Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/O'Hagan, Thomas
O'HAGAN, THOMAS, first Baron O'Hagan (1812–1885), lord chancellor of Ireland, only son of Edward O'Hagan, a catholic trader of Belfast, was born there on 29 May 1812. He was educated at the Belfast academical institution, where he won the highest prizes, and, being at the time the only catholic student, was awarded by the votes of his fellow-students the gold medal for an essay on the 'History of Eloquence, Ancient and Modern.' He frequently took part in a debating society attached to the institution, and there developed command of language and great readiness of speech. On leaving the institution he became connected with the press. In Michaelmas term 1831 he was admitted a student of the King's Inns, Dublin, his certificate for admission being signed by Daniel O'Connell [q. v.] This was probably the commencement of his acquaintance with O'Connell. 'In my earlier years I knew O'Connell well; I was personally his debtor for continual kindness' (O'Connell Centenary Address, 1875). He was admitted a student of Gray's Inn in Hilary term 1834, and became a pupil of Thomas Chitty [q. v.], the well-known pleader. In Hilary term 1836 he was called to the Irish bar, and joined the north-east circuit. From 1836 to 1840 he resided at Newry, editing the 'Newry Examiner,' and practising on circuit, principally in the defence of prisoners. His conduct of the paper was warmly praised by O'Connell: 'I was assailed at every turn, and defended with zeal and spirit by nobody save the "Newry Examiner," a paper to which I really am more indebted than to any other in Ireland' (Correspondence of O'Connell, 23 Oct. 1838, ii. 154). In 1840 O'Hagan removed to Dublin, and, though still contributing to the press, devoted his attention mainly to the bar. In 1842 he was retained, with O'Connell, to defend Gavan Duffy (now Sir Charles Gavan Duffy), indicted for a seditious libel in the 'Belfast Vindicator.' O'Connell, being detained in London by his parliamentary duties, returned his brief, and, by Gavan Duffy's wish, the case was left in O'Hagan's hands. He conducted the defence with such marked ability as to draw compliments from the attorney-general (Blackburne) and the chief justice (Pennefather). From this time his success was assured, and his practice steadily increased. On the trial of O'Connell and the other repeal leaders in 1843-4, he was again counsel for Gavan Duffy, with Whiteside (afterwards chief justice) as his leader. In 1845 he was junior counsel in a case that attracted considerable attention—an appeal to the visitors of Trinity College, Dublin, by Denis Caulfield Heron (afterwards Serjeant Heron), a catholic student, against a decision of the provost and fellows, refusing to admit him to a scholarship which he had won in the examination on the ground that the scholarships were by law not tenable by catholics. The visitors came to the same conclusion.
In politics O'Hagan was opposed to the repeal of the union, advocating instead the establishment of a local legislature for local purposes, with the representation of Ireland continued in the imperial parliament (Speech at meeting of Repeal Association, 29 May 1843). His views not finding favour with O'Connell and the leading repealers, he ceased to attend the meetings of the repeal association. His first professional promotion was in 1847, when he was appointed assistant barrister of co. Longford. In the state trials of 1848 he was retained by the crown, but desired to be excused on the ground of his personal friendship with Gavan Duffy, one of the accused; the attorney-general (Monahan) at once acceded to his request, and withdrew the crown retainer; and O'Hagan felt constrained to refuse the retainer for the defence, which was subsequently offered to him. In the following year he was appointed a queen's counsel, and rapidly acquired considerable practice as a leader both on circuit and in Dunlin. Owing to his powers as a speaker and his popular sympathies, he was frequently retained in cases of a political or sensational character. The most remarkable was the trial at Dublin (7 Dec. 1855) of Father Petcherine, a redemptorist monk of Russian birth, on a charge of contemptuously and profanely burning a copy of the authorised version of the scriptures. O'Hagan addressed the jury for the defence in a speech of great force and eloquence, and a verdict of 'not guilty' was returned. In 1857 he was transferred as assistant-barrister from Longford to co. Dublin. In 1859 he was appointed third Serjeant, and elected a bencher of the King's Inns. He became solicitor-general for Ireland in 1861 in Lord Palmerston's government, and in the following year attorney-general, and was sworn of the Irish privy council. At a by-election in 1863 he was returned for Tralee, notwithstanding the combined opposition of the conservatives and nationalists. By the latter he was bitterly assailed, both as attorney-general and as a member of the board of national education, to which he had been appointed in 1858. In a manly and vigorous speech at the hustings he justified his career, defended himself from the 'virulent acerbity' with which he had been attacked, and upheld the national system of education as 'the greatest boon and blessing which since emancipation was ever conferred on Ireland by the imperial government.' In the same year in the House of Commons he again spoke energetically in defence of the national system on a motion by Major O'Reilly to reduce the vote for its expenses (18 July 1863). In January 1865 he was appointed a judge of the court of common pleas in Ireland in succession to Mr. Justice Ball. By an act passed in 1867 (30 and 31 Vict. c. 75) the lord-chancellorship of Ireland was opened to all persons without reference to their religious belief, and, on the formation of the first Gladstone ministry in December 1868, O'Hagan was appointed to the office. He was the first catholic who had held it since the reign of James II, and his appointment was received with much popular approval in Ireland. In 1870, while the Irish Land Bill was passing through parliament, he was raised to the peerage (14 June) as Baron O'Hagan of Tullahogue in co. Tyrone, and took his seat in the lords on 21 June. Tullahogue was in early times a possession of the O'Hagans, and was the place where the O'Neill was inaugurated, the O'Hagan and O'Cahan having the hereditary right to perform the ceremony (Joyce, Short Hist. of Ireland, p. 63). In the following session he introduced and passed through parliament a bill to consolidate and amend the laws relating to juries in Ireland (34 and 35 Vict, c. 65). Its main object was to prevent any partiality by the sheriff or his officers in the framing of the jury panel; this object it successfully effected, but it also altered the qualification of jurors, and admitted to the jury-box a class of men who were hardly fitted for the position.
In February 1874 O'Hagan resigned with the rest of the ministry. His decisions in the Irish court of chancery are reported in the 'Irish Reports' (Equity), vols. iv.–viii. A successful common-law advocate suddenly called to preside in the court of chancery can at best hope to discharge the duties of his office in a satisfactory manner. This O'Hagan did, and his courtesy and impartiality met with general acknowledgment. But with his colleague, the lord justice of appeal (Christian), an able and erudite but somewhat eccentric judge, his relations became unfortunately strained; and at times scenes took place in the court for which the chancellor was in no way responsible. During the next six years O'Hagan sat regularly in the House of Lords on the hearing of appeals. His judgments will be found in vol. vii. of 'English and Irish Appeal Cases,' and vols. i.–v. of ' Appeal Cases ' in the 'Law Reports.' In 1875 he was selected to deliver the O'Connell centenary address in Dublin; the illness of a near relative prevented its actual delivery, but it was printed and circulated. A similar task was assiraed to him at the Moore centenary in 1878; twenty-one years before he had made the principal speech on the unveiling of Moore's statue in Dublin. In Irish educational questions he took an active interest, and supported the Irish Intermediate Education and University Education Bills in the House of Lords (28 June 1878, 8 July 1879). He was one of the original members of the intermediate education board established in 1878, and its first vice-chairman, and was appointed one of the senators of the Royal University of Ireland on its foundation in 1880. At the first meeting of the senate he was elected vice-chancellor, and from that time forward constantly presided at the meetings of the senate and the council. In May 1880, on the return of Mr. Gladstone to office, he again became lord-chancellor of Ireland, and in the following year strongly supported the Irish Land Bill in the House of Lords, describing it as 'the most important measure that since the time of the union had been conceded to Ireland' (1 Aug. 1881). He resigned the chancellorship in November of that year owing to failing healthy but still continued to attend the judicial sittings of the House of Lords. He was made a knight of St. Patrick in 1881, and elected an honorary bencher of Gray's Inn in 1883. He died on 1 Feb. 1885, at his town residence, Hereford House, Park Street, London. His body was removed to Dublin, and buried in Glasnevin cemetery.
O'Hagan's manners were genial and conciliatory. He never indulged in asperity of speech or demeanour towards his opponents, and almost invariably enjoyed their esteem and good will. As a politician his career was honourable and consistent. His professional advancement was not due to politics; he had already reached the highest place at the bar before he sought a seat in parliament. From the time of the collapse of the repeal movement, he supported an alliance between the popular party in Ireland and the English liberals, and he lived to see the Irish measures which he most desired passed as the result of that alliance. His papers and addresses and his principal speeches and arguments are collected in 'Occasional Papers and Addresses by Lord O'Hagan,' 1884; and 'Selected Speeches and Arguments of Lord O'Hagan,' edited by George Teeling, 1886.
He was twice married: first, in 1836, to Mary, daughter of Charles Hamilton Teeling of Belfast; and, secondly, in 1871, to Alice Mary, youngest daughter and coheiress of Colonel Towneley of Towneley, Lancashire. By his first marriage, one daughter only survived him, the wife of Mr. Justice John O'Hagan [q. v.]; by his second marriage he left several children, of whom the eldest son (Thomas Towneley) is now second Baron O'Hagan. His statue, by Farrell, is in the Four Courts, Dublin; his portrait, by Mr. George Richmond, is in the possession of his family.
[Times, 2 Feb. 1886; Freeman's Journal, 2 Feb. 1885; Tablet, 7 Feb. 1886; Annual Register, 1885; Report of the Trial of the Rev. Vladimir Petcherine, by James Doyle, Dublin, 1866; Burke's Peerage and Baronetage, 1894; private information.]