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Historical Female Lawyers and the Absence of Portraits

By: Sean Beatty BL

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In light of the 100-year anniversary of Frances Kyle and Averil Deverell being called to the Bar, I’d like to highlight what were, at least to me, some less well-known legal “firsts” achieved by women in Ireland. The first three solicitors were Mary Heron (1923), Helena Early (1925), and Dorothea O'Reilly (1925). Mary Heron was the all-important first, Helena Early had the earliest appearance in a reported case (Nolan v. Lemon [1933] 67 I.L.T.R. 114), and Dorothea O'Reilly won the Silver Medal in her Final Examination before qualification.

The first female judge was Eileen Kennedy, solicitor, appointed to the District Court in 1963. Her courtroom was “crowded for days with people coming to witness the novelty of it all” (Ivana Bacik et al., Gender InJustice: Feminising the Legal Professions? (2003), 59). The second, Ms. Justice Mella Carroll, was also the second woman to take silk, but the first to practice as one, and was the first female Chair of the Bar Council. Later, Ms. Justice Macken became the first female judge of the European Court of Justice.

Historical Female Lawyers

 “For every young woman who takes the first faltering steps in a courtroom, it must be an enormous comfort to know that you can never be alone, because Susan Denham has gone before you as junior counsel, senior counsel, judge and Chief Justice." (Mr. Justice O’Donnell, ‘Tribute to Former Chief Justice Susan Denham’ (2017) 22(6) The Bar Review 154, 154)

Who could those women who qualified in the 1920s take comfort or inspiration from? Giustina Rocca of Italy is recognised as the very first woman to practise law in 1500, but she was apparently not followed until the 1800s. When Lidia Poët qualified in Italy in 1883, the government initiated litigation to block her and won. The comments of the Court can only be described as insulting:

It would be unbecoming and villainous to see women… exciting themselves in discussions which easily carry one beyond bounds [where they couldn’t be shown] the respect which it is proper to observe toward the more delicate sex. Moreover, women might at times be compelled to deal… with questions which [society’s rules forbid] to be discussed in the presence of respectable women.” (Louis Frank, ‘The Woman Lawyer’ (1889) 3 C.L.T. 120, 135-136)

In France, Jeanne Chauvin too went to court to assert her right to practise—and represented herself. Although she lost, she eventually wrote the legislative bill to effect the necessary change and began practising when it passed (Anne Boigeol, ‘French Women Lawyers (Avocates) and the “Women’s Cause” in the First Half of the Twentieth Century’ (2003) 10 I.J.L.P. 193, 195-196).

The first woman to practise advocacy was Hortensia, known for her 42 B.C. speech against a tax on Rome’s 1400 wealthiest women to fund war against Caeser’s assassins. The women elected Hortensia as their advocate. They “forced their way to the tribunal... the people and guards dividing to let them pass” allowing Hortensia to speak:

 “You have already deprived us of our fathers, our sons, our husbands, and our brothers, whom you accused of having wronged you; if you take away our property also, you reduce us to a condition unbecoming our birth, our manners, our sex. If we have done you wrong, as you say our husbands have, proscribe us as you do them. But if we women have not voted any of you public enemies, have not torn down your houses, destroyed your army, or led another one against you; if we have not hindered you in obtaining offices and honours - why do we share the penalty when we did not share the guilt?’” (Appian, Roman History: The Civil Wars (1472))

It was effective. 1000 fewer women were taxed, the shortfall made up by male property owners (Dimitrios Mantzilas, ‘Female Domestic Financial Managers: Turia, Murdia, and Hortensia’ (2016)).


In 1970 Helena Early, then 83 years old, stated that “[t]his liberation movement is taking too long”. In 2021, women make up just 36% of barristers and 18% of senior counsel (‘Gender Still an Issue at the Bar’ (2021) 26(5) The Bar Review 158, 158).

There is a brilliant initiative, 20x20, tackling the lack of visibility “affecting our cultural perception of women in sport”. #cantseeitcantbeit sums up the idea that if a girl sees few/no women doing what she’d like to do, it is far more difficult to do it herself. In the Irish Arts Review Yearbook (‘91/92), Wanda Ryan-Smolin wrote that the portrait collection in the King’s Inns consisted of over 60 paintings, all depicting men, and many dated from the 17th century (p.109). There are presently only three portraits of women in the entirety of the King’s Inns: Denham C.J. and Laffoy and Carroll JJ.

A commendable project was recently launched by the Bar of Ireland and the King’s Inns entitled “In Plain Sight” which acknowledges the under-representation of women in these portraits. It “seeks to celebrate the achievements and enhance the visibility of women in the field of law… through the commissioning of additional portraiture that will hang in the Law Library and The Honorable Society of King’s Inns, as appropriate, in plain sight of the barristers of today and tomorrow”. This is a fantastic step. What follows is simply my case for these portraits to be placed specifically in the Dining Hall of the King’s Inns.

The In Plain Sight initiative states that “[i]t is vital that such pioneering women are acknowledged, celebrated and are represented on a par with their male counterparts”. While it will commission portraiture of both judges and practitioners, this will only be “to hang principally along with the existing collection at King’s Inns”. The commitment to represent women on a par with men would seem to require a 50:50 split (or at least something approaching it). But for instance, if not full already, the walls of the Dining Hall are very nearly so. If portraits of women are to hang on a par with portraits of men, they cannot do so along with the existing collection—some of the existing collection will have to make way.

Legal tradition and the celebration of lawyers of old has its place. But the King’s Inns is the heart of barrister education. When students enter the Dining Hall for the first time to sit their entrance exams, there is very little inspiration to be taken from the homogeneous collection of subjects above. The accomplishments of these men were undoubtedly very significant in their own eras. Yet in a centre of legal education in 2021, the usefulness of portraits of Barry Yelverton, first Viscount Avonmore (1736-1805) or Thomas Manners-Sutton, first Baron Manners (1756-1842) is low. They might even impact students negatively. Portraiture is a “key mode by which the values, attributes and power hierarchies of law – including gender, race, and class – are represented and reinforced”, and portraits can shape students’ “perceptions of their abilities and skills, and could have a positive impact on their performance” (Nikki Godden-Rasul, ‘Portraits of Women of the Law: Re-envisioning Gender, Law and the Legal Profession in Law Schools’ (2019) 39(3) L.S. 414).

The Dining Hall is by far the most prominent location for portraiture. I am unaware of the plans already in place, but I would ask the question of whether the proposed portrait of Frances Kyle and Averil Deverell will find a place there? What about portraits of retired Supreme Court Judges McGuinness, Macken, Laffoy and Finlay Geoghegan? Or the first female President of Ireland and former member of the Bar, Mary Robinson? The first woman of colour called to the Bar, Dr. Suad bint Mohammed al Lamkiya, unfortunately didn’t practise here—but how about the people of colour who did blaze that trail in Ireland? I would have no doubt that all these individuals accomplished more than enough to warrant a Dining Hall portrait, and what could be more encouraging for students to see when they start on the road towards their BL degree?

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