Baron Christopher Palles: Leading 19th century lawyer

March 3, 2021 in Featured News, News

Declan O’Keeffe is College Historian at Clongowes Wood College SJ, the Jesuit boarding school in County Kildare. He reports on a notable Old Clongownian, Baron Christopher Palles, who has recently been commemorated by the Sutherland School of Law in UCD, Dublin, that has established The Palles Legacy Project in his honour. This initiative aims to investigate his life as a leading Irish lawyer of the late 19th century. Read Declan’s article below.

Baron Christopher Palles

2020 marked the centenary of the death of Chief Baron Palles (1831-1920), former Solicitor General, Attorney General and Judge for over 40 years in Ireland. As the longest serving judge in the history of the common law world, Palles’ judgments broke new ground ranging from religious discrimination in charitable trusts, through to nervous shock, the regulation of railways in Ireland, the legal autonomy of married women, and a wide range of land rights. Palles also played a key role in dismantling religious exclusion in Irish higher education and was central to the establishment of the National University of Ireland.

UCD is home to the Palles’ Collection, a rich source of legal material from 17th to 20th century, providing valuable insight into social problems of the time, many of which are intractable and still relevant today. To mark the centenary of his death the Sutherland School of Law, under the auspices of Professor Oonagh Breen and Assistant Professor Noel McGrath, established The Palles Legacy Project, which creates a Law and History research network to investigate his work and develop new insights into the career and impact of a leading Irish lawyer of the late 19th century.

Examining Palles through an interdisciplinary, legal-historical lens, they aim to undertake a contemporaneous review of the principles he established in the areas of gender and religious equality and combating social exclusion; and assess their continued relevance today, 100 years after his death. As part of the project, the Sutherland School of Law held a colloquium in December 2019, involving a team of scholars from law and history to consider the life and career of Christopher Palles. College Archivist, Ms Margaret Doyle, and College Historian, Mr Declan O’Keeffe, were invited to attend on behalf of Clongowes.

Christopher Palles was a key judicial figure in late 19th and early 20th century Ireland. Over the course of his long career, he delivered over 1,400 reported written judgments covering a wide range of legal subjects, many of which continue to be cited by courts across the common law world down to the present day. A native of Mountnugent, County Cavan, Palles attended Clongowes from 1843-7. Graduating from Trinity with a BA in mathematics in 1852, he was admitted to the King’s Inns and to Gray’s Inn, and called to the bar in 1853. His skills at presenting cases, cross-examination and drafting pleadings gradually won him a large practice, and he took silk in 1865.

A Liberal supporter, he became successively crown prosecutor for Kildare, solicitor general and attorney general. In 1874 Gladstone appointed him Lord Chief Baron of the Irish Court of Exchequer, then one of the four senior Irish common law courts, a position he held until the abolition of that court in 1897. When these were integrated with chancery as the High Court, Palles retained his title and continued to serve as judge of the Court of Appeal, retiring from the bench only in 1916 at the age of eighty-five. In the course of his long judicial tenure he achieved an extraordinary reputation throughout the common law world.

A fellow judge in a posthumous tribute singled out his ‘mastery of law as a science in all its ramifications; his penetrating research; his remarkable “case memory”; his grasp of common law, of equity and of statute law; his assimilation of every branch of jurisprudence; [and] his methods of historical ratiocination, convincing deduction, and lucid exposition’ (A. W. Samuels, article in Dictionary of National Biography).

Many of his judgements are part of the canon of common law. To all, he was courteous, dignified and fearlessly impartial. He served on the board of national education and the senate of the National University of Ireland. He was awarded several honorary degrees. He was the first president of the Clongowes Union, which was founded in his house, and he held the office until his death. His portrait hangs in TCD, and there is a copy in the King’s Inns. He was the subject of a biography, Christopher Palles (1960) by fellow Clongownian, Professor V.T.H. Delany of TCD.


Compiled from material supplied by the Sutherland School of Law in UCD and biographical detail on Christopher Palles supplied by Dr Harman Murtagh, who attended Clongowes, 1957-62. More information on notable past pupils of Clongowes may be found in Harman’s Clongownians of Distinction, A Guide to the Serpentine Collection. Copies are available from Ms Margaret Doyle ( for €20, with all proceeds going to the Alberto Hurtado Bursary Fund.