Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Morris, Michael

MORRIS, Sir MICHAEL, Lord Morris and Killanin (1826–1901), lord chief justice of Ireland and member of the judicial committee of the privy council in England, belonged to an ancient Roman catholic family which formed one of 'the fourteen tribes of Galway' and acquired the estate of Spiddal, co. Galway, by marriage in 1684. Michael Morris was elder son of Martin Morris, J.P. (1784–1862), who was high sheriff of co. Galway in 1841, being the first Roman catholic to hold that office since 1690. His mother, Julia, daughter of Dr. Charles Blake, of Galway, died of cholera in 1837. His younger brother, George (b. 1833), high sheriff of CO. Galway (1860-1) and M.P. for Galway city (1867-8 and 1874-80), was an official of the Irish local government board (1880-98), being made a K.C.B. on his retirement.

Born at Spiddal on 14 Nov. 1826, Michael Morris, after education at Erasmus Smith School, in Galway, entered Trinity College, Dublin, as an exhibitioner in 1842. His religion disqualified him from competing for a scholarship. In 1846 he graduated brilliantly as first senior moderator in ethics and logic and won a gold medal. At Trinity his chief recreation was racquet-playing, and he acquired a skill which he retained to an advanced age. After a year's foreign travel he was called to the Irish Bar in Trinity term 1849, joining the Connaught circuit. His rise in his profession was rapid, his abounding commonsense, his wit, and strong Galway brogue, which never diminished, attracted clients. Following his father's example, he was high sheriff of his county for 1849-50. From 1857 to 1865 he held the post of recorder of Galway. In February 1863 he took silk.

In July 1865 Morris was returned to parliament as member for Galway. He issued no address and identified himself with no party, yet 90 per cent, of the electors voted for him owing to the local popularity of himself and his family. He at once made his mark in the House of Commons, where he sat with the conservative party. Although of independent temperament and impatient of party ties he was distrustful of democracy, was devoted to the union and hostile to the cry of home rule. In July 1866 he was appointed solicitor-general for Ireland by Lord Derby, and was the first Roman catholic to hold that office in a conservative government. He was re-elected unopposed by his constituents. In November he was promoted to the attorney-generalship. In 1866 he was sworn of the Irish privy council; and his intimate knowledge of local affairs enabled him to do useful work on the judicial committee.

In 1867 Morris was raised to the Irish bench as puisne judge of the court of common pleas. He was succeeded in the representation of Galway by his brother George. He became chief of his court in 1876, and lord chief justice of Ireland in 1887. On the bench his good-humour and shrewd wisdom stood him in good stead. He managed juries with admirable bonhomie, and even at the height of the land league agitation (1880–3) rarely failed to secure a right verdict. He was created a baronet in 1885, and on 25 Nov. 1889 was promoted to the judicial committee of the English privy council, receiving a life peerage by the title of Lord Morris. Although his new duties compelled his removal to London, his permanent residence and substantial interests, as he said on taking leave of the Irish bar, remained in his native country.

As appellate judge of the privy council Morris distinguished himself by his good-humoured contempt for legal subtleties, and his witty shrewdness. He not infrequently dissented from the majority of the committee, but well held his own in argument with his colleagues. In the suit McLeod v. St. Aubyn, which raised in 1899 a question of contempt on account of scandalous reflections on a court of justice, he delivered a characteristically robust judgment in pronouncing committals for such contempt obsolete, because 'courts are satisfied to leave to public opinion attacks or comment derogatory or scandalous to them' (Law Reports, Appeal Cases, 1899, p. 561). Morris was a popular figure in English society. He became a member of Grillion's Club, and in 1890 he received the unprecedented honour of being elected a bencher of Lincoln's Inn, though he had never been called to the English bar.

Morris always took a keen interest in Irish education. From 1868 to 1870 he was a member of the Powis commission on primary education in Ireland; in 1868 he became a commissioner of national education and, later, chairman of the board. On the foundation of the Royal University in 1880 he was appointed a senator, and in 1899 was elected vice-chancellor. He was a visitor of Trinity College, Dublin, and in 1887 received the honorary degree of LL.D. from his old university.

Morris retired from the privy council and from public life in 1900, when he accepted the hereditary barony of Killanin in the peerage of the United Kingdom. He was thenceforth known as Lord Morris and Killanin. He died at Spiddal on 8 Sept. 1901.

On 18 Sept. 1860 Morris married Anna, daughter of Henry George Hughes [q. v.], baron of the court of exchequer in Ireland. His wife died on 17 Oct. 1906. Of a family of four sons and six daughters, two sons and a daughter predeceased their father. He was succeeded in the barony of Killanin by his eldest son, Martin Henry Kitrpatrirk, in whose triumphant election, in the home rule organisation, as a member for Galway in 1900, Morris played a conspicuous part.

Morris's judicial decisions were vigorously phrased and were marked by greater regard for the spirit than for the letter of the law. He made no pretence to legal erudition and boldly scorned precedent Yet his inright mto human nature compensated for most of his defects of legal learning. His popularity with his feIlow-countrymen and especially with his Galway tenantry, never waned. He ridiculed the political views of the nationalists; but he could jest in the Irish language, and his strong Celtic sympathies reduced political differences to a minimum. During his whole career, which covered the Fenian outbreak and the land league movement, he never received a threatening letter. He rather cynically assigned Ireland's distresses to natural causes — to a wet climate and the absence of coal. Local developments or improvements, which laid fresh expenses on poor localities, he deprecated. He was at one with the nationalists in regarding the existing financial relations between England and Ireland as unfair to Ireland, and spoke to that effect in the House of Lords on 23 March 1894 (Hansard [38], 1682). Though he always treated home rule as a wild and impracticable dream, he was impatient of much of the routine which England practised in its government of Ireland. His epigram on the Irish political problem — 'a quick-witted nation was being governed against its will by a stupid people' — was quoted by his friend Lord Randolph Churchill in the home rule debate on 17 April 1893, and is characteristic of his caustic sagacity (Lucy, Diary of the Home Rule Parliament, p. 108). His witticisms, if at times coarse and extravagant, usually hit the mark.

There is no good portrait of Lord Morris. A drawing by Henry Tanworth Wells [q. v. Suppl. II] was made for Grittion's Club, and a large photograph hangs in the reception room of the King's Inns at Dublin. A caricature portrait by 'Spy' appeared in 'Vanity Fair' in 1893. An engraving from photographs was made after Morris's death by Messrs. Walton & Co., of Shaftesbury Avenue.

[The Law Mag. and Rev., Nor. 1901 (art. by Michael J. Kelly); The Times, 9 Sept 1901; Annual Register. 1901.]

G. S. W.