and 1960s’, the society became moribund, a new one was established in 1966 titled ‘the Ireland—U.S.S.R. Society’, without involvement from Early. She retired in the 1960s and died in 1977. She is represented as the ‘first woman practising solicitor in Ireland’, which is technically correct, as she took out a practising certificate, her name is recorded in the archives.

Dorothea Mary Browne- O’Reilly

Dorothea Mary Browne was admitted to the Roll under her maiden name of Browne, the entry was amended following her marriage to ‘DM O’Reilly’, which is the name by which she became known. She was the fourth child of an Royal Irish Constabulary sergeant who in the 1901 census was marked deceased leaving a widow aged 34 with six children in total, the eldest 14 and the youngest two. The family were Roman Catholic, living in Mitchelstown, Co, Cork at the time.

O’Reilly worked as a Law Clerk for one of the most remarkable Irish solicitors, Jasper Travers Wolfe, Skibbereen, Co Cork, a Methodist and Crown solicitor in West Cork. He incurred the wrath of the IRA. O’Reilly was travelling in Wolfe’s car when it was subject to an aborted IRA ambush. She became indentured to him on the 5 November 1921, aged 28. It was necessary for law clerks to serve seven years prior to becoming indentured. She emulated the first two women’s achievements being placed second in the Final Examination, awarded a Silver Medal. She was admitted to the Roll on the 17 November 1924.

She met another apprentice during her studies Patrick F. O’Reilly whom she married. They founded a firm in Dublin, named P.F. O’Reilly& Co and both practised for the ensuing decades. The firm continues to practise, with her grandson Peter O’Reilly as the third generation solicitor. O’ Reilly practised throughout her life, during which time she had three children. Her husband was in politics, elected to the Senate of the Republic of Ireland in 1951-1954, and was subsequently was appointed a Taxing Master, which meant that O’Reilly was the critical solicitor in managing the practice. She retired in the 1960s and died in 1973.

Written by John Garahy, retired solicitor and current M.Phil. student in Modern Irish History at Trinity College Dublin.