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100 Pioneers: Women in the Irish Legal Profession and Beyond

As the first child and the first person in my family to enter the legal profession, I often visualise the word 'pioneer' as a headline and in my motivations.

Sometimes it can be a lonely path to take.

The hard work to find a traineeship without clear family connection or a foot in the door of one of the top ten legal firms in the country should have deterred me to find a safer path, an easier path.

Yet here I still am, learning and training in all the ways I am able to, facing challenges and feeling a sense of achievement.

But let us imagine a century ago, when a woman's place was firmly established in the home, to raise her children and to be dutiful to her husband, the chance of doing 'real work' a longstanding dream for some.

The elegant lady of the house was a cornerstone of fashion and society, entertaining guests and being a figurehead of a family in opulent mansion houses such as Muckross House, Killarney pictured above which still remains a source of fascination as a slice of the 19th century.

Fashion trends were evolving and styles becoming sophisticated, thought there was still a great deal to be desired in terms of equality and greater independence for women, to be active in the community.

For the working class, the reality of earning a low wage was ever present in the harsh world of service, where women could only ever aspire to be housemaids, scullery maids, ladies' maids, to only ever serve another.

Downton Abbey certainly has a great deal to answer for in this context.

The world was a different place, with societal norms firmly entrenched and enshrined in tradition where male leaders would always be in charge.

A female lawyer? A female politician? A female leader? Whatever next?

And yet the winds of change are always in full motion.

As nationalist groups began to form and put forth the message of independence and freedom from British rule in the tumultuous years preceding the Easter Rising in 1916, key alliances would be created in the form of lobbying groups led by passionate, forthright women.

In the Irish Times article, 'A history of her history' by Mary Cullen, the noted feminist leaders, Hanna Sheehy Skettington and Margaret Cousin founded the Irish Women's Franchise League in 1908, with the stirring mission statement that left no doubt in any mind as to its intention,

'For men and women equally the rights of citizenship; from men and women equally the duties of citizenship.'

The militant nature of the feminist movement over the next few years was sweeping and effective, with many women rallying to the cause and calling for widespread improvement in career prospects for women.

The suffragette movement and the growing recognition of the need for change quickly gathered pace, with the realisation that women can be better placed in professional positions, to offer their insight and knowledge.

In the heat of the 1916 Rising, women also contributed their voices and their resources to the fight for freedom, hosting public meetings to spread the message of an independent Ireland.

Invaluable contributors to the resistance such as Countess Constance Markievicz, elected Minister for Labour and the first female minister in the first government of the Irish Republic in April 1919, paved the way for women to take leadership roles in the Irish government .

Following this year's Little Womens' Christmas, it made me once again reflect on the changing face of the legal profession and how it opened its doors to women practitioners.

From a legal perspective and as a positive step forward for better equality, the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was enacted on 23 December 1919, providing that:

"A person shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage from the exercise of any public function, or from being appointed to or holding any civil or judicial office or post, or from entering or assuming or carrying on any civil profession or vocation, or for admission to any incorporated society (whether incorporated by Royal Charter or otherwise), and a person shall not be exempted by sex or marriage from the liability to serve as a juror......"

Since its enactment, 100 pioneering women took this opportunity to forge a legal career, to represent their clients and represent the values of justice and fairness.

With history in mind, the Law Society of Ireland recently launched a list of the first one hundred women admitted to the roll of solicitors since the 1920's exactly one hundred years ago this year.

It certainly is fascinating glimpse of history and a beginning of the changing landscape towards inclusion, which still continues to shift and evolve to this day.

You can access this list via the news section of the Law Society's website at the link below.

Submissions of information about the background of these solicitors are now closed but hopefully there will be more biographical information gathered about these pioneering women and the careers they had during early part of the 20th century.

I will also feel proud to be counted among their number in the future.


Article: 'A history of her history', Irish Times. Published Wednesday 17th October.

Author, Mary Cullen:


Article: 'Servants and ladies: 100 years ago', Irish Times. Published 3rd November 2015. Author: Gary Quinn


Article: 'Women, suffrage and class;, Independent. Published 4th February 2016.

Author: Mary McAuliffe


News: Law Society of Ireland, 'The first 100 female solicitors'.

Published 14th December 2019


Photo: Muckross House, courtesy of Robert Riddell, Flickr


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