Holmes, Hugh (1840–1916), judge and politician, was born 17 February 1840 in Dungannon, Co. Tyrone, son of William Holmes, esq., and Sarah Jane Holmes (née Maxwell). He was educated at the Royal School, Dungannon, and TCD, where he graduated BA in 1861, before proceeding the following year to the King's Inns. Called to the bar in 1865, he joined the north-west circuit and was highly successful, taking silk in 1877. He served as solicitor general for Ireland from 1878 to 1880, when the liberals were returned to power, leaving the conservative Holmes out of political favour. Having held a law office, he was debarred from rejoining his circuit and was dependent on his private practice, which was, however, substantial. The Law Times estimated he had the largest practice at the bar by 1885, the year in which the tories returned to power under Lord Salisbury. That year Holmes was made attorney general, having being elected unopposed as MP for Dublin University (1885–7).
He proved an astute attorney general for Ireland, steering the land purchase and educational endowments bills through parliament in August 1885. The latter in particular was greatly to his credit: it had met with little enthusiasm among the tories when introduced in May and had to be substantially redrafted by Holmes, Judge Gerald Fitzgibbon (qv), and Randolph Churchill. When the liberals were returned in the election of November 1885, Churchill, impressed by Holmes's acumen and by his resolute stance against home rule, pressed him into playing a more active opposition role. On 4 March 1886 he persuaded Holmes to bring forward a motion on the disturbed state of Ireland, the intention being to force Gladstone to declare his Irish policy prematurely. A reluctant Holmes made what the liberal MP Lewis Harcourt described as a ‘forcibly feeble’ speech (Lubenow, 139), which only resulted in the government carrying the vote by a substantial majority and proving that they could still act as a unified party on Ireland. Churchill complained to Salisbury that Holmes would ‘never be a parliamentary success. His voice and manner ruin his matter’ (Cooke & Vincent, 322), and made no more demands of him.
On the tories’ return in July 1886, Holmes was once again attorney general and was accorded police protection as the Plan of Campaign was then under way. His main task was to draft a crimes bill, which he presented between March and June 1887, addressing the house 228 times. A vacancy arising in the court of common pleas, Holmes resigned his parliamentary seat on 30 June 1887 to take up the judgeship. Ten years later he became a lord justice of appeal (1897–1915), where his experience with the land law bills was very useful in dealing with the numerous appeals to the land commission. He was also noted for his severity to those convicted of agrarian crime, sentencing John Sullivan to thirty years' imprisonment in 1887 for such an offence. However, Serjeant A. M. Sullivan (qv) claimed that Holmes was in the habit of handing down severe sentences from the bench to act as deterrents, but of recording less stringent sentences in the crown book. Described by the barrister Maurice Healy (qv) as ‘a silent man, of very deep feelings, which he rarely showed’ (Healy, 276), Holmes was humane and especially lenient towards the poor, except when he believed they were violent or malicious. A member of the Church of Ireland, he was impartial in his treatment of protestants and catholics. His demeanour was stern and disguised his humanity and the wit which is evident in his written judgments. Healy described him as ‘short, bearded and looked like a severe version of Father Christmas attempting to disguise himself as a retired admiral’ (ibid.). He remained in the court of appeals until January 1915, when he retired, dying the next year at home in Fitzwilliam Place, Dublin, on Tuesday 18 April 1916, in the week before the Easter rising.
He married 17 March 1869, Olivia Moule, daughter of John Moule of Worcestershire, England. She died before him, in 1901. Of their seven children, Sir Valentine Holmes (1888–1956) and Sir Hugh Holmes (1886–1955) had distinguished careers in the law. A daughter Violet married Denis Henry (qv), lord chief justice of Northern Ireland, and another daughter Alice Louisa Holmes married Edward Sullivan Murphy (qv) (1880–1945), lord justice of appeal for Northern Ireland. A copy of his two-volume unpublished memoir is in the PRONI; excerpts dealing with his political career were published in IHS, xvi (1968–9), and reveal him as a shrewd, dispassionate observer, aware of his political failings. His legal failings were few: the Law Times pronounced him a great judge; Thomas Henry Burke (qv), the Irish under-secretary, called him the best law officer he had ever known; and even the Freeman's Journal, though politically opposed, praised his abilities.