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Ireland, Richard Davies (1815–1877)

by Janice Burns Woods

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

Richard Davies Ireland (1815-1877), by Samuel Calvert, 1877

Richard Davies Ireland (1815-1877), by Samuel Calvert, 1877

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN24/01/77/12

Richard Davies Ireland (1815-1877), barrister and politician, was born on 27 October 1815 in County Galway, Ireland, son of James Stanley Ireland, army captain, and his wife Matilda, née Davies. He was educated at Trinity College, Dublin (B.A., 1837), and called to the Bar in 1838. Attracted by politics, he supported Irish confederation in 1848. Like many talented Irish lawyers, restricted by the overcrowded state of their profession, he decided to migrate to Victoria. He arrived with his family in 1853 and served on a committee for welcoming Smith O'Brien in 1854.

Ireland was admitted to the Victorian Bar in 1853 and to the New South Wales Bar in 1867. He won repute for his brilliant defence of the Eureka defendants in 1855, and for twenty years was Victoria's leading criminal lawyer. His cleverness and audacity in court earned him appointment in 1863 as Queen's Counsel, some £140,000 in fees, the idolization of juries and the grudging respect of judges. Ireland was neither industrious nor learned and resorted to alcohol for his best performances, but few juries could resist his shrewd mixture of eloquence, wit and vituperation. Sir John Madden described him as knowing sufficient law to steer his way through its difficulties without allowing his stronger parts to be embarrassed by its limitations.

Ireland very early established himself in Victorian politics, entering the Legislative Assembly in 1857 at his third attempt. No electorate tolerated him for long but, in a period when members were not paid and urban lawyers were often the only candidates available for a rural or mining constituency, he represented Castlemaine in 1857-59, Maryborough in 1859-61, Villiers and Heytesbury in 1861-64 and Kilmore in 1866-68. Consistent only in his anxiety for office, Ireland's politics were unduly opportunist. He was solicitor-general in the second O'Shanassy ministry in 1858-59, a government chiefly representative of urban capital, and attorney-general in the radical Heales government formed in 1860. He resigned 1861, ostensibly because he had free-trade views and anticipated an O'Shanassy coalition, but probably because his colleagues refused him a pension for serving two years as a minister, though it was granted in 1863. In O'Shanassy's third ministry in 1861-63 (Sir) Charles Gavan Duffy sponsored the Land Act of 1862, while the sympathies of O'Shanassy and attorney-general Ireland lay with the squatting and capitalist classes. Ireland clearly foresaw the consequences of Professor William Hearn's errors in drafting the bill but said nothing to his colleagues; indeed, he was almost certainly one of the ministers, consulted by Niel Black, who advised that the Act should be evaded by the squatters. In 1867 Ireland admitted in debate that he had thought the 1862 Act unworkable and that he believed it undesirable to clog alienation of the land with conditions of settlement. He did not hold office after 1863, and following the revelations of 1867 his election committee warned him not to return to Kilmore. Although he tried another constituency, he was never re-elected, 'a signal instance of public justice', according to the outraged Duffy.

Although Ireland's abilities were outstanding, his career did not fulfil the expectations held for him by many of his contemporaries. Charming, convivial, a clever mimic and dramatic raconteur, he was reputed to have spent four fortunes before his health failed. He died on 11 January 1877 in South Yarra, predeceased by his wife Sophia Mary, née Carr; they had six sons and four daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • C. G. Duffy, My Life in Two Hemispheres, vol 1 (Lond, 1898)
  • J. L. Forde, The Story of the Bar of Victoria (Melb, 1913)
  • J. B. Cooper, The History of St. Kilda: From its First Settlement to a City and After, 1840 to 1930, vol 1 (Melb, 1931)
  • M. L. Kiddle, Men of Yesterday (Melb, 1961)
  • R. Carboni, The Eureka Stockade (Melb, 1963)
  • G. Serle, The Golden Age (Melb, 1963)
  • A. Dean, A Multitude of Counsellors (Melb, 1968)
  • D. Blair, ‘Three Melbourne Barristers: A Recollection’, Centennial Magazine, vol 2, no 8, Mar 1890, pp 575-79
  • Illustrated Sydney News, 3 Mar 1887.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Janice Burns Woods, 'Ireland, Richard Davies (1815–1877)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ireland-richard-davies-3837/text6093, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 24 August 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

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