Law and the Idea of Liberty in Ireland: From Magna Carta to the Present

The Irish Legal History Society will mark the 800th anniversary of the transmission of Magna Carta to Ireland with a conference.attachment-1

Magna Carta is one of the most famous documents in the history of the world, credited with being the first effective check in writing on arbitrary, oppressive and unjust rule — in a word, on tyranny. The fame of Magna Carta spread across the world as England, and later Britain, came to girdle the globe in its power.

What is the place of Ireland in the story of Magna Carta’s global dissemination? Four centuries before the Great Charter crossed the Atlantic, it was already implanted across the Irish Sea. A version of the charter issued in November 1216 in the name of the boy-king Henry III was sent to Ireland, where it became fundamental to the English common law tradition in Ireland that survives to the present.

The conference will explore the legal-historical background to Magna Carta in Ireland, the reception of the charter into English law in Ireland, the political and polemical uses to which the charter was put, and its twentieth and twentieth-first century invocations as a living presence in contemporary Irish law. Professor Paul Brand (All Souls, Oxford) will deliver a keynote address on the impact of Magna Carta on the development of English law in medieval Ireland.

A particular concern of the conference will be to explore the paradoxes presented by the reception of Magna Carta into Irish law, above all the contested and often highly restrictive-idea idea of ‘liberty’ that developed in Ireland from the Middle Ages onwards.

This conference wil be held in the Music Room of Christ Church Cathedral, which boasts its own copy of Magna Carta in the Liber Niger held in the cathedral treasury.

Speakers include: Claire Breay, Sean Duffy, Ian Campbell, Coleman Dennehy, Sparky Booker, Colum Kenny, Adrian Empey, James Kelly, Patrick Geoghegan, John Larkin, Blathne Ruane.


WHEN: Friday, 25 November 2016 at 10:30 – Saturday, 26 November 2016 at 16:00

REGISTRATION: This event is free but booking is essential. Places can be reserved via Eventbrite

WHERE: Music Room, Christ Church Cathedral – Christ Church Cathedral, ChristChurch Place, Dublin 8


Friday, 25 November 2016

10.15                                    Registration
10.45                                    Welcome and opening remarks


11.00                             Session 1.  Chair – Bernard Meehan, Medieval History Research Centre, TCD


Claire Breay           ‘Celebrating the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta at the British Library in 2015’

Seán Duffy              ‘The political background to Magna Carta: King John and Ireland’

12.30–1.30                  Lunch (attendees to make their own arrangements)


1.30 – 3.00                   Session 2.  Chair – Maebh Harding, University of Warwick

Adrian Empey       ‘Conquest and common law’

Peter Crooks          ‘1216, 1366 and all that: Magna Carta and exclusionary liberties in late medieval Ireland’


3.00 – 3.30                   Coffee break sponsored by  Four Courts Press Limited


3.30 – 5.00                   Session 3.  Chair – James McGuire MRIA

Ian Campbell          ‘Magna Carta in Irish political theory, 1541–1660’

Coleman Dennehy           ‘Nisi per legale judicium parium suorum: parliament, politics, and the right to trial by peer

Colum Kenny         ‘Myth, Mervyn and the “Irish Magna Carta” of 1662’

5.00                                      Tea and Coffee to welcome ILHS members

5.30                         Irish Legal History Society Annual General Meeting

6.00 The Irish Legal History Society Winter Discourse and Keynote Conference Address

Chair: The Hon. Mr Justice Deeny, President

Professor Paul Brand Emeritus Fellow, All Souls Oxford: ‘Magna Carta in Ireland, 1215–1320



Saturday, 26 November 2016

9.30 – 10.45                 ILHS Council Meeting

11.00 – 12.30    Session 5.  Chair: – Kenneth MilneChair, Christ Church Cathedral Library and Archives Committee

Jimmy Kelly            ‘Era of Liberty? The politics of political rights in eighteenth-century Ireland’

Patrick Geoghegan           ‘Daniel O’Connell, Magna Carta and the idea of liberty’

12.30 – 1.30                 Lunch (attendees to make their own arrangements)

1.30 – 3.00                   Session 6.  Chair: – Sir Anthony Hart

Tom Mohr               ‘Liberty in an Irish Free State, 1922–37’

Bláthna Ruane      ‘Magna Carta and modern Irish constitutionalism’

John Larkin            ‘Magna Carta and the Irish statute books’



For further details contact: Dr Peter Crooks ( or Dr Thomas Mohr (


The Society gratefully acknowledges the support so generously given by the sponsors of this conference and without which it could not have taken place.

  • Christ Church Cathedral Library and Archives Committee
  • The Grace Lawless Lee Fund, Trinity College Dublin
  • The Medieval History Research Centre, Trinity College Dublin
  • The Humanities Institute, University College Dublin.
  • Sir Anthony Hart
  • The Law Society of Ireland

The Society would also like to thank its publishers Four Courts Press for sponsoring the coffee break on Friday and the publishers whose leaflets are enclosed in the conference pack.

The Irish Legal History Society on 1916

As part of the ongoing 1916 commemorations, three members of the Council of the Irish Legal History Society have contributed to the latest edition Irish Independent’s Special 1916 Supplement Series.

These supplements are aimed at a broad readership and will be made available in all secondary schools.

Dr Niamh Howlin: “The Trial of Roger Casement: A Legal Travesty?”

Mr. Felix M. Larkin: “Out of Step: Dublin Newspapers’ Response to the Rising”

Mr. Robert Marshall: “Charles Blackader: Old Black’s Military Court Fired Volleys”

A drawing of Roger Casement in the dock. Felix M. Larkin at the statue of Sir John Gray in O'Connell Street, Dublin. Gray owned the Freeman's Journal from 1841 until his death in 1875, and it remained in the hands of the Gray family until 1892. Brigadier-General Blackader at his headquarters Le Sart, France]. July 2015. Photographer: H. D. Girdwood. Credit: British Library Archibald Bodkin (later the Director of Public Prosecutions) and Travers Humphreys outside Bow Street.

Annual General Meeting 2015

The 2015 Annual General Meeting of the Irish Legal  History Society took place at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland on 27 November 2015.  Reports from the Secretaries and Treasurers  were delivered, and auditors and office-holders were elected for the coming year.

Maggie Smith, the Director and Deputy Keeper of the Records welcomed members of the Society and explained the Public Record Office’s operation and collections.

The Gold Medal of the Society was awarded to the Hon Mr Justice Ronan Keane, former Chief Justice of Ireland.

Mr Robert Marshall’s term as President of the Society ended and the Hon. Sir Donnell  Deeny now takes the reins.

IMG_0430 - CopyIMG_0432 - CopyIMG_0438 - CopyIMG_0442



PRONI tour and exhibition

Attendees at our autumn discourse and AGM in November were treated to a specially-curated exhibition and tour of the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. Archivist Des McCabe selected a number of significant and fascinating documents which were of interest to legal historians, and explained the workings of the Public Record Office.

PRONI is the official archive for Northern Ireland and contains millions of documents that relate chiefly, but not exclusively, to Northern Ireland.  They date largely from c.1600 to the present day (with a few dating back as far as the early 13th century).

Located in Belfast, PRONI is a government organisation founded in 1923 (shortly after the partition of Ireland). It now operates as part of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure within the Northern Ireland Civil Service .

British Legal History Conference, University of Reading

A number of members of the Society including the President attended the British Legal History Conference at Reading in July 2015.  The theme of the conference was Law: Challenges to Authority and the Recognition of Rights.

The Society provided some of the seed capital for the conference along with the Selde2015-07-08 ABA memorial at Runnymeden Society and the Legal History Society of Wales.  There were a significant number of delegates from the United States and Canada along with a group from Australia.

From Ireland, six members of the ILHS presented papers:-

Dr Donal Coffey, University of Surrey: A reconsideration of the Imperial Conference of 1926 and conference on the operation of dominion legislation 1929

Dr Kevin Costello, UCD: Mandamus and parish politics 1620-1800

Dr Coleman Dennehy, UCD and UCL: Assize Justice in restoration Clonmel2015-07-08c Sir John Baker on Queen of the Thames

Dr Conor Hanley, NUI Galway:

Judgement by one’s peers? 
Radical and trade unionist views of jury trial in Victorian Britain

Dr Niamh Howlin, UCD: 

Challenging authority: criminal justice responses in Ireland

Dr Andrew Lyall: Granville Sharp’s MS Cases on Slavery

The conference included a visit to the site of the sealing of Magna Carta where the event is commemorated by an imposing memorial erected by the American Bar Association. 2015-07-08 ABA memorial at Rummymede Text

This was followed by a paper entitled Magna Carta- the beginning of the Myth delivered Sir John Baker QC, Downing Professor of Laws (Emeritus) at Cambridge, aboard the Queen of the Thames as it cruised the river by the meadow at Runnymede.

Sir John is a gold medallist of the ILHS and has been a member of the Society since its inception.

It was a most enjoyable afternoon
completed with an English cream tea.

Over 70 papers were delivered in a series of sessions over the four days and great credit goes to Professor Catherine Macmillan and her team from the University of Reading for the flawless organisation of the four days.

One feature of the conference was a session at which twelve Ph.D. candidates presented papNiamh H at Readingers on Criminal Justice in Empire, Anglican Ecclesiastical law, Law Religion and Excluded Groups and Processes, Rights and Colonies.

Professor Rebecca Probert of the School of Law at Warwick delivered a fascinating address to a plenary session entitled Victorian Bigamists – Challenging authority or claiming rights?

The next conference will be held at University College London in July 2017.

The exact date of that conference remains to be fixed and a call for papers will be made in due course.

The Dark Side of Magna Carta

Amidst the celebrations of the 800th Anniversary of Magna Carta a pause for reflection is necessary. A one-day conference at the University of Newcastle will explore how Magna Carta’s legacy has been invoked in support of a range of highly contested historical and contemporary constitutional developments.

  • How did a feudal bargain between an inept King John and his most powerful subjects come to vested with immense symbolism within the United Kingdom’s legal and political order?
  • When the 1215 Magna Carta was quickly repudiated and the reincarnations of the instrument shorn of their more radical provisions, can it support the rule-of-law claims based upon it?
  • How did imperial narratives which justified the extension of Magna Carta to colonised peoples as part of the United Kingdom’s “civilising mission” come to be reimagined as “exporting British values”?

Attendance is free thanks to funding from the Newcastle Institute for Social Renewal and the Society of Legal Scholars. Attendees are asked to register for the Conference by contacting Kevin Crosby at

Further information is available here.