Holmes, Robert (1765–1859), lawyer, was born 8 November 1765 in Dublin, eldest son of Hugh Holmes, merchant, from Chapelizod, Co. Dublin (formerly a painter in Belfast), and Mary Holmes (née Smith). He entered TCD in 1782, was a scholar (1785), and graduated BA (1785) and LLB (1792). Initially studying medicine, he soon turned to law and was admitted to Lincoln's Inn (1787) and called to the Irish bar (1795). It seems he shared the political sympathies of his brothers-in-law: in 1795 he married Mary Anne Emmet (1773–1804), sister of Thomas Addis Emmet (qv) and Robert Emmet (qv). A member of the lawyer's corps, he resigned (March 1798) because he feared he would have to act against the people and his principles in the approaching insurrection. This caused consternation among his colleagues, and a resolution was passed on the north-eastern circuit to prevent his practising there. This resulted in Holmes's issuing a challenge against Henry Joy (qv) (d. 1838), which was reported to the police; he was arrested and imprisoned for three months. Opposed to the act of union, in 1799 he published anonymously a satirical pamphlet, A demonstration on the necessity of the legislative union of Great Britain and Ireland.
He was in London while his brother-in-law's rising was being planned, and appears to have had no foreknowledge of it. Arriving back in Dublin on the night of the rebellion on 23 July 1803, he was arrested on the street and imprisoned for a year. With no evidence against him he was eventually released in 1804, but his captivity and his brother's execution were too much for his wife, and she died soon after his return home; according to legend she expired on the doorway on seeing him. Holmes's own brushes with the law hampered his legal advancement, and he became somewhat introverted after his wife's death, rarely smiling. In court, however, he could be a caustic advocate, and his witticisms and sarcastic comments were notorious.
Because of his unwillingness to accept official patronage he did not rise far in the law; he refused to be a KC and turned down the offices of crown prosecutor and solicitor general. This was mainly because William Plunket (qv) was lord chancellor, and Holmes hated him for his speech against Emmet during his trial in 1803. Nevertheless he had a large and profitable practice, and defended many leading nationalists. In 1831 he was one of the first group of commissioners of national education to be appointed, representing the unitarian interest; his legal business limited his attendance at their meetings and he resigned in 1847. In 1847 he published The case for Ireland stated, which argued for the repeal of the union, and went to at least five editions. In May 1848 he defended John Mitchel (qv), who was being tried for treason-felony, and made an extraordinary closing speech condemning centuries of English oppression in Ireland. He did not sway the jury, but his speech had a deep effect on many listeners, including the judge. Upon retiring from the bar in 1852 he moved to London, where he resided with his only child, Mrs Elizabeth Lennox-Cunningham, at her home in Eaton Place, London. He died there 7 October 1859. A bust of Holmes stands at the entrance to the bar library of the Royal Courts of Justice, Belfast.