‘No token Sheila’: Tributes paid to retiring Chief Justice

First woman to hold State’s highest judicial office Susan Denham retires after 25 years


The first woman Chief Justice of Ireland, Susan Denham, formally sat in the Supreme Court for the last time Friday where tributes were paid to her on her retirement.

The Chief Justice, the longest serving member of the Supreme Court with 25 years service, was described as one of the “truly great figures in Irish law” who had reformed and modernised the courts system beyond recognition in an “extraordinary” career of “exceptional and extraordinary achievement”.

There was much laughter in the packed court when Michael O’Mahony, representing the association of notaries, said her talents were recognised as far away as Australia when, after she addressed a conference of notaries, a man in the audience remarked: “This is no token Sheila.”

The Irish court system and judiciary today is “unrecognisable when compared to the system Susan Denham joined in 1971 and much of it is due to her”, her Supreme Court colleague Mr Justice Donal O’Donnell said.

She was instrumental in establishing the Courts Service and there was “probably no reform in the last 25 years that did not start with a Denham report”.

Her career, from junior counsel in 1971 to senior counsel in 1987, High Court judge in 1991 to Supreme Court judge from 1992, and Chief Justice since 2011, “has been characterised by simplicity, a suspicion of adornment, a dislike of fuss and an insistence on being clear, straightward, direct and approachable”.

It was also characterised by “loyalty to the country, to the administration of justice, and perhaps most of all, to the institution that is the Supreme Court”.

It was marked by “a determination to be loyal to a broader and more generous image of Irishness”.

In addition to her other ground-breaking achievements, it is important to remember, when she became Chief Justice in 2011, she was not just the first woman, but the first person from the Protestant tradition to hold that office, he added.

Denham judgments

Her important judgments included in the 1995 “heart wrenching case” concerning withholding medical treatment to a young woman in a vegetative state — in a Ward of Court — where she asserted a right to dignity.

Attorney General Seamus Woulfe, on behalf of the Government, thanked the Chief Justice for her “truly remarkable contribution to the judicial branch of government”.

Bar Council chairman Paul McGarry said leadership and equality were the Chief Justice’s great characteristics but hers was a leadership that was not didactic and evoked respect rather than fear.

She had made the Supreme Court one “where all citizens are afforded dignity and equality and everyone is treated the same” and was leaving “an indelible mark as one of the truly great figures in Irish law”.

Tributes were also paid by Michael Quinlan of the Law Society, Courts Service chairman Brendan Ryan and John Mahon of the Supreme Court office.

The farewell ceremony was attended by sitting and retired judges of the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal, High Court, Circuit Court and District Court, along with Director of Public Prosecutions Claire Loftus.

The Chief Justice’s husband, Dr Brian Denham, and four children, Niamh, Niall, and twins Cian and Colm, were in court for the tributes. Her sister Sally Berman and brother Patrick Gageby SC, with their spouses, also attended, along with a large contingent of nieces and nephews.

Asked was a celebration planned, Mr Gageby said, with a smile: “I think we are having tea.”