The Barrister Who Fell in Love With his Witness, 1908-1915

A photograph of Lord Justice Moriarty published in the Ballymena Telegraph, 8 May 1915, via British Newspaper Archive.

The character of Professor Moriarty in Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘Sherlock Holmes’ stories may have been inspired by Doyle’s Stonyhurst classmate John Francis Moriarty, who subsequently went on to become an Irish barrister and judge of the Court of Appeal in Ireland.  Not only that, but he also became one of that small but select category of barristers who end up marrying one of their clients.

The Ballymena Weekly Telegraph of 8 May 1915, in an article published at the time of Moriarty’s unexpected death, stated as follows:

“His first wife was a very wealthy lady, possessed of a fortune of £26,000.  The two paid a prolonged visit to America, and after an absence of four or five years, Mr Moriarty resumed his practice at the Irish Bar.  His marriage with his second wife was of a romantic character. Her previous husband’s will (by which she was a large beneficiary) was contested by some of his relations, and Mr Moriarty was engaged as her counsel in support of the will.  While examining the lady in the witness-box, he fell in love with her, and, in due course, they were married.”

Moriarty’s obituary in the Sunday Independent of 3 May 1915 described him as

an able and brilliant advocate…  His incisive method of examining witnesses, was consummate, suave and subtle, and his graceful and fluent addresses were often adorned with neat literary allusions.  He used to tell a story against himself in his young days of having a rough time with the Bench in a certain case, and when he came into the dressing room he flung down his wig, exclaiming disgustedly ‘I’ve the greatest contempt for the law.’  ‘Ah, my dear Moriarty, said a caustic brother, that’s not a contempt born of familiarity.’”

Moriarty was well-known for his use of the monocle in court, as well as for a habit of flicking his gown to celebrate scoring a point in cross-examination.

Serjeant Moriarty KC, cross-examining in the East Cork Election Petition case of 1911. The photo is from the Daily Mirror, 24 April 1911, via British Newspaper Archive.

The case in which Moriarty met his second wife was Martyn v Dolphin, a dispute relating to a will of Hubert Dolphin, of Galway, which had been re-executed shortly before his death to remove a gift to his sister, Mrs Martyn.  Moriarty succeeded in rebutting allegations that Mr Dolphin’s signature on this final will had been forged by his much younger wife, Mabel.  Mabel had married Mr Dolphin as a child bride and was still only in her mid-twenties at the time of his death.  

Some of the evidence in Martyn v Dolphin, as reported in the Weekly Irish Times, 27 June 1908. The witness being examined was Kate Killigher, a servant of the Dolphins, whose anonymous letter to Mrs Martyn regarding the alleged forgery had prompted the case, and who was pejoratively described by Moriarty as ‘half-witted’.

Mabel and Moriarty married not long after Martyn v Dolphin’s successful conclusion in 1908 but did not live happily ever after. Moriarty died unexpectedly in 1915, less than two years after having been made a Lord Justice of the Irish Court of Appeal. 

An obituary giving details of the circumstances of Moriarty’s death, also published in the Ballymena Weekly Telegraph of 8 May 1915, via British Newspaper Archive.

Mabel had recovered quickly after the death of her first husband and she moved on even more quickly after the death of Moriarty, marrying again a mere six months later to Captain Robert Francis Guy, a man of her own age.  She was widowed again for the third time when Captain Guy died prematurely in 1927.  Not long before his death he had been involved in a car accident near Stonehenge, Wiltshire, in which a woman was killed. Mabel – whom tragedy seemed to follow throughout her life – was in the car at the time.

Is the moral of this story that a barrister should never marry their client?

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

Irish barrister sharing the history of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland, and other Irish courts.

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