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Over twenty years ago the Right Honorable Turlough O’Donnell, Q.C., a former Lord Justice of the Appeal, donated his legal robes to Newry and Mourne Museum. This included his ceremonial robes as a High Court Judge.

The Right Honorable Turlough O’Donnell Q.C. pictured c.1971 wearing his ceremonial robes as a High Court Judge. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
The Right Honorable Turlough O’Donnell Q.C. pictured c.1971 wearing his ceremonial robes as a High Court Judge. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

Turlough O’Donnell was born in Bridge Street, Newry and was the eldest of four children (his siblings were Padraic, Donal and Kathleen.) His education started at the Poor Clare’s Convent for a year during the time when they accepted boys, then to the Christian Brother’s School at Kilmorey Street and the Car Stands School. He won a junior scholarship to the Abbey Grammar School at age 13, and later a senior scholarship, based on the results of his junior exams.  He studied law at Queen’s University, Belfast and was a pupil of Charles Stewart Q.C. O’Donnell graduated in 1946 and then went to London, where he was called to the ‘Bar’ in 1947. He then returned to Belfast to practice law and got married in 1954. 

As a junior counsel, he was on the defence team for the last man to be hanged in Northern Ireland, Robert McGladdery from Newry, who was convicted of murdering Pearl Gamble, also from Newry, in 1961. He was appointed a senior counsel in 1965 (known as ‘taking the silk’ as the robe worn as a senior counsel is made of silk), became a High Court Judge in 1971 and was appointed Lord Justice of the Appeal in 1985. Turlough O’Donnell passed away in April 2017, aged 92.

The ceremonial robes consist of a gown and hood of scarlet wool felt trimmed with white fur. They are worn with a stole and cincture, both made from black taffeta. Lace jabots are worn at the neck. The judicial dress was finished off with a full-bottomed wig and white leather gloves. The black cap, originally used to pronounce the death sentence, is also included in the display which was on show at the Museum in 2016. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
The ceremonial robes consist of a gown and hood of scarlet wool felt trimmed with white fur. They are worn with a stole and cincture, both made from black taffeta. Lace jabots are worn at the neck. The judicial dress was finished off with a full-bottomed wig and white leather gloves. The black cap, originally used to pronounce the death sentence, is also included in the display which was on show at the Museum in 2016. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

Turlough Donnell’s High Court robes were tailor made for him by Ede and Ravenscroft Ltd in London, who make all the judicial robes in Britain. The red wool and ermine robe was worn at ceremonial occasions and the opening of the Criminal Assizes. The ceremonial robes of a High Court Judge have their origins in medieval ecclesiastical robes and have changed little from the Judge’s Rules of 1635, which introduced uniformity of practice in the wearing of judicial dress. 

Included in the donation were white leather gloves which were also worn with a judge’s ceremonial dress and the infamous black cap which was originally worn by judges when pronouncing the death sentence. Although capital punishment for murder was abolished in Great Britain in 1969 and in 1973 in Northern Ireland, the black cap is still part of the ceremonial regalia of a High Court Judge. Based on the style of a 16-century gentleman’s cap, it is carried by the judge in procession and not worn.

Turlough O’Donnell’s wig which was originally made in the early 20th century. The wigs, which are made from horse hair, have their own metal carrying case with an internal stand on which they are supported upright. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
Turlough O’Donnell’s wig which was originally made in the early 20th century. The wigs, which are made from horse hair, have their own metal carrying case with an internal stand on which they are supported upright. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

In 2008, Turlough O’Donnell donated his wig to the Museum. Wigs were first worn by judges in the late 17th century. Full-bottomed wigs continued to be worn in criminal trials up until the 1840s and are now only worn as part of ceremonial dress. Judicial wigs are expensive to make and retiring judges often pass their wigs on to their successors or colleagues.  A previous owner of O’Donnell’s wig was Sir Anthony Babington, who was Attorney General for Northern Ireland from 1925 until 1937, when he was appointed Lord Justice of the Appeal. He was also Unionist MP for the South Belfast (1925 – 1929) and Belfast Cromac (1929 – 1937) constituencies.

In addition to his ceremonial robes, Turlough O’Donnell also donated his red silk robes which were worn at criminal cases and for the court of Criminal Appeal. He also gave the Museum the black robes (winter) and violet robes (summer) worn for civil cases and the red sash worn with both sets of robes for jury cases. 

Newry and Mourne Museum is temporarily closed.

by Joanne Glymond

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