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Mary Dorothea Heron (1884 - October 9, 1960) was the first woman Solicitor in Ireland in 1923.
The first three women admitted to the Roll of Solicitors in Ireland were Mary Dorothea Heron from Downpatrick Co. Down, Helena Mary Early from Dublin city and Dorothea Mary Browne from Skibbereen, Co. Cork: the first two admitted in 1923, the latter in 1924. Their apprenticeships were made possible by the enactment of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, 1919, which received Royal Assent on the 23 December 1919, but the commencement date was the 27 April 1920, by which time Heron had signed indentures on the 7 February 1920. The Incorporated Law Society of Ireland took a pragmatic view, aware that two women had already been admitted to King’s Inns to be barristers. Early’s indentures were noted on the 20 June 1920, Browne’s on the 5 November 1921.
Heron was from Downpatrick, Co. Down, she was the daughter of the ‘county surveyor’ for Co. Down, her mother was also a graduate. Heron was a Presbyterian, though her mother was a member of the Church of Ireland, perhaps less surprising, as her grandfather was a Presbyterian minister with a doctorate in divinity. She was the third generation of her family and the second generation woman to attend university, an exception to the norm in 1920. Critically her uncle Thomas, was a solicitor providing a pathway to enter the profession, she was 24 when she was indentured. Her entry was well marked, the president of the law society critiqued the 1919 act ‘its developments will be viewed with considerable interest and curiosity, and already lady candidates have entered’.
Heron was an excellent student, she was placed second in the Final Examination in January 1923, her success was noted in the Belfast newspapers on the 3 February 1923, carrying identical reports ‘she was placed second and was awarded a special certificate for distinguished answering, being the first lady solicitor in Ireland’. Heron was admitted to the Roll on the 17 April 1923, returned to practise with her uncle’s firm TM Heron in Belfast and practised in probate until 1946. She did not take out a practising certificate during those years, and is not included in the law directories or statistics, which has affected her place in the historiography of solicitors. Helena M. Early is represented as the ‘first woman solicitor to practise in Ireland’, with Kathleen Donaghy admitted Easter 1926, as the ‘first woman solicitor in Northern Ireland’.
In 2015 the Dublin law society in an article celebrating the then parity of numbers in men and women solicitors, noted there was ‘a perception in these early years that women solicitors were engaged as assistant solicitors in conveyancing and probate work, may not have taken out a practising certificate, which was a convention permitted at the time’. This convention existed until 1974, it was not gender specific, non-court attending male solicitors were included. Heron retired in 1946, and died at Portstewart on the 9 October 1960, aged 64. The Northern Ireland Law Society of Ireland has no knowledge of Heron, presumably because she never held a practising certificate, the Law Society of Ireland (Dublin) in 2017, commenting on the fact that the majority of the profession are now women says, ‘the milestone is striking in the context of the profession’s historical background: the first woman solicitor M.D. Heron was only admitted as a solicitor 94 years ago in 1923’. The statistics, in summary, are: 1923 men 1,397 women 0. 2017 men 4,664, women 5,001, sourced from the Law Society Gazette March 2018, the 1923 figures include Northern Ireland, the 2017 figures are Republic of Ireland only.
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