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Lessons From the Bench by Gillian Hussey: Sharp, insightful and engaging memoir

Book review: Encounters with John Gilligan, Christy Kinahan, Fr Tony Walsh and others are lucidly recalled

Lessons From the Bench
Author: Gillian Hussey
ISBN-13: 978-0717192687
Publisher: Gill
Guideline Price: €19.99

When I started at the Bar, one hack referred wearily to district judges by their first names, sometimes adding a moniker. “Oh, Gillian,” he would sigh whenever District Justice Hussey’s name was mentioned, “you mean, ‘The Reverend Mother’.” Sexist and reductive, the nickname was more palatable than another judge’s description of her (according to Hussey) as “that bitch”.

Gillian Hussey was never going to have it easy. A relative rarity when appointed in 1988 — look, a woman judge! — as a solicitor Hussey had no criminal experience. Yet she was soon assigned to the criminal courts and for 14 of her 18 years sat in Kilmainham, where she became the uncrowned queen.

How did she do it? Brisk, no-nonsense, with a stubborn streak and a “long and vicious memory”, Hussey learns quickly on the bench, despite the occasionally febrile courtroom atmosphere. The memoirs of Baroness Hale and Ruth Bader Ginsburg may engage with loftier legal precepts, but I doubt either had an apple hurled at them by a disgruntled accused, or were politely asked by counsel, “Will you be needing those?” about a packet of condoms Hussey forgets to return after a prosecution for selling contraceptives against the Well Woman Centre is adjourned.

Encounters with John Gilligan, Christy Kinahan, Fr Tony Walsh and others are lucidly recalled. Phil Lynott appears on a drugs charge; Hussey lets him off with a poor-box donation, though Lynott dies soon after, of an overdose. Addiction features constantly in cases she hears, but Hussey believes in giving “a second chance” if the accused wants to change, and delights in meeting many afterwards who have managed to turn their lives around.


Intriguingly, she suggests she couldn’t have immersed herself in the job if she hadn’t been a single (separated) woman. Hussey displays steely self-reliance and a willingness to listen. Accompanied by probation officers, she visits Dublin’s rougher areas; she also spends a night on patrol in a garda car. Attending events in prisons and drug-treatment centres, she is queasily familiar to residents; when one hands her a Christmas card, she teases him that it’s “probably the first card he hasn’t nicked”. Hussey’s sharp sense of humour is evident throughout this insightful and engaging memoir of a strict but compassionate and empathetic judge.

John O’Donnell is a barrister and a writer