Gordon Lucy: The minister’s son who was last Lord Chancellor of Ireland

Sir John Ross stepped down as the last Lord Chancellor of Ireland exactly 100 years agoSir John Ross stepped down as the last Lord Chancellor of Ireland exactly 100 years ago
Sir John Ross stepped down as the last Lord Chancellor of Ireland exactly 100 years ago
The Lord High Chancellor of Ireland (usually referred to as the Lord Chancellor of Ireland) was the highest judicial office in Ireland until its abolition in December 1922 with the establishment of the Irish Free State when the functions of the office were transferred to the chief justice of the Irish Free State.

Uncertainty surrounds the first holder of the office but not the last.

Ralph Neville, bishop of Chichester and Chancellor of England, who was appointed for life in 1232, is often regarded as the first holder of the office, but the last was definitely Sir John Ross, an Ulster-Scot.

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Born on December 11 1853 in Londonderry, John Ross was the eldest son of the Rev Robert Ross, minister of Fourth Derry Presbyterian Church and moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland in 1886-7, and Margaret Ross (née Christie).

He was educated at the Model School in Londonderry before entering Foyle College where one of his friends was Percy French. Ross even wrote ‘one or two comic songs’ for him ‘which travelled far’.

From there he progressed to Trinity College, Dublin, where he excelled academically (unlike Percy French who was an indifferent scholar) and in virtually every other aspect of student life.

He won a classical sizarship, graduated BA, and was president of the Philosophical Society in 1877. In 1878 he was auditor of the College Historical Society. He also captained the hockey club and founded the lawn tennis club, numbering James Campbell and Edward Carson among his acquaintances. Both of course were to become important legal figures and Unionist MPs for Dublin University. (Campbell was to become the penultimate Lord Chancellor of Ireland.)

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Ross entered Gray's Inn, London, in 1878 and was called to the Irish bar in 1879.

In in 1882 he married Katherine, only daughter of Colonel Deane Mann of Dunmoyle, near Sixmilecross.

The marriage took place without Katherine’s upper class Anglican parents’ consent on the basis that in marrying an impecunious Presbyterian barrister she was marrying beneath herself.

According to local tradition (in which the truth may be embellished), on her wedding day the headstrong Katherine walked from Dunmoyle to Sixmilecross railway station to travel to Dublin where she married John Ross in St Michan's Parish Church. For their honeymoon the couple apparently toured Donegal on a tandem bicycle.

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During the early years of their marriage the young couple lived in Dublin. Although this represented a serious sacrifice on her part as life on a lawyer's salary could not compete with the lifestyle to which she had been accustomed, Katherine loyally stood by her husband.

For several years there was no contact between the Rosses and Katherine's family. When John Ross appeared in a case in Omagh courthouse, curiosity overcame the ageing Deane Mann’s stubborn pride. Attending the last day of the trial, he was so impressed with the formidable intelligence and forensic skill of his son-in-law, that he invited Katherine and her husband back to Dunmoyle. In due course John Ross became the heir to the house and the estate.

Ross became a Queen's Counsel in 1889. He was Unionist MP for Londonderry City from 1892 until his defeat in 1895. Although he enjoyed his brief experience as an MP, he harboured no serious aspirations to becoming a career politician. He viewed it as an enjoyable but expensive interlude in his legal career and an opportunity to collect anecdotes.

In 1896 Ross was elevated (possibly through the influence of the Duke of Abercorn) to the bench as land judge in the Chancery Division of the High Court of Justice in Ireland. When appointed, he was the youngest judge in the United Kingdom and he was the first Presbyterian judge of the High Court.Ross became a member of the Irish Privy Council in 1902. In 1919 he was created a baronet. To his great surprise, in 1921 he was appointed Lord Chancellor of Ireland.

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On the abolition of that office in December 1922 (Ross stepped down on December 27), the nationalist 'Freeman’s Journal' observed: ‘Sir John is the last of a distinguished line, and it is good that the last holder of the Great Seal should be himself a man of distinction and high character. He could have taken the place of any his predecessors for the last seven hundred years, and in whatever century he was placed, he would have played his part with the best of them. Although he has not seen eye to eye politically with the majority of his countrymen, it can be truthfully said of him, that in temperament, courage and character, he was never other than Irish in the best sense of the word.’

In his memoir ‘The Old Munster Circuit’ (1939), Maurice Healy praised Ross for his ‘splendid presence’, his command of the English language and his kindness to young barristers.

Healy noted that like all judges he had his foibles and Ross’ was a fondness for horse racing. A habitué of Punchestown Racecourse, the Bar had an unofficial understanding that no case would be listed for hearing on a Punchestown day. Healy opined this demonstrated Ross’ humanity and it was this that made him a great judge.

Sir John initially retired to London but later he returned to live at Dunmoyle.

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Extracurricular activities and interests included being a commissioner of charitable endowments and bequests, a commissioner of national education, chairman of the St John's ambulance service and a member of the joint war committee of the British Red Cross.

A lifelong love of the classics resulted in his appointment as president of the Classical Society of Ireland in 1914. He was also a keen golfer.

In retirement he wrote two volumes of memoirs – ‘The years of my pilgrimage’ (1924) and ‘Pilgrim scrip’ (1927) – which provided good homes for his rich store of anecdotes.

Sir John died at Dunmoyle on August 17 1935. Ronald Ross MC, Sir John’s only son, inherited the baronetcy and between 1929 and 1951 was the Unionist MP for County Londonderry at Westminster.

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