Legal eagle — Brian Maye on lawyer and parliamentarian Denis Caulfield Heron

His main concern in parliament was with Irish issues but he also supported giving the vote to women

Although Denis Caulfield Heron, who was born 200 years ago on February 16th, had a relatively short formal political career, he was connected with some of the major political events of his time, and his legal career saw his involvement in some groundbreaking judgments.

Born in Dublin, he was the eldest son of William Heron, a merchant from Newry, Co Down, and Mary Maguire, from Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh.

He attended the Catholic Downside School in England, from where he proceeded to Trinity College Dublin. Three years into his degree, he was eligible on merit to be elected a scholar but wasn’t because he was a Catholic. He applied to the courts, thus forcing TCD to hear his case. It was dismissed but caused the college such embarrassment that it endowed non-foundation scholarships for Catholics.

Heron graduated with first-class honours in classics in 1845 and the following year published The Constitutional History of the University of Dublin, where he urged the college to reform its treatment of Catholic students. Having attended King’s Inns and Lincoln’s Inns, he was called to the bar in 1848, but initially pursued an academic career. He failed to secure the Whatley Chair of Political Economy at Trinity but was a lecturer for a time before becoming the first Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Economy at the newly established Queen’s College Galway.


This involved starting from scratch: working out the syllabus, doing the administration and acting as examiner. To fill the shortage of suitable textbooks, he published An Introduction to the History of Jurisprudence (1860), part of which was later published separately as The Principles of Jurisprudence (1873). In the latter, “he propounded common Victorian beliefs concerning natural law and morality”, according to Bridget Hourican, who wrote the entry on him in the Dictionary of Irish Biography.

She pointed out that his main interests in economics were land and taxation. To the Dublin Statistical Society, of which he was a founding member, he contributed a number of important papers, such as Historical Statistics of Ireland (1862), where he denounced the high Irish emigration levels, blaming economic decline on the unjust land system.

The paper provoked widespread controversy and historian Mary E Daly has described it as “a precise summary of what was to become the nationalist interpretation of Irish economic history”.

Heron left academia and returned to the law in 1859, building up a substantial practice on the Munster Circuit and becoming a queen’s counsel (QC) the following year. He defended a number of Fenians following the abortive rising of 1867, securing acquittals in a few cases. The most well-known case was that concerning the crew of a ship (Erin’s Hope) that carried munitions from New York to Sligo. His defence was that the men were naturalised Americans, a defence that didn’t succeed but got widespread media coverage and the attention of the US government. The upshot was an 1870 act allowing British-born subjects to adopt another citizenship and abandon their birth citizenship.

His reputation from his legal work and support from the Catholic Church led to his contesting the 1869 byelection for Tipperary but he lost to Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, who was a Fenian prisoner at the time and who benefitted from public anger at the government’s refusal to grant political prisoners amnesty. O’Donovan Rossa couldn’t take his seat because he was a convicted prisoner and at a second byelection in 1870, Heron was returned for Tipperary (defeating the poet, journalist, novelist and Fenian, Charles Kickham, by four votes), which he represented until 1874.

In the House of Commons, he supported Gladstone’s 1870 Land Act and proposed a land Bill of his own which didn’t succeed. His main concern in parliament was with Irish issues but he also supported giving the vote to women. “As a parliamentary speaker, he was neither frequent nor forceful, and he did not seek re-election, preferring to concentrate on his legal career,” according to Bridget Hourican.

A bencher of the King’s Inns since 1872, he was appointed a serjeant-at-law in 1880 at the start of Gladstone’s second administration. During Parnell’s trial at the end of 1880, Heron was a counsel for the crown and he would very likely have been promoted to the judiciary but he died suddenly from a heart attack while salmon fishing on the river Corrib in Galway on April 15th, 1881.

He was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin, with most of the leading Irish legal and political figures of the day attending the funeral.

In 1854, he had married Emily Fitzgerald and they lived on Upper Fitzwilliam Street in Dublin. She died suddenly while returning to Ireland on board the Holyhead ferry in 1863. They had no children.