GIST: Irish Lawyers in Colonial Australia - 'significant yet indefinable'?

When:4 Oct 2012, 6:15pm - 7:45pm
Venue:Room 327, Robert Webster Building, UNSW Kensington Campus, Sydney
Who:Tony Earls and panel


Former Chief Justice of the Australian High Court, the Hon. Sir Gerard Brennan, classified the Irish contribution to Australia’s legal system as ‘significant yet indefinable’. Tony Earls will host a discussion testing both these propositions, and looking at ways in which research in the topic could be furthered.

Reception from 6.15pm

Panel discussion from 6.45pm


Tony Earls is a Sydney lawyer. He is the author of Plunkett’s Legacy, a biography of John Hubert Plunkett. The book’s premise is that, as the NSW Attorney General, Plunkett’s values and methods were informed by his previous association with Daniel O’Connell and the campaign for Catholic emancipation. He is currently working on a PhD which takes a broader view of the relevance of the cultural backgrounds of Australia’s colonial lawyers.

Bruce Kercher is widely regarded as the leading historian of Australia’s colonial legal history. His works such as An Unruly Child: a History of Law in Australia (1995) and Debt, Seduction and Other Disasters: the Birth of Civil Law in Convict New South Wales (1996), supported the view the then controversial view that from its earliest days Australian law developed its own characteristics distinct from its English origins. Since 1996 Bruce has been dedicated to unearthing unpublished decisions of colonial superior courts and making them available through an on-line database, an immense task, making available a huge resource for scholars of the period. Bruce is President of the Francis Forbes Society for Australian Legal History, and a founder and former president of the Australia and New Zealand Law and History Society. In 2000 he delivered the inaugural Alex Castles Lecture on Legal History.

Shaunnagh Dorsett is an Associate Professor in the Law faculty at the University of Technology, Sydney. Her research is interdisciplinary, and she writes primarily at the intersections of legal history, native title and legal theory. Her publications include Law and Politics in British Colonial Thought: Transpositions of Empire. At the University of Wellington, Shaunnagh has been one of the driving forces behind New Zealand’s Lost Cases Project, an on-line data base inspired by Bruce Kercher’s work in Australia. Shaunnagh is Vice-President of the Australia and New Zealand Law and History Society, the convenor of the annual Australia and New Zealand Law and History Conference to be held in Sydney this December.

Peter Moore, is the Managing Editor of Crossing Press, a publisher specialising in Australia’s multicultural history, and also its legal heritage. Peter studied Australian legal history under Alex Castles at the University of Adelaide, and Irish and Australian History at University College Dublin under Noel McLoughlin. Since 1994, he has taught Irish History at adult education centres in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. Peter’s published works include histories of the Australian law firms, Fisher Jefferies, and Wallmans. His current project is a history of the South Australian legal profession from 1837 to 1945.

Unfortunately The Hon. Keith Mason had to withdraw from the panel, Shaunnagh Dorsett has kindly filled the panel seat in his place.

Download flyer (PDF) for more information

Event Report

In another successful GIST at the Centre, Tony Earls chaired a highly fruitful debate on the contribution of Irish lawyers to Australia’s legal system and culture. Joined by distinguished speakers and guests, from professional and academic Law, we cut much new ground in a key topic in Irish-Australian Legal History. Much has been written on the lives and times of individual Irish lawyers in nineteenth-century Australia. But, until now, few have engaged in a scholarly way with the true significance and collective contribution of Irish lawyers as a distinctive group. The chair challenged our panelists to redress the balance, to define the hitherto “indefinable” essence of Irish solicitors, barristers and judges in Australia. Dr Shaunnagh Dorsett, Peter Moore and Prof. Bruce Kercher and were well equipped for the task, using their broad expertise in colonial law and Australian legal history to offer new perspectives on the Irish question.

The panel debated the worth of ‘Irish lawyers’ as a research category, concluding that there is indeed much merit in isolating, for the purpose of academic analysis, this key group. Rigorous methodology is, of course, crucial, and the panel put forward clear systems and techniques for future research on the topic. For example, a prosopography, or collective study, of the lives and careers of a large group of lawyers, should allow us to identify common characteristics (nationality, class, education) and thus better to define and understand ‘Irishness’. The contribution of Irish lawyers in Australia must also be placed in a global perspective; worthwhile comparisons may be made, for example, between Irish-Australian legal culture, and the practice of law in other colonies, such as Canada.

The GIST taught us much about the far-reaching impact of Irish lawyers overseas, and underlined the general importance of the international-comparative approach in Irish Studies. We thank our chair, panel, and all who attended and organized this stimulating event at the GISC.

Watch the panel discussion here on UNSWTV.

Contact: Angela McLoughlin | T: 02 9385 7164 | E:

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