Molony, Sir Thomas Francis (1865–1949), 1st baronet, last lord chief justice of Ireland, was born 31 January 1865 in Dublin, youngest son of James Molony, Dublin hotel proprietor, and his wife Jane, daughter of Nicholas Sweetman of Newbawn, Co. Wexford. Thomas was educated by the Christian Brothers at the O'Connell Schools, North Richmond St, and went on to TCD, where he distinguished himself academically: he was three times law prizeman before graduating BA in history and politics as a gold medallist (1886). After attending the King's Inns he was called to the bar in 1887. Thereafter his rise was meteoric. He took silk in 1899, was called to the English bar (1900) and appointed crown counsel for Co. Carlow (1906) and Dublin (1907), holding both posts until 1912. In 1911 he was successively third and second serjeant-at-law and was then solicitor general (4 July 1912) and attorney general (12 April 1913), until appointed a judge of the high court (18 June 1913). He was a liberal and a protégé of John Redmond (qv) and John Dillon (qv), and this helped his appointment by the chief secretary, Augustine Birrell (qv), to the court of appeal in 1915. In all this time he suffered only one failure: in 1910 he unsuccessfully contested for the Liberals the West Toxteth parliamentary division of Liverpool.
In August 1916 Molony was appointed to the royal commission of inquiry into the shooting of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington (qv), and concluded that it constituted the offence of murder. A country where the king's subjects could rebel and the king's officers shoot unarmed men was repugnant to Molony, whose most notable traits were his ardent royalism and fervent catholicism. He was known on the bench, because of a certain praying gesture of his hands, as ‘the Mother Superior’. In 1918 he attained the summit of his career, being appointed lord chief justice of Ireland. After the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, he aggressively and successfully petitioned the home secretary and the law lords to be allowed to retain his title of lord chief justice of Ireland, rather than of Southern Ireland.
During the war of independence he made a number of notable judgments (King v. Allen, 1921; King v. Strickland and others, 1921) in which he identified the country as being in a state of martial law, thereby upholding the right of the British government to carry out reprisals. He subsequently extended this right to the provisional government (Johnstone v. O'Sullivan, 1923). These judgments subsequently aroused controversy among jurists. Leo Kohn considered them ‘truly revolting’ (Kohn, 142); R. F. V. Heuston (qv) called the judgments ‘masterly’.
After the destruction of the Four Courts in June 1922, the courts sat initially at the King's Inns and then at Dublin castle. Molony presided over the courts in the interim period before the passing of and implementation of the Courts of Justice Act (1924). In 1922 he overcame his deep reluctance to allow the words ‘Rialtas Sealadach na hÉireann’ (Provisional Government of Ireland) to be superimposed at the head of high court proceedings, reflecting that this at least represented the end of the republican courts. He was a great support to the Free State government, transferring courts in Dublin and around the country to other premises when they were harassed or occupied by anti-treaty forces. Denis Gwynn (qv) in The Irish Free State (1928) singled him out for special praise for restoring a sense of security and strengthening morale. When a new courts system and a new judiciary were appointed in 1924, he left Ireland and went to live in Wimbledon, Surrey. As a parting present the solicitors of Ireland presented him with his portrait, painted by William Orpen (qv), in his robes of lord chief justice.
In 1925 he was rewarded for his devotion to the crown by being created baronet. Always an inveterate chairman of committees, including the intermediate education board of Ireland (1914–23), he filled the long years of retirement with chairmanship of numerous boards, societies, and catholic charities, such as the Home Office committee on the treatment of juvenile offenders (1925–7) and the St John Ambulance Association. He was also a director of the National Bank (1925) and was made an honorary bencher of the Inn of court of Northern Ireland (1926) and of the Middle Temple (1933). However, his chief delight was his vice-chancellorship of TCD, to which he acceded in 1931. Through this he maintained an acceptable link with Ireland; he visited on every possible college occasion and between times bombarded Trinity's academic departments with letters written in distinctive green ink. He made a donation for the erection in the 1937 reading room of a tablet in memory of Michael Moore (qv) (d. 1726), whom James II (qv) had appointed provost.
He died at Wimbledon on 3 September 1949, and was survived two years by his wife (m. 1899), Pauline Mary, daughter of Bernard Rispin, a Dublin livestock salesman. They had three daughters and two sons; both sons fought in the second world war. One was killed on active service in 1941, while the second son, Sir Joseph Molony (1907–78), KCVO, QC, was a squadron leader in the RAF. Molony bequeathed his chain of office, a gold collar SS, to TCD to stay in its custody ‘until such a time as the office of lord chief justice of Ireland shall be restored’ (cited Osborough, 326). Trinity retains possession.