An Irishman’s Diary on Arthur Cox – solicitor, senator and priest

From corporate titan to missionary

Arthur Cox in 1964. From the book ‘Arthur Cox’ written by Eugene McCague.

Arthur Cox in 1964. From the book ‘Arthur Cox’ written by Eugene McCague.

 

Legal firm Arthur Cox has been in a spot of hot water over its involvement in Japan Tobacco’s threatened court action against new laws on plain cigarette packs. But who was the original Arthur Cox?

If there’s no avoiding the firm bearing his name in the world of corporate law, the man himself was always something of a mystery to me. I had a sense for years that he was some kind of a legal legend and a vague memory too that he was a senator. Yet that was it. Only when someone sent me Cox’s biography did I learn he was also a priest.

The eponymous book in question, published in 1994 by Gill & Macmillan, was written by Eugene McCague, former chairman of the firm and a partner in it still. Cox, who died 50 years ago, emerges as an exceedingly ambitious man who took advantage of copious opportunities in the nascent Irish State to advance his growing practice. A very clever fellow who became known as an “eccentric genius”, he was at the epicentre of the legal arena for four decades.

Racehorse

While his big leap forward came in the 1920s, the 1963 Companies Act bore the imprint of a review he chaired in the late 1950s. One grateful client named a racehorse after him but Cox asked for the name to be changed when colleagues asked whether he was feeling tired after races in which the beast ran.

He was born in Dublin in 1891, the son of an upper middle-class doctor. He studied with considerable academic success at Belvedere College and, between 1909 and 1913, at University College Dublin. At a time of ferment, he was friendly there with people who later took high political office: Kevin O’Higgins, Patrick Hogan, Patrick McGilligan, and John A Costello. Cox qualified as a solicitor in 1915. He established his own firm in 1920, a violent year in which the War of Independence intensified.

Change

The legal world until then had been dominated by the established firms of the old order, but that soon changed. “The new State eventually gave birth to a new elite. As with the civil service, the old establishment continued to hold significant sway but the influence of the Catholic professional classes grew steadily throughout the 1920s,” writes McCague.

“Perhaps no individual, outside the Cabinet, benefitted more from this shift than Arthur Cox. His influence, direct and indirect, on the shaping of industrial policy over the next three decades was immense. His advice was eagerly sought not alone by State agencies but also by industrialists, both domestic and foreign, wishing to deal with or find ways around the regulations which governed the same agencies.”

Solicitor

As solicitor to Siemens Schuckert in its negotiation on the Shannon scheme with the new State, Cox conducted meetings with his client in German. He also became law agent for the ESB on its formation in 1927.

While Cox’s friends in the Cumann na nGaedheal government were a good source of State work the 1920s, Fianna Fáil sent considerable business elsewhere after it took power in the 1932. But that development, too, opened a lucrative new seam for his practice.

After the Fianna Fáil administration passed laws to limit the foreign ownership of industry, Cox became the pre-eminent adviser to firms seeking to circumvent such strictures via artificial share structures.

In 1940 he married Brigid O’Higgins. She was the widow of his friend Kevin O’Higgins, assassinated as justice minister in 1927. Cox habitually referred to his wife as “Mrs O’Higgins”. McCague recounts him saying “It’s time Mrs O’Higgins and I went to bed” at the end of dinner parties.

‘Lord of the boardroom’

Cox was described, later in his career, as “lord of the boardroom”. His many directorships included a 30-year spell on the board of tobacco company PJ Carroll.

At the outset of his second term as Taoiseach in 1954, John A Costello appointed him to the Seanad. He sat as an Independent for one term.

After his wife’s death in 1961, he sought advice on becoming a priest. An intermediary approached Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, who was not keen on him becoming a Jesuit but who agreed to ordain him if he took two years of tuition at Milltown Park. Fr Arthur Cox was ordained in 1963 and left Dublin the following year to join a mission in Northern Rhodesia, soon to gain its independence as Zambia. He died there in June 1965 after a motor accident.

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