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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: May 2018

6 - Constitutional Rhetoric as Legal Defence: Irish Lawyers and the Languages of Political Dissent in 1848

from Section 2 - The Law and its Responses


—They're only in the hook and eye department, Myles Crawford said. Psha! Press and the bar! Where have you a man now at the bar like those fellows, like Whiteside, like Isaac Butt, like silvertongued O'Hagan? Eh? Ah, bloody nonsense! Only in the halfpenny place.

James Joyce, Ulysses (first published 1922; London, 2000), p. 175

The English historian of political thought, Sir Ernest Barker, noted in 1934 that to study post-revolutionary French and German political theory is to ‘study the lawyers’. Given the distinguished position of lawyers as interpreters of constitutional tradition, Barker's point resonates more deeply than just France and Germany. Indeed, his still evocative study of nineteenth-century English political thought, published in 1915, contained a chapter on ‘The Lawyers’, which traced the intellectual impact of legal scholars such as Henry Maine, Frederic Maitland, and A.V. D icey on constitutional ideas of the state, individual rights, and freedom. Such figures were conspicuous during the successive Home Rule crises; constitutional experts became public figures during the fractious debates over Irish self-government, as the foundation of a parliament in Dublin would have radically altered the British body politic. Rather less attention, however, is paid to the relationship between political thought and lawyers in a courtroom setting, particularly in Ireland. Many prominent figures from political life in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Ireland, such as Daniel O'Connell, John Redmond, and Edward Carson, came from backgrounds in law. But Irish legal figures were discernible in making wider and striking contributions to constitutional thought outside the formal political sphere. This chapter examines an aspect of this milieu through a study of rhetoric and several of the lawyers who represented the Young Irelanders in 1848 against charges of sedition and treason-felony. The oratory by the lawyers that distinguished the trials of 1848 was more than legal defence; often, the language used was saturated in political dissent, with the courtroom used as a public forum to condemn British constitutional rule in Ireland.