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Peter O'Brien, 1st Baron O'Brien, PC, QC (29 June 1842 – 7 September 1914), known as Sir Peter O'Brien, Bt, between 1891 and 1900, was an Irish lawyer and judge. He served as Lord Chief Justice of Ireland between 1889 and 1913. In his lifetime he was universally known as Peter the Packer, due to the skill he displayed as Attorney-General in securing verdicts by packed juries.

The Lord O'Brien

Lord O'Brien.
Lord Chief Justice of Ireland
In office
Edward VII
George V
Preceded bySir Michael Morris, Bt
Succeeded byRichard Robert Cherry
Personal details
Born29 June 1842
Carnelly House, Clarecastle, County Clare
Died7 September 1914 (1914-09-08) (aged 72)
Airfield, Stillorgan, County Dublin
Alma materTrinity College, Dublin

Background and educationEdit

O'Brien was born at Carnelly House, Clarecastle, County Clare[1] the fifth son of John O'Brien, Liberal Member of Parliament for Limerick, and his wife Ellen Murphy, daughter of Jeremiah Murphy of Hyde Park, County Cork. He was a nephew of Mr. Justice James O'Brien of the Court of King's Bench (Ireland).[2] He was educated at Clongowes Wood College and Trinity College, Dublin and was called to the Irish Bar in 1865.[1]

Legal and judicial careerEdit

O'Brien joined the Munster circuit and built up a successful practice, and in 1880 became a Queen's Counsel. The following year he was appointed Junior Crown Counsel at Green Street, Dublin, becoming Senior in 1882, and was made a bencher of the King's Inns in 1884.[3] He was one of the principal prosecutors in the Phoenix Park murders, and it is said that his life was threatened as a result. He unsuccessfully stood for the House of Commons as the Liberal candidate for County Clare in 1879: his defeat is said to have been due to his opposition to Irish Home Rule.[1] In 1887 O'Brien was appointed Solicitor-General for Ireland, becoming Attorney-General for Ireland and an Irish Privy Counsellor the following year. He was finally appointed Lord Chief Justice of Ireland in 1889, holding the office for twenty-four years.

As Attorney General he was considered to be a highly efficient civil servant; even Arthur Balfour, the Chief Secretary for Ireland, who thought poorly of most of the Irish Law Officers with whom he worked, praised O'Brien for his hard work. He showed great skill in "packing" juries in politically sensitive cases with jurors who could be trusted to convict, thus earning the nickname "Peter the Packer" which stuck to him all his life. Maurice Healy attributed his success with juries to "his uncommon knowledge of the minds of his countrymen". As a judge, Healy adds, O'Brien could nearly always see the truth, but due to the laziness which was his main weakness, he did not always manage to convey the truth to the jury.

Opinions on his judicial ability vary. A. M. Sullivan wrote that as a pupil of the great Chief Baron Christopher Palles he must have learned the principles of common law but, though intelligent, he was generally too lazy to apply them. Palles himself is said to have remarked of one of O'Brien's judgments "you never learned that law from me!" However his judgement in R. (Bridgeman) v. Drury [1894] 2 I.R. 489 where he refused to allow the members of Dublin Corporation to charge the ratepayers of Dublin for a particularly lavish picnic, is still often quoted both for its legal principle and its remarkable wit and humour. His judgment in Ussher v Ussher (1912), on whether a marriage conducted according to the Roman Catholic rite can be valid if there is only one witness to it, has also been praised as "careful and erudite." Hr was notoriously susceptible to female charms: it was said that a pretty young lady was generally treated as a conclusive witness for whichever side she appeared for.

He was created a Baronet, of Merrion Square in the County of the City of Dublin, on 28 September 1891,[4] and was ennobled as Baron O'Brien, of Kilfenora in the County of Clare, in 1900.[5]

Personal lifeEdit

Lord O'Brien married Annie Clarke, daughter of Robert Hare Clarke of Bansha Castle, County Tipperary and his second wife Anne Butler in 1867 and had three children: James, who died young, Ellen (who died in 1930) and Anne Georgina. His only son having predeceased him, he died without male heirs at Airfield, Stillorgan, County Dublin on 7 September 1914, his barony and baronetcy thus becoming extinct.

His daughter Annie Georgina published an affectionate memoir of her father a few years after his death.[6] His main personal foibles were his refusal to wear the judicial wig, and a lisp so pronounced that it often made his remarks from the Bench difficult to follow.

Maurice Healy in his own memoir The Old Munster Circuit described O'Brien as a man of considerable legal ability and great natural kindness, who was deservedly very popular. On the other hand, he was rather vain and self-important, and inclined to stand on the dignity of his office.[7]


  1. ^ a b c Short biography at
  2. ^ Ball, F. Elrington The Judges in Ireland 1221–1921 John Murray London 1926 Vol. ii p.38
  3. ^ Hart, A.R. A History of the King's Serjeants-at-law in Ireland Dublin Four Courts Press 2000 p.177
  4. ^ "No. 26207". The London Gazette. 29 September 1891. p. 5086.
  5. ^ "No. 27202". The London Gazette. 15 June 1902. p. 3751.
  6. ^ G. O'Brien Reminisces of the Right Hon Lord O'Brien (1916)
  7. ^ Healy, Maurice The Old Munster Circuit London Michael Joseph Ltd. 1939
Legal offices
Preceded by
John George Gibson
Solicitor-General for Ireland
Succeeded by
Dodgson Hamilton Madden
Preceded by
John George Gibson
Attorney-General for Ireland
Succeeded by
Dodgson Hamilton Madden
Preceded by
Sir Michael Morris, Bt
Lord Chief Justice of Ireland
Succeeded by
Richard Robert Cherry
Peerage of the United Kingdom
New creation Baron O'Brien