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 Studies in Irish Legal History
W.N. Osborough


Irish Studies Review
'This collection of previously published articles is an eclectic mix. The subjects dealt with vary from legal training to the penal laws; while the periods under discussion stretch from the present to the twelfth century. In truth, the contents of the book have only two binding elements: common author- ship and a relevance to the history and development of the law and legal administration in Ireland. Given these circumstances it would be impossible to offer here a full review of every item. 'here are, however, a number of points in general which should be highlighted, and a few matters which require specific attention.
Perhaps the most technically couched, and therefore the least satisfying piece in this collection, is that which deals with Roman law in Ireland. In addition to its unwelcoming style, it also omits to mention the occasional eighteenth-century use of 'Roman law' as a metaphor for arbitrary rule and judgement, which is perhaps not only revealing of contemporary attitudes to the law, but a crucial comment upon the perceived development of the law in Ireland. Another possible criticism is that some pieces should have been updated marginally before being reproduced, to make allowance for recent developments in the historiography of Ireland. For example, the work of Jacqueline Hill and others on Dublin politics would have qualified the short mention of the Dublin mayoral dispute of 1713. In one case the title of an essay is rather misleading. 'The legislation of the Pre-Union Irish Parliament' is, in fact, rather more concerned with the production and distribution of copies of the Irish statutes, than with any creation within the Irish legislature.

The positive attributes of this book far out- weigh these minor failings, however, and this collection should be welcomed on several grounds. Although all the pieces are indeed concerned with some aspect of legal history (with the exception of the piece already mentioned), the excessively legalistic is avoided, and the book remains accessible to the lay reader. Secondly, it brings together a number of articles from periodicals such as the Irish Jurist, which are not always easily accessible to the would-be reader. Simultaneously, some of its contents give succinct treatments of important issues. The essays on admissions to the lower levels of the legal profession, and on Catholic land tenure under the penal laws are important pieces which have a much wider relevance than might be expected. They are, and will remain for some time, the standard works on their subjects. Other pieces offer extremely interesting sidelights on broader developments in Irish history. For example, the discussion of the title and position of Lord Chief justice of Ireland at the time of the establishment of Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland, and then the Irish Free States, gives a new and informative insight into the personal aspects and constitutional repercussions of political partition. Through the discipline of legal history, this book also offers a glimpse into forgotten areas and realities of Irish history. 'The Irish custom of tracts' reminds the reader that even within the Crown and parliamentary prerogative of the law, the anglicised state had the ability and willingness to adapt to and assimilate Irish native custom. Such work is a sharp reminder for those who see the law in early modem Ireland purely as a creation and imposition of the state, foisted upon an unwilling and resentful populace. Finally, this book as a whole provides a readable and enjoy- able introduction to the rather neglected genre of Irish legal history. No doubt historians and lawyers may quibble over some of the conclusions that are drawn, but this is surely in the nature of their professions. Perhaps most importantly of all, the book demonstrates both that meaningful re- search can be completed despite the alleged lack of resources, and that legal history can be as enlightening and entertaining as any other form of historiographical writing.

The vast majority of those with an interest in any aspect of Irish history will find something to draw attention in this book, and will be the wiser for reading it. That being the case, this book should find its way on to the shelves of our libraries, and be read by students, researchers and teachers alike.

Neal Garnham, QUB, Irish Studies Review


 Irish Law Times (No. 19, 1999)
‘Oscar Wilde observed that anyone can make history but only a great man can write it.  I agree, assuming that a great man writes a great history.  The epithet “great” involves a subjective assessment and often the bestowal of praise.  Why not praise the historian?

Lord Acton in his inaugural lecture on the study of history, Cambridge, June 11, 1895 observed that praise is the shipwreck of historians.  An explanation, perhaps, for the conflicting views above may be found in the characteristics demanded of the ideal historian.  Miguel de Cervantes in Don Quixote, pt. ii noted that historians ought to be precise, truthful and quite unprejudiced and neither interest nor fear, hatred nor affection should cause them to swerve from the path of truth, whose mother is history, the rival of time, the depository of great actions, the witness of what is past, the example and instruction of the present, the monitor of the future.

Leaving aside those claims above, history holds a tremendous fascination for many of us and although legal history may have been a somewhat neglected field in the past, it is appropriate to acknowledge that Professor W.N. Osborough, professor of jurisprudence and legal history at University College Dublin, the author of this book containing legal historical essays, is almost synonymous with the study of, and many publications on, Irish legal history.  Our knowledge and understanding of Irish legal history would be the poorer but for him.

Professor Osborough notes that no single-volume account exists of the history of law in Ireland.  Professor osborough observes in his first essay, “In Search of Irish legal History: A Map for Explorers” that those who seek to fathom the mysteries of Irish legal history must adjust to the disconcerting discovery that the task of historians has been made immeasurably more difficult because of the widespread destruction, accidental and deliberate, of legal records.

Many of us are conscious that we have no equivalent of William Holdsworth's History of English Law, a massive work in fifteen volumes.  Of course it is regretted that there is no single general chronological treatment of Irish legal history.  But, thankfully, Professor Osborough comforts us by acknowledging there is a wealth of information available in the pages of learned journals and monographs, some ofwhich have been published under the aegis of the Irish Legal History Society with which Professor Osborough is so closely associated.  There is also a considerable amount of primary and other secondary material available.

Thirteen pieces are included in Studies in Irish Legal History which were published in various books and journals by Professor Osborough over the last thirty years.  The titles of the essays range from “Roman Law in Ireland” to “Letters to Ireland: Professional Enlightenment from the English Bench”, “Ecclesiastical Law and the Reformation in Ireland”, “Puzzles from Irish Law Reporting History” to the relatively modern “Law in Ireland 1916 1926” and “The Title of the Last Chief Justice of Ireland”.

Professor Osborough's Studies in Irish Legal History is gracefully written, full of historical riches, and represents an invaluable reference source for the connoisseur, scholar and the novice.  The book will be read with pleasure by anyone possessing even a slight interest in Irish legal history.  Let it be written, scholars of the future will stand indebted to Professor Osborough’ Eamonn G. Hall, Irish Law Times.

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