Tuesday 23 January 2018

John Ross

Successful solicitor who represented Trinity College in the Seanad, having fought with the British in the Second World War, writes Charles Lysaght

Charles Lysaght

In later life John Ross, who died on Christmas Eve aged 92, may have been best known as the father of Shane Ross TD but his own career was as influential and illustrious if lower profile and less controversial than that of his redoubtable son. He was one of the most successful Dublin solicitors of his time. Like his son, he represented the University of Dublin in Seanad Eireann.

Christened John Nathaniel Ross, he was born in Cork in February 1919 into a local merchant family but his father's death a few years after a second marriage, of which he was a child, led to an upbringing that was largely English. He went to Eastbourne College and Queen's College Cambridge before coming to Trinity to read history shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War.

At Trinity he joined the college company of the LDF (Local Defence Force). He won acclaim in the history school for a paper on the Irish brigades in the service of France during the 18th Century. A keen debater, he was elected Auditor of the College Historical Society for the academic year 1942-43.

Then, in November 1942, after a successful Opening meeting, he caused a minor sensation by resigning to join the British army. He enlisted in the Irish Guards and saw service in France and Belgium during the final year of hostilities. One of his brother officers was Prince Jean of Luxembourg, who became a valued lifelong friend.

In 1945 he married Ruth Isabel (Rubel) Cherrington, who had been up at Cambridge with him. Retiring from the army with the rank of captain, he returned to Trinity to complete his history degree and went on to take the post-graduate LLB. He severed his former connection with Lincoln's Inn and became a solicitor's apprentice in Dublin. Having roughed it in the army and lived among civilians who did not speak English, he was equipped to survive three months on the Blasket Islands where he went in 1950 to learn enough Irish to pass the testing examination then necessary to qualify as a solicitor.

After a spell with Montgomery & Chaytor, John made commercial law his specialty and joined with Peter Prentice in building up Matheson Ormsby and Prentice into one of Dublin's leading firms. He established a niche acting for overseas, mainly American, clients who wanted to invest here. London law firms, who viewed him as a kindred spirit, were quick to refer Irish work to him.

He was a fine practical lawyer, energetic, clear-minded and reliable, ever sensitive to what businessmen needed from their solicitor. Some invited him on to their boards. His professional relationships grew, not infrequently, into enduring personal friendships. He never seemed to tire of the foreign travel that went with his practice.

His conviction that the religious minority must play a part in Irish public life if they were not to become a petty people led him to seek election to Seanad Eireann representing the university. On his third attempt in 1961, following a formidable canvass, he was elected at the top of the poll, unseating the strident outspoken liberal Owen Sheehy Skeffington.

In his first speech John typecast himself unashamedly as a member of Anglo-Irish background when praising steps to rescue the Royal Hospital at Kilmainham and suggesting that a folk museum be established there.

He also took issue with local authorities who refused to make their scholarships tenable at Trinity. He described the business methods of the ESB as autocratic and questioned their decision to demolish the Georgian buildings on Dublin's Fitzwilliam Street.

A reserved man, who took all he did seriously, he aimed to be constructive, to persuade rather than berate, let alone entertain. He spoke only when he had something important to say and was brief and to the point. With foreign investment providing much of the impetus to Irish economic growth, his contributions drawing on his experience as a solicitor acting for inward investors were valuable. But, they lacked the element of excitement that attracts media attention. He never acquired a high public profile.

In 1965, he was defeated by 13 votes by Professor Stanford for the last Trinity seat. Standing again in 1969, John announced that partition was here to stay and warned that failure to support law and order was the first step to the destruction of democratic government. His canvass was casual and he was defeated by 1,300 votes to 1,000 for the last seat by Mary Bourke, 25, the future President Robinson, standing as a champion of civil liberties.

He now concentrated exclusively on his legal practice, which grew exponentially until his retirement around 1990. Through his good offices, Tony O'Reilly, whose personal solicitor he was, became chairman of Matheson, Ormsby and Prentice, which acted thereafter for Independent Newspapers.

Outside his work John had many interests. As a young man he had fenced for Ireland and was national epee champion. He assisted his talented wife Rubel in creating a magical garden at their Palladian residence in Enniskerry. He was an assiduous collector of art and sometime president of the Friends of the National Collections of Ireland. He was chairman of the Fellows of St Columba's College, whose speech day he conducted with decorum and style. He remained alive in mind to the end making occasional pilgrimages to the Kildare Street and University Club, of which he had been an active member for 60 years.

He is survived by his wife Rubel, with whom he shared many interests and in the success of whose books he rejoiced, by his daughters Barbara Ann and Pippa as well as his son Shane. His other son Connolly died in 2007.

Sunday Independent

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