Fearless lawyer 'waged war on dullness'
One of the Irish bar's greatest figures, Seamus McKenna SC had an unerring instinct for the truth, writes Rory Egan
One of the best-known figures at the Irish bar died last week. Seamus McKenna SC, who was involved in many of the most famous trials in recent memory, including the Arms Trial and the Beef Tribunal, was a barrister whose reputation preceded him, but yet that is still inadequate in describing the true person behind that reputation.
Born in 1929 in Scotstown, Co Monaghan, Seamus was the youngest of five children, two of whom, Maeve and Dolores, survive him. His parents, Patrick and Maura McKenna, were schoolteachers who taught in the nearby Urbleshanny National School. He attended St Macartan's College Secondary School and was a brilliant academic, achieving first place in the country in mathematics. He graduated from UCD in 1949 and after spending a little time on a pea farm in England to make some money he enrolled in The Honorable Society of King's Inns and was called to the bar in 1951.
Thus started a legal career that was as fascinating as it was successful. Dermot Gleeson, the former Attorney General, spoke of Seamus "waging an unrelenting war on dullness and boredom" at his removal on Friday night. Describing him as the best courtroom advocate he had ever encountered, Gleeson accurately summed up the respect Seamus had from his fellow colleagues.
McKenna's main practice originally came from personal injuries cases, while his great understanding of people made him a formidable adversary when cross-examining. He had an unerring instinct for the truth and those that tried to outwit him invariably found themselves outgunned. Such was his reputation as an advocate, it was said that many solicitors briefed him not only to have him on their side, but also to make sure that he wasn't on the other.
Two years after he was called to the inner bar in 1968 he was given the task of prosecuting Charles Haughey in the Arms Trial. Despite the media frenzy surrounding the court case, McKenna ensured that no matter who was in the witness box they were treated equally in the eyes of the law. He also represented Larry Goodman in the Beef Tribunal, a brief that required extraordinary patience and skill. He was chairman of the Bar Council from 1987 to 1990 and was later invited to become a bencher of King's Inns.
He would give his daughter Laura only one piece of advice when she followed him into a career in law -- "Respect everything, fear nothing", a mantra that accurately reflected his attitude to life itself.
Seamus loved people and, if asked to a formal lunch, he was as interested in the waiter bringing the food as he was the businessman who hosted it. He was a passionate follower of sports and had been looking forward to watching the World Cup. He was a member of Milltown, Portmarnock and Rosses Point golf clubs and, like many, loved the game despite the frustration of never fully mastering it.
The contrast between his fearsome eloquence in public and his warmth and loyalty to family and friends could not be more striking. He married Anna Lynch, a civil servant from Ashbourne, Co Meath, in 1958 and they had had four children together -- Susan, Kieran, Catriona and Laura. He was devoted to Anna and incredibly proud of all his children. He had a wonderfully wicked sense of humour and once, when a nun from Mount Anville praised him for taking the time to watch his daughter in a hockey match, he replied: "Sister, I am a conscript, not a volunteer."
Sadly, in 1998 his oldest daughter Susan passed away after being diagnosed with cancer. She wrote a most beautiful and eloquent letter before she died, which was read out at her funeral. Seamus carried that letter with him every day. Susan's daughter, Eva, died in a car accident just three years later and Seamus, Anna and the family were devastated by both tragedies. Close friends say he was never the same after that.
Turlough O'Donnell, senior counsel and former chairman of the Bar Council, in a moving eulogy at his funeral yesterday, told the packed congregation that Seamus "despised privilege, snobbery, pretention and dishonesty".
Quoting from Patrick Kavanagh's poem Epic, he said "Gods make their own importance" and Seamus operated on a heroic level.
He was, indeed, a truly remarkable and wonderful man.