Mella Carroll was the first female judge of the High Court in the Republic of Ireland.
Born in 1934 in Dublin, her father Patrick Carroll was a founder member and Commissioner of the Garda Siochana, the police force of Ireland from 1922, and he later qualified as a barrister. Mella read French and German at University College, Dublin, before studying for the Bar at King’s Inns. In 1957, she came first in the examination for the Brooke scholarship at King’s Inns.
Called to the Bar in 1957 at a time when very few women were practising, Mella proved herself to be a formidable talent. In 1976 she was called to the Bar of Northern Ireland, and in 1977 she became the first woman called to the Inner Bar as Senior Counsel. For a period, she was the only female Senior Counsel practising in the Irish State. A popular and well-respected barrister, known for her good humour and decisiveness, Mella was elected the first female Chairperson of the Bar Council in 1979.
On the 6th October 1980, Mella was appointed the first female judge in the High Court of Ireland, and sat on the bench for 25 years, becoming one of the longest serving High Court judges in Ireland. A pioneer in a male-dominated profession, Mella was addressed as ‘my lord’ by barristers in her court for 10 years, until 1990 when she announced she would prefer to be called ‘judge’. Later, she was elected the President of the International Association of Women Judges.
Confident in dealing with both complex commercial cases and criminal cases, Mella’s legacy as a judge is remarkable for its scope and diversity. She made some groundbreaking rulings during her time on the bench, shaping the direction of Irish law.
For example, in Mhic Mhathuna v. Ireland  Mella ruled it was not unconstitutional to give greater assistance per capita to unmarried mothers than to married parents. In The Attorney General of England and Wales v. Brandan Books  she refused an application by the British government to prevent the publication in Ireland of the memoirs of a former member of MI5 (One Girl’s War by Joan Miller), judging that the public interest of another state could not curtail freedom of expression within Irish jurisdiction.
In the infamous murder trial of Catherine Nevin, dubbed the ‘Black Widow’ by the press, Mella directed that no press photographs of the accused be published during the trial and allowed no comment on her appearance, arguing that Nevin was entitled to protection for her privacy and dignity.
As Chairwoman of the Second Commission in the Status of Women, Mella helped to produce the 1993 report, which stated the demands of Irish women for equality. Many of the Commission’s recommendations have since been adopted. She also chaired the Commission on Nursing in 1997, contributing to transformative reforms to the nursing profession in Ireland. In recognition of her work, she was made an Honorary Fellow of the Faculty of Nursing of the Royal College of Surgeons In Ireland. In 2001, she was also appointed Chancellor of Dublin City University in 2001.
Outside of work, Mella enjoyed travelling and opera. She regularly travelled to Geneva to sit on the administrative tribunal of the International Labour Organisation, at one point serving as its vice-president. She never married, calling herself ‘unclaimed treasure’. Mella retired in November 2005 and died on January 15th 2006 after a long illness, aged 71. She remains one of the most influential women in Irish legal history.
Written by Annabel Twose, Project Coordinator of First 100 Years
Photograph © Irish Photo Archive