Northern Ireland

New podcast series looks at six legal cases which changed Irish history

The Supreme Court in Dublin
The Supreme Court in Dublin

From the divorce case involving Charles Stewart Parnell, access to contraception and the taxation of married women, many high-profile legal cases have changed Irish society. Claire Simpson speaks to Belfast-born lawyer and former ombudsman Paulyn Marrinan Quinn about her new podcast on six key cases.


“IT is hard to imagine now that, not so long ago, women in Ireland were not automatically selected to sit on juries or allowed access to contraception.”

Belfast-born lawyer and former ombudsman Paulyn Marrinan Quinn has reflected on how much women’s lives have changed since the 1970s.

At the start of that decade, women in the Republic could not sit on juries or plan their families through the use of contraceptives. But that all changed following high-profile challenges to the law.

The 1976 De Burca case, which paved the way for women to sit on juries, and the 1973 McGee case, which found married couples had the constitutional right to plan their families, are two of six cases which Ms Marrinan Quinn has highlighted in a new podcast series.

One of the founding members of the British and Irish Ombudsman Association, the lawyer, writer and broadcaster has been steeped in the law for decades.

From a well-known legal family, Ms Marrinan Quinn grew up in Belfast and remembers learning to drive on Portstewart Strand in Co Derry at the age of 12.

She said some legal cases ended up radically changing Irish people’s lives.

"Very often, it is citizens asserting or questioning their rights who have brought about the most far-reaching changes in the law,” she said.

“Through one person’s case, things can change for many people who find themselves in the same circumstances, or in circumstances related to the new rights upheld and vindicated by the courts.”

The podcasts are based on a documentary series Ms Marrinan Quinn produced for RTÉ Radio 1 in 2005.

Leading lawyers and academics were asked to select and discuss a court case that had a significant impact on society.

The earliest case chosen was the Kitty O'Shea divorce of 1889 which eventually led to her partner Charles Stewart Parnell's political downfall.

Gerard Hogan, now a Supreme Court judge, chose the McGee case on contraception.

“The McGee case was so far-reaching,” Ms Marrinan Quinn said.

“Gerard Hogan… said then that he thought it was the most profound and significant finding of the Supreme Court ever. It really did open up the Constitution.”

Ms Marrinan Quinn said the case showed a Supreme Court which was “ahead of society, of the executive, of the government, and who were courageous enough to see the Constitution as a living document and not something that was set in stone… that was pretty adventurous because people had different views, particularly anything that had to do with private morality".

The 1980 Murphy case highlighted the unfair taxation of married women who worked outside the home.

Women who went out to work were automatically taxed at the same rate as their husbands, regardless of how much they earned.

Ms Marrinan Quinn said the case was supported by the Married Persons’ Tax Reform Association, which struggled to get support from politicians and the main trade unions and had to rely on lawyers willing to work pro bono.

“The only political party that showed a modicum of support for the Married Persons’ Tax Reform group was the Labour party,” she said.

At the time, the Republic had both cripplingly high income tax rates and high levels of unemployment.

“It brought to mind the vice-like grip that was always held over women,” she said.

“It came at you from every corner. At that time there was very high unemployment. The unions didn’t want to be seen to be helping married women get jobs because a cohort of people would have thought ‘leave those jobs for the men’.”

She said the intervention of Fianna Fáil TD George Colley, who tried to reinforce the view that a woman’s place was in the home, ended up having the opposite effect.

His claim that most women had “no sympathy with the well-heeled married women who are pushing a solution to their problems… which would discriminate against one-income families” drew criticism from relatively conservative groups including the Irish Countrywomen’s Association and the Irish Housewives’ Association.

“The insidious step is the divide and rule one - pitching women against each other,” Ms Marrinan Quinn said.

She added: “It just shows you when a politician can go too far.”

Ms Marrinan Quinn said she was particularly interested in the podcast episode which discussed a Supreme Court challenge in the 1970s that established legal representation, through legal aid, as a necessary part of a fair trial.

In the episode, lawyer Ercus Stewart said that children arrested for minor offences were dealt with in the children's court without a lawyer to represent them.

"They were usually impoverished children from poor areas and they were sent off to places of detention - Daingean (in Co Offaly) or Letterfrack (in Co Galway) - and these were eight or nine-year-olds… There wasn’t a solicitor in court, the judge just dismissed them off," Ms Marrinan Quinn said.

She said the court challenge changed the face of legal representation.

“The essence of the Supreme Court judgment was that a person cannot be found guilty or punished in any way without a fair trial,” she said.

“And a fair trial equals having representation through legal aid."

Ms Marrinan Quinn said that Mr Stewart highlighted tensions between the government of the time and the courts.

“The public is represented by the government and it was really the government that was so slow at bringing in legislation,” she said.

“He (Mr Stewart) said that the courts would have been relieved to have laws there.

“It was putting them in a very difficult position but in many senses, as Gerard Hogan said about the McGee case, they had been foostering around at government level with regard to updating the law and he said that was an example where the Supreme Court had to act in a very courageous way, which they did.”

Ms Marrinan Quinn said she would love to produce another series, looking at complex cases including Senator David Norris’s campaign in the 1980s to decriminalise homosexuality.

“The Norris case was a turning point,” she said.

“In a way it paved the way for the (2015) Marriage Act (which allowed for same-sex marriages in the Republic).

“It opened up the country to the idea of gay people having an open life and not hiding in the shadows.”

‘Cases That Changed People’s Lives – Revisited’ is available on major podcast providers including Spotify and Apple Podcasts as well as at