A ‘force of nature’ and firm but compassionate judge
Obituary: Gráinne O’Neill was known as strict on punctuality but also great fun
In the eulogy, Justice Ray Groarke recalled “that look”, one of profound disapproval, and wondered whether “God has really thought this through”
Born: July 8th, 1971
Died: May 10th, 2018
Gráinne O’Neill became the youngest judge in Ireland when she was appointed to the District Court bench in 2014, aged 42.
“She just loved being a judge,” said one friend, adding that while she got just four years in the job, she took comfort in her final days from knowing that she had made a contribution.
The Athlone native, described by many who knew her as “a force of nature”, qualified as a solicitor in 1999. But if anyone thought that her collegiality, sense of fun and youth would make her a soft touch as a judge, they were soon disabused of that notion.
She was a stickler for punctuality, and solicitors and defendants learned fast that turning up late was not an option in her court. She quickly established a tradition of issuing bench warrants to anyone not present and correct, when she began going through her court list on the dot of 10.30am. Solicitors who pleaded for clients showing up even a few minutes late were told that there would be no automatic lifting of the warrant and they would be put on Judge O’Neill’s “list of bad excuses” . She would often be withering in her contempt for stories about the bus being late, the cat being sick or the car getting a puncture.
In the funeral eulogy, her friend Mr Justice Ray Groarke, president of the Circuit Court, recalled “that look”, one of profound disapproval, and wondered whether “God has really thought this through”.
Firm but compassionate
Another colleague recalled how “she was very firm but she was also compassionate and used her emotional intelligence to great effect in court. She was no fool but she was also sympathetic to those who were struggling to deal with genuine problems.”
After her death, Judge Bryan Smyth said his district court colleague had been one of life’s positive people, who enriched the lives of others with her banter and good humour. But she had a deep aversion to anyone chancing their arm in court, and on one occasion described an untruthful witness as someone who “couldn’t lie straight in the bed”.
O’Neill was hugely influenced by her parents: Terry, a retired colonel in the Irish Defence Forces, who served in UN peacekeeping missions in Lebanon and the Congo; and the late Dr Ursula O’Neill, a daughter of Clare Fianna Fáil TD Bill Loughnane, and a popular GP who was admired for her advocacy on behalf of patients and her championing of many civic causes.
O’Neill attended secondary school at Our Lady’s Bower in Athlone. Her father credits the former head nun and principal, the late Sr Christopher Callan, a native of Boyle, Co Roscommon, herself a qualified solicitor, as having had a profound influence on his daughter.
She studied arts and law at NUI Galway and qualified as a solicitor in 1999. The road to the bench was littered with adventure. “Great craic” is the term most used by friends when asked to describe her. During her time in Galway, there was one memorable evening of student revelry where she found herself detained in a Garda station in the city. Canny as ever, she immediately asserted her rights, and insisted on one phone call. She duly ordered a pizza to the station.
She was also a keen sportswoman and latterly completed two Ironman long distance triathlons – in Switzerland and Spain. In an account of the Ironman experience in Zurich in 2010, she drolly described an unhappy encounter with a wasp that had the cheek to come back for “seconds”, and her contempt for the “sadist” who had designed the course. She also recounted the lengths she went to in the name of training. “I turned down invitations to parties, I left good parties early … and worst of all, I have gone to a party and drunk nothing but nonalcoholic beer.”
Passionate about tennis, at dawn one summer in London, as she was making her way through deserted residential streets to Wimbledon to be one of the first in the queue for tickets, O’Neill spotted a light on in a window and inside saw a woman filling a kettle. It turned out to be Martina Navratilova, and to her eternal delight her thumbs-up from the street was rewarded with a wave from the tennis great.
Despite serious illness, friends commented on how often she made time for others. Last November she checked herself out of one Dublin hospital for a few hours to visit the emergency department of another, because a friend’s teenage daughter was there being treated for a broken finger.
Her loyalty to friends was unwavering. When her friend, the late Fine Gael TD Nicky McFadden, became seriously ill, O’Neill visited her daily and watched scores of episodes of The West Wing with her when talking was no longer an option.
O’Neill was devoted to her nephews, Harry and Simon, whom she liked to refer to affectionately as “the terrorists”.
She had been planning to join many of her longtime friends at the 2018 Trip to Tipp this summer, where they could reminisce on festivals past, but it wasn’t to be.
Gráinne O’Neill is survived by her father, Terry; her brother, Olaf; sister, Fiona; sister-in-law Christina; brother-in-law Alan; nephews Harry and Simon and many friends