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Sir Denis Henry (1864 - 1925):
Barrister, politician and first Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland.

One of seven children of James Henry, a prosperous Roman Catholic merchant of Cahore, Draperstown, County Londonderry by his second marriage to Mary McNamee, Denis Henry went to the local National School in Draperstown before attending the Marist College in Dundalk, followed by the Jesuit College of Mount St Mary, near Chesterfield in Derbyshire. He then entered the Queen’s College, Belfast to study law, where he had a distinguished undergraduate career, winning many prizes and exhibitions.

Called to the Irish Bar in April 1885, Henry joined the North West Circuit comprising his native county of Londonderry, as well as counties Donegal, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Cavan, Longford and Westmeath. He rapidly established himself as one of the leading practitioners on the Circuit and at the Irish Bar, becoming a QC in June 1896 at the early age of thirty-two, a feat equalled only by a handful of barristers in the history of the Irish Bar. His professional standing was confirmed by his election as a bencher of King’s Inns in 1898.

Henry’s family had been Liberals in politics until Gladstone adopted the policy of Home Rule for Ireland, and Henry spoke on behalf of the Unionist candidates in East Donegal and South Londonderry in the general election of 1895. In 1905 he joined the Ulster Unionist Council on its formation. His support for the Unionist cause attracted much criticism from many of his fellow Roman Catholics, but his Catholicism did not prevent him being adopted as the Unionist candidate in two very closely fought contests in North Tyrone in 1906 and 1907, losing by nine votes in 1906 and seven in 1907. As his biographer makes clear, Henry’s religious beliefs did not prevent him from receiving the enthusiastic and solid support of Orange and protestant voters throughout his political career.

During the next decade Henry concentrated on his legal career, becoming a commissioner of charitable donations and bequests in 1912. In April 1916 he was selected as the Unionist candidate to contest a by-election in South Londonderry, and in May 1916 was elected by a very large majority, holding the seat until his appointment as the first lord chief justice of Northern Ireland in 1921. In August 1916 he was appointed as one of the three members of the Royal Commission set up to inquire into the deaths of Francis Sheey Skeffington and two other men which was chaired by Sir John Simon, the third member being Lord Justice Molony.

Henry’s abilities were such that he was appointed Solicitor General for Ireland in September 1917, and then attorney general for Ireland in July 1919. With the widespread violence in Ireland during this time, as Attorney General Henry had a very heavy workload, dealing not just with legal issues, but answering for the government in relation to the often highly controversial actions of Crown forces, particularly in the frequent absences from the House of Commons of Sir Hamar Greenwood, the Chief Secretary for Ireland from April 1920. Henry’s biographer observes that in contrast to his efficient handling of straightforward legal questions, Henry was not always well-briefed or at ease in dealing with other matters.

On 15 July 1921 Queen’s University, Belfast conferred the honorary degree of LLD upon him, and on 15 August 1921 it was announced that he had been appointed Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland. The difficulties Henry faced in setting up the new High Court and Court of Appeal for Northern Ireland were immense, not least because initially he only had one colleague to assist him in Mr Justice Moore, who elected to transfer from Dublin to the new courts in Northern Ireland. Henry had to find and appoint the necessary staff and obtain suitable accommodation for the new courts. Whilst the initial intention had been to erect the new courts in the newly-purchased Stormont Estate on the outskirts of East Belfast, Henry quickly realised this was impractical. Although temporary accommodation was found in the Belfast County Court House on Belfast’s Crumlin Road, this was wholly inadequate. Henry spent a great deal of time and effort in the following years in deciding what accommodation and type of building the new courts required, a task that involved him in protracted, difficult, and often tense negotiations with the Imperial Government, first in Dublin and then in London. These matters were not finally resolved until after his death, but it was due to his determination that the new courts should be modern and that the building should also provide room for the Bar and the Law Society that the eventual building met these requirements. Amongst other demands on his time he had to approve new arrangements for the education of Northern Bar students with King’s Inns and Sir Thomas Molony, now Lord Chief Justice of Southern Ireland. He was created a baronet on 2 December, 1922.

As President of both the new Northern Ireland High Court and Court of Appeal Henry had a heavy judicial workload, sitting as a judge of first instance in the High Court and as an assize judge, as an appeal judge, and sitting as a member of the short-lived High Court of Appeal for Ireland to hear appeals from the courts of appeal in Northern and Southern Ireland.

In the summer of 1925 Henry became unwell, and on 1 October died at his home in Belfast after a sudden seizure. His unexpected death was a great shock to the fledgling Northern Ireland legal system, Sir Anthony Babington (later a Lord jJstice of Appeal) calling it “a tragedy for our profession and the Northern Bar”. Public and private tributes after his death referred to Henry’s charm and abilities as a raconteur, and he was popular with, and respected by, his professional colleagues, not just for his keen sense of humour but for his outstanding abilities as an advocate. WE Wylie, a fellow member of the North West Circuit who became a high court judge in the Irish Free State, said of Henry that he was “the quickest thinker and most brilliant advocate I ever knew”.

As a judge Henry’s reported judgments are relatively few, and were generally short and to the point, perhaps reflecting the heavy demands of his other responsibilities, but his efforts during his short term of office ensured that the new Northern Ireland judicial system was placed on a sound basis in the face of tremendous difficulties. 

In 1910 Henry married Violet Holmes, daughter of Lord Justice Hugh Holmes and a member of the Church of Ireland. They had five children.

Born: 7 March 1864
Died: 1 October 1925
AR Hart
AD McDonnell: The life of Sir Denis Henry Catholic Unionist; Kenneth Ferguson (ed): King’s Inns Barristers 1868-2004; AR Hart: A history of the Bar and Inn of Court of Northern Ireland; Sir Anthony Babington: Personal Reminiscences; WEWylie: Memoir (The National Archives); TJ Campbell: Fifty Years of UlsterIrish Law Times & Solicitors Journal, lix (1925) 238-9; Oxford  Dictionary of National Biography