This Day in Jewish History

1928: The First Jew on the Irish Supreme Court Is Born

Henry Barron famously tackled the impossibility of investigating the British role in bombings in Ireland, and was not thanked.

Talbot Street, showing the destruction of the second car bomb, May 17, 1974. The street is covered in debris and a parked car has shattered windows. A bomb allegedly planted by the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force exploded, killing 14. Nobody has ever been charged.
Jeanne, Wikimedia Commons

May 25, 1928, is the birthdate of Henry Barron, the first Jew to sit on the Supreme Court of the Irish Republic.

Barron is probably best remembered for the investigation he undertook in 2000 into the background to a series of terror bombings that struck Dublin in 1974. The topic was a political minefield and the fact that Barron was unable to definitively point a finger at the parties responsible for the bombings was understood more as reflecting his honesty and non-partisan approach – as well as the lack of cooperation he received from officials in both Ireland and Britain -  – than any failure to do his job properly.

Henry Denis Barron was born in Dublin to parents of Lithuanian-Jewish origin. His father was Harry Barron, and his mother the former Leah Lena Ellis.

Harry was a civil engineer whose work on railroad construction took him and the family to colonial India for extended periods. By the time Henry reached the age of 5, he had already been back and forth to India three times. Once he reached school age, however, his parents sent him to boarding school, first to the Castle Park School, in Dalkey, and later to St. Columba’s College, in Rathfarnham, like Dalkey, a Dublin suburb. Both were Protestant-run.

Henry’s guardians during those years were his mother’s aunt and uncle, who, unlike his secularized parents, were Orthodox in their observance, so that he grew up familiar with Jewish traditions and ritual.

And the first divorce too

Henry studied law at Trinity College, in Dublin, graduating in 1950. Thereafter he worked as a barrister, before “taking the silk” – meaning becoming a queen’s counsel, a senior lawyer – in 1970. In 1982, Barron was appointed to the High Court, which hears cases of both civil and criminal nature, before ascending, 15 years later, to the Supreme Court, the country’s highest appeals tribunal, becoming the first Jew named to that high bench

In 1997, shortly after his appointment to the court, he granted the first divorce in the history of the republic, following passage of a constitutional amendment in 1995 that allowed divorce, but before the legislation defining the resolution of settlement disputes came into effect. In general, he was seen as a judge who upheld the rights of individuals, in particular when they came up against bureaucracies, and as a sensible and sensitive arbiter of the law.

Barron retired from the Supreme Court in May 2000, and five months later, he took the place of another jurist, Justice Liam Hamilton, who, due to ill health, had resigned his assignment to investigate the 1974 Dublin and Monaghan bombings.

British involvement in murder?

On May 17, 1974, four separate bombs exploded, three of them in Dublin during rush hour, and the final one in Monaghan, just south of the Northern Ireland border. The bombings were carried out by the Ulster Volunteer Force, a Protestant paramilitary body from Northern Ireland, although it would be 19 years before that organization took credit for the operation. The actions were understood to be connected to loyalist (i.e., Protestant) objections to an agreement that was intended to increase the level of involvement of the government of the Irish Republic in the affairs of Northern Ireland.

Thirty-three people were killed in those attacks, with another 137 wounded. Barron’s brief also included looking at several other acts of terror, carried out in 1974 and 1975, that had resulted in another 18 deaths.

He was expected, in particular, to examine widespread suspicions that the loyalists who planted the bombs had assistance from members of the British security forces, even if the latter were not acting on orders from above.

Justice Barron presented his findings in December 2003, and they satisfied nobody.

He agreed that the killings had been carried out by Northern Irish loyalists, and he granted that there had to have been individual British security employees involved in helping them, but was unable to be more specific than that. He was highly critical of both government and police forces of the Republic of Ireland for their handling of the initial investigations, and also of the lack of cooperation he received from the authorities in British-controlled Northern Ireland.

No one was ever charged in any of the crimes.

Justice Henry Barron, who also served as president of the Irish Jewish Museum, died on February 25, 2010, at the age of 81.