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Obituary: Paul Carney


Colourful character: Judge Paul Carney

Colourful character: Judge Paul Carney

Colourful character: Judge Paul Carney

Judge Paul Carney, who died in Dublin last Wednesday at the age of 72, just months after his retirement from the bench, was one of the most colourful characters at the Irish Bar in recent times.

Although he had a truculent appearance and an air of self-importance, these qualities did not stop him being an excellent judge, with immense recall without taking notes and an ability to sum up complicated criminal cases in a concise manner, which was much appreciated by the juries empanelled in his court.

He also had an inordinate love of courtroom pomp and procedure, insisted on being addressed as 'My Lord' rather than 'Judge', urging barristers appearing before him to wear wigs when it was no longer compulsory and longing for the revival of old courtroom ceremonies long fallen into disuse.

During his tenure, he was also involved in a series of controversies, both inside and outside the courtroom, the most unusual being his much-publicised arrest outside the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin at 2am, while banging on the front door to gain entrance for 'a late drink' after what he later described as "the conclusion of a stressful trial".

He was an avid supporter of the now defunct Progressive Democrats political party and an election agent for its leader Michael McDowell, who, as Minister for Justice, appointed him a judge of the High Court in 1991.

Paul Carney was born in Dublin on April 27, 1943, the son of two eminent Celtic scholars, Professor James Carney and his wife Maura Morrissey of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. His father was a leading authority on medieval Irish poetry and a relentless participant in disputes over the identity of St Patrick. As a child, he went with his parents to live in Uppsala in Sweden, returning to Dublin at the age of 9. He was educated at Gonzaga College, University College Dublin and King's Inns.

Called to the bar in 1966, he married Dr Marjorie Young, a successful consultant dermatologist who later became a barrister herself and specialised in medical negligence cases. They moved to England for a time, where he practised at the English Bar, sending his sons to well-known Catholic public school, Ampleforth College.

He was appointed Senior Counsel in 1980. Paul Carney was much sought-after and was involved in many high-profile cases, but was also known by colleagues for taking 'pro bono' cases on behalf of clients who could not afford the fees of a barrister of his standing should they lose.

He came to public attention in 1987, when he became embroiled in what became known as the 'Cavan Rape Case'. He was the senior prosecutor in the rape trial, but when the accused was acquitted, it became a matter of some controversy that he was absent during portions of the trial because of his involvement in another case. He was subsequently exonerated by a Bar Council inquiry.

As a judge of the High Court, he resented what he saw as interference with his sentences by the appeals court, and, unusually, he said so publicly. As a result, he was regarded as not very 'collegiate' and was not promoted to either the Supreme Court or the new Court of Appeal, although some argued that he was so good at what he did as the leading judge in the Central Criminal Court that such promotion would have deprived the justice system of one of its best practitioners.

Reporters, who covered his courts, were often astonished to find that when he arrived in the morning, he had not only read all the newspaper accounts of the trial he was presiding over, but had also monitored radio and television stations, both local and national.

During his tenure, he heard over a hundred rape and murder cases, leading Ken Murphy of the Law Society to say he "did society's dirty work". He also revived the practice of the Central Criminal Court travelling outside Dublin to ease the backlog of trials in places like Cork and Limerick.

He presided over the much-publicised trial in Cork of Wayne O'Donohoe, who was convicted of the manslaughter of his next-door neighbour, 11-year-old Robert Holohan.

Never a fan of victim-impact statements, he described Majella Holohan, the dead boy's mother's statement, as "scandalous in nature" after she alluded to matters which had been precluded from the trial itself. However, his four-year sentence in the case was upheld by an appeal court.

He was also the judge in the high-profile Nora Wall rape case, her conviction being later overturned. He sentenced Mayo farmer Padraig Nally to 11 months in prison for the manslaughter of Traveller John Ward, a sentence also overturned on appeal.

He had a number of public spats with the Rape Crisis Centre. While he was perceived as lenient on rapists and, in some cases, those convicted of manslaughter, Judge Carney argued that he was complying with guidelines laid down by the appeal courts and that he treated each case on its merits.

Apart from his family, he appears to have had little interest outside of his work. He dreaded retirement and said so in the weeks leading up to his final appearance on the bench last April, when he was involved in empanelling a jury for the much-publicised Graham Dwyer murder trial.

Although he was a member of the Kildare Street and University Club, some members found him exceedingly taciturn on social occasions.

Judge Carney is survived by his wife Marjorie and children Jonathan (Eoin), Jules, Philip and Rosalind. His funeral takes place in Donnybrook, Dublin, on Tuesday next.

Sunday Independent