Cairns, Hugh McCalmont (1819–85), 1st Earl Cairns , lawyer and politician, was born 27 December 1819 in Belfast, second son of William Cairns, captain of the 47th Foot, of Cultra, Co. Down, and his first wife Rosanna (née Johnston) of Belfast. The family name, originating in southern Scotland, also appears as ‘Cairnes’. Precociously learned, he was educated at Belfast Academy, entered TCD at 14, and took BA in 1838. His tutor George Wheeler (qv) advised Cairns's father to let him read law; he was admitted to Lincoln's Inn, London (January 1841), to the Middle Temple (January 1844), and three weeks later to the English bar. He overcame his initial diffidence, built up a wide practice, and became a QC and a bencher of Lincoln's Inn (1856). Entering politics as conservative MP for Belfast (1852–66), he was made solicitor–general of England and knighted (February, March 1858); in the next tory government he rose rapidly to attorney-general, then lord justice of appeal (June, October 1866), and – after being created Baron Cairns of Garmoyle (1867) – lord chancellor (1868), becoming the youngest lord chancellor of the century, the first Irish head of the English bar, the only Irish head of the English judiciary, and the first TCD graduate in a British cabinet. He was now one of the strongest figures in his party, but the rest of his life was dogged by ill-health: he served only briefly as tory leader in the lords, and subsequently had to recuperate often in southern France or at ‘Lindisfarne’, the house he built c.1873 at Bournemouth, Hants. Serving again as lord chancellor 1874–80, he was advanced to Viscount Garmoyle and Earl Cairns (1878). His main place in legal history lay in his work for the judicature reforms (1873–5), but his political contributions ranged over domestic, foreign, and imperial issues. Capable of outstanding speeches, some of which sold widely as pamphlets, he excelled in lucid, terse, and penetrating exposition and in constructive cooperation with opponents: one of his closest associates was his liberal counterpart Lord Selborne. In the campaign over Irish church disestablishment (1867–9) Cairns was both one of the strongest protestant champions and the chief agent of an agreement. Evangelical Christianity was central to his life from childhood: as a young lawyer he refused to work on Sunday; as lord chancellor he continued teaching in Sunday schools; and he actively supported missionary societies, the YMCA, and the social work of Lord Shaftesbury and T. J. Barnardo (qv). He held honorary degrees from Cambridge and Oxford, and from Dublin, where he was also chancellor (1868–85). He married (1856) Mary Harriet, daughter of John McNeile (qv) of Parkmount, Co. Antrim, a founder of the Northern Bank; they had five sons and two daughters. He died 2 April 1885 at ‘Lindisfarne’ of congestion of the lungs after a chill, and was buried at Bournemouth.
Times, 3, 9 Apr. 1885; Ir. Law Times, xix (1885), 200–02; [Catherine Marsh], Brief memories . . . (1885); DNB; Boase; The records of the Honourable Society of Lincoln's Inn, ii (1896); Roundell Palmer, earl of Selborne, Memorials . . . (4 vols, 1896, 1898); H. C. Lawlor, A history of the family of Cairnes . . . (1906) (photo); G.E.C., Peerage; Burke, Peerage (1912); Alumni Dubl.; Register of admissions to the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple, ii (1949); R. F. V. Heuston, ‘Hugh McCalmont Cairns’, NI Legal Quart., xxvi (1975), 269–70; Walker; Richard Graham, ‘Families of the great houses of the Shore Road’, North Irish Roots, vi, no. 2 (spring 1995), 15–22; Donald M. Lewis (ed.), The Blackwell dictionary of evangelical biography, i (1995), 183