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Florence O’Donoghue

Caroline Hurley

The eldest of five children, Florence O’Donoghue was born on February 12th, 1928 in Killarney. He went on to become a barrister in London, and spent much of his long life trying to make sense of his dual, and sometimes conflicting, allegiance to both Ireland and England.

After emigrating for a few years to America and working in a cousin’s furniture store, his father, John O’ Donoghue, had returned to Ireland and joined the RIC. Florence was later to correspond with Hugh Tudor, the unscrupulous lieutenant-general of police in Ireland from 1920. On the force’s disbandment in 1922, John took the pension arranged through the Anglo-Irish Treaty, and moved back to his native Kerry from a dangerous post in Cork, despite the risk of ongoing reprisals. Irish politics were kept at arm’s length; enough had been endured. Letters between father and son reveal confidences warmly shared of rising above circumstances. En route home by boat, Florence missed his father’s funeral in 1966 by a few hours, which inflicted a lingering wound. His mother, Deborah O’Sullivan, a pragmatic local woman, content with an arranged marriage, had predeceased her husband by eight years.

Florence attended St Brendan’s diocesan school, nicknamed “the sem”, run by Catholic priests since its establishment in 1860. Aged fifteen, he won a Reid sizarship, one of five annual scholarships founded by the 1881 will of Richard Tuohill Reid, a barrister from Killarney who subsequently practised in India. Amounting initially to £6,189 6s 8d, this two-year endowment was entrusted to Trinity College to provide accommodation and expenses for promising Kerry students with limited means. It is now called Reid Entrance Exhibitions and successful applicants each receive €6,000 per annum, a laptop and free commons.

Florence graduated from Trinity College Dublin (TCD) in 1948 with a BA Mod. degree in modern history and political science. Eyebrows were raised at the idea of Catholic students attending TCD up to the 1970s, but the choice reflected the family’s cosmopolitan outlook. The main concern apparently was meeting supplementary expenses when funds thinned out.

Florence often contributed items to The Irish Times, for a column called University Notes, T.C.D., from Our Correspondent. The same newspaper covered a college debate in which Florence was opposing the motion “that this House is ashamed of the history of Ireland”. Rather, he claimed, he was “ashamed of the state of affairs that made it possible for the people to be ashamed of T.C.D.”, adding that, “if it had not been for a lack of discipline, Nationalism would have taken a form which would have made it impossible for anybody to owe allegiance to another state”. He said he “despised elements of a dying shoneenism” expressed through aggressive flag-waving, and he warned that the English flag would be opposed while troops remained anywhere in Ireland.

Nevertheless, young Florence held a flag himself, standing in the centre of a photograph reproduced by The Kerry News in 1999, of a group celebrating Kerry’s win over Roscommon at Croke Park in 1946. His younger sister remembers him bringing a wonderful doll home to her on holidays, but he made the then arduous journey less and less often, and hardly at all during the rest of his life in England, while remaining always available by phone. Aspects of his later writings reveal his inner struggle to reconcile identities of place and history, as his perspectives change along with his circumstances.

Florence inquired about a PhD to research events leading up to the Irish Civil War 1922-1923, a period his father must have mentioned frequently, having survived as an official target of rebels, which inevitably coloured the family’s views. Though this did not transpire, Florence began contacting publishers and key sources anyway. Many signatures on letters he saved are decipherable; those of British Labour MP Tom Driberg, WT Cosgrave and Maurice Bonham-Carter as well as Hugh Tudor and others. This work would last half a century, culminating in a book draft now being assessed with relatives for publication and/or appropriate library donation.

His exploratory process ranged wide. He retained a copy of the 1981 funeral Mass service for Patrick O’Donovan, Irish Volunteer to Tom Barry. He drew on materials such as the Redmond, Asquith, and de Valera papers for this study of Ireland from 1915 to 1923, while letting himself be convinced by English logic, which had supported conscription and scoffed at Irish neutrality, until his retirement, when his evaluation of his compatriots softened. The tone of chapters he revised, when compared with older drafts, confirms this change in attitude.

Too young at twenty for admission to the Irish Bar, he emigrated in 1948 to avail of job opportunities in England. He taught English, Latin and history for two years at All Hallows Preparatory School, Somerset. One of his charges there was Auberon Waugh, who as late as 1978 dropped him an amusing note discussing possible dinner dates on learning of a mutual acquaintance’s death.

Returning to Dublin for further study to pass King’s Inns exams, Florence resumed literary pursuits. He reviewed two volumes of Yeats’s collected letters in 1954 for the influential Catholic magazine founded in 1836 by Michael Joseph Quin, Cardinal Wiseman and Daniel O’Connell. Launched as The Dublin Review, it folded in 1969.

Nearly every year thereafter, several of Florence’s book reviews, overwhelmingly related to Irish subjects, were published in organs including Time and Tide, The Literary Review, The Tablet, The Catholic Herald, The Times, The Irish Times, The Telegraph, History Today, The Listener and The Spectator. AW Russell of the BBC Radio series London Calling Asia, wrote to him in 1954 asking for a script on the Irish conflict. Busy in court, his attentive and positive critiquing of books seems to have been undertaken primarily in solitary mode.

In parallel, his in-depth analyses of legal issues appeared in relevant journals: The New Law Journal, Law And Justice, the Law Quarterly, Justice of the Peace, Inner Temple Yearbook, and more. In 1966 the Modern Law Review press produced his booklet, Imputations on the Character of Prosecution Witnesses. Law lecturers still use his case reviews for class illustration. His last piece in print, about a book on the prominent Quaker family the Goodbodys, featured in the Times Literary Supplement on April 6th, 2012. He linked them through the Irish senate to WB Yeats, a recurring figure in his printed opinions.

Florence was called to the Irish Bar in 1956 and to the English Bar in 1959. The introduction of the English legal aid scheme generated opportunities to justify staying, ensuring varied work in family, contract and criminal law, disciplinary and industrial tribunals, and tort. Florence enjoyed getting to grips with challenging precedents. As one of London’s best-known Irish barristers, Irish people facing legal problems in England availed of his services, while English solicitors sought his views about cases of civil wrongs.

His most celebrated case was defending Reverend Jeremy Hummerstone, a High Church Anglican clergyman who put a Black Madonna statue on display in a Devon church. An objection was upheld by the diocesan chancellor, and the subsequent appeal had to be heard by the Court of Ecclesiastical Causes Reserved, which had never sat before. Two judges and three Anglican bishops presided as Florence defended Hummerstone’s action. He won initially, arguing that the image was merely an aid, not the object of prayer, in compliance with Anglican doctrine. “Getting the Virgin Mary in was really a great joy,” he remarked. 

He was made Deputy Circuit Judge and Assistant Recorder from 1974 to1983. Letters from other QCs active on England’s Western judicial circuit were found among his papers. He became a member of the Senate of Inns of Court and the Bar from 1980 to1988, a member of Disciplinary Tribunals from 1980, and member of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators’ Panel. He officiated at the Irish High Court for a professional negligence case, and at the Supreme Court for a constitutional case on the right to jury trial. Writing steadily, he periodically addressed gatherings on both legal and literary matters.

In 1980 Florence contested local elections as a Conservative candidate in Winchester, where he was a long-term resident, promising to be “sympathetically approachable” while overseeing better management, less wastage, maintenance of essential services. This endeavour entailed further high-profile communications for references from people like Geoffrey Howe and Peter Rawlinson, but came to nothing. In 1993, via the three-seat TCD panel, he ran for Seanad Éireann, after the 27th Dàil election. He claimed that his experience would improve the debate and revision of draft laws, especially criminal and family laws. Other aspirations included protecting heritage and ensuring high-quality education. He trailed with a respectable 81 first preference votes.

Also known as Pat or Florrie, Florence continued to give advice on legal cases beyond his retirement. He passed away in hospital on January 24th, 2014, aged 85. He was buried in Killarney following ceremonies in England. Colleagues who turned out in abundance recalled his generous cheerful nature. His powers of oratory endeared him to juries.

A bachelor, Florence is survived by twin siblings and nine nephews and nieces, including this author. So long away, he’d been somewhat of an enigma to the subsequent generation. When he did visit, he made a big impression. Our only regret, on retracing the life course of Florence O’Donoghue is not having known him better.

1/3/2015
Caroline Hurley is Florence O'Donoghue's niece. She lives near an Irish bird reserve where contact with nature inspires ideas, and occasionally poems. Some have appeared in Poetry 24, anthologies, and elsewhere.

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