Murnaghan, James Augustine (1881–1973), judge and jurist, was born 6 July 1881 in St Louis, Missouri, USA, to which his parents, George Murnaghan and his wife, Angela (née Mooney), had emigrated in the 1860s. They returned to Omagh, Co. Tyrone, about 1883 where his father began to farm; George Murnaghan (qv) was also the Irish Party MP for the Mid Tyrone constituency from 1885 to 1900. He and his wife had six children, four sons and two daughters, James being the second son. Murnaghan was educated at UCD, graduating MA and LLB from the RUI. He was a contemporary at UCD of Hugh Kennedy (qv), who was subsequently chief justice in the supreme court, and James Joyce (qv); all three of them contributed to the student magazine, St Stephen's, of which Kennedy was the first editor, but, unlike Kennedy, whose relations with Joyce were strained, Murnaghan remained on friendly terms with Joyce and visited him in later years in Paris.
Murnaghan was admitted to the King's Inns in 1900 and called to the Irish bar in 1903. He practised on the northern and midland circuit but retained an interest in law as an academic discipline and in 1910 was appointed professor of jurisprudence, Roman law, and international law by the NUI in the newly established UCD. Since this was a part-time chair, he continued in practice as a circuit-going junior. Murnaghan does not seem to have been actively involved in Sinn Féin or in any other form of nationalist politics, but he was a member of the committee appointed by the provisional government of the Irish Free State to draft the new constitution envisaged by the Anglo–Irish treaty of 1921, and contributed significantly to its deliberations. At the same time it is clear that his rapid rise to senior judicial office in the newly established Irish Free State was due as much to his catholic and nationalist background as to his academic distinctions.
When the government came to appoint judges to the hierarchy of new Irish courts established in 1924, they faced problems because some judges in office under the previous regime were either unavailable or unacceptable, and the bar – from whose members judges in higher courts were invariably recruited – was still dominated by barristers from protestant and unionist backgrounds. Although that situation was rapidly changing, with the expansion of university education and the growing number of catholics in the legal profession, there was still a dearth of suitably qualified lawyers from the majority community, and the unusual elevation of a junior counsel to the high court reflected the government's desire to achieve a balance between unionist and nationalist appointments to the new bench. Murnaghan was one of the beneficiaries of this policy and thus achieved high judicial office despite his relatively modest professional status. Further, when Charles O'Connor (qv), who had been master of the rolls under the British regime, retired from the supreme court only a few months later, in 1925, Murnaghan was appointed his successor. The other members of the court of three were the chief justice, Hugh Kennedy (who, like Murnaghan, came from a Northern nationalist background) and Gerald Fitzgibbon, who had been returned for Dublin University as a unionist member of the Southern Ireland parliament (1921) and Dáil Éireann (1922–4). The composition of the supreme court was to remain unchanged for the next ten years and Murnaghan remained in office for twenty-eight years until he reached the retirement age of seventy-two. The judgments delivered by Murnaghan during the first part of his period of office were frequently assented to by his more experienced colleagues, without separate opinions being delivered; they were carefully reasoned and erudite and covered many topics with which his practice could hardly have made him familiar.
Although the court, in the manner of collegiate courts, was on occasions divided in its conclusions, the differing opinions did not reflect a divergence along political or sectarian lines, and this was so even in those sensitive cases where it was called on to respond to drastic forms of what would later be called anti-terrorist legislation. Thus, in the cause célèbre of The State (Ryan) v. Lennon, which such measures provoked and which was decided by the court in 1934, Murnaghan agreed with Fitzgibbon in upholding the constitutionality of the legislation, Kennedy being the dissentient. The legislation, which permitted the trial by tribunals consisting of army officers of a wide range of offences, in respect of any of which the death penalty could be imposed without any appeal, purported to amend the provisions of the Irish Free State constitution, which would have prohibited such a measure. The majority judgments effectively sanctioned the amendment of the constitution by the oireachtas in this manner: Kennedy, in a judgment that foreshadowed later developments in Irish jurisprudence, invoked the natural law as a barrier to such draconian measures; Murnaghan's judgment, like Fitzgibbon's, reflected the orthodox English view as to the sovereignty of parliament but, unlike the latter's – described by one commentator as ‘remarkable for its sustained invective and sarcasm, largely directed at the new state and its institutions’ (Gerard Hogan, ‘Chief Justice Kennedy and Sir James O'Connor's application’, Irish Jurist, new series (1988), 156) – his was mild in tone and notably regretful as to the result.
Following Kennedy's sudden death in 1936, Timothy Sullivan (qv), the president of the high court, became chief justice and there were other changes in the composition of the court with the retirement of Fitzgibbon and its expansion to five members. The enactment of the new constitution in 1937, the outbreak of the second world war in 1939, and the adoption of new anti-terrorist legislation in the form of the Offences Against the State Act 1939, permitting internment without trial, led to further major cases in the constitutional area. One of the most important arose when the president Douglas Hyde (qv) referred an amendment to the 1939 act to the supreme court for a decision as to its constitutionality. The legislation was upheld, but it was widely rumoured that, although only one judgment was delivered, the court was divided and – more tenuously – that Murnaghan was one of the two dissentients. The case reflected a conservative approach to the power of the judges to strike down legislation, which had more in common with the majority judgments in The State (Ryan) v. Lennon than with that of Kennedy in the same case, and it is not easy to see why it should have been supposed that Murnaghan's views had changed so radically in the interval.
Murnaghan delivered a judgment in at least one important constitutional case which provides surer evidence that he was capable of adopting a more interventionist approach: NUR v. Sullivan (1947), which overturned legislation regulating membership of trade unions on the ground that it violated the right of free association. His role in another leading decision, that in the Sinn Féin funds case (1947), is less certain: here the court upheld a robust rejection by George Gavan Duffy (qv) in the high court of an attempt to interfere with the court's disposal of pending litigation; the judgment also laid down important principles intended to give efficacy to the guarantee in the constitution to private property. Only one judgment could be given and it might have been thought that it would be delivered by Murnaghan, who was presiding in the absence of the chief justice, Conor Maguire (qv). In the event it was given by John O'Byrne (qv), a contemporary and friend of Murnaghan's from their days at the bar, who in some respects shared Murnaghan's conservative approach. It was unlike Murnaghan not to express a view in a major case, but whether his failure to give judgment was because he was a dissentient must remain a matter of speculation. His more cautious instincts were undoubtedly to the fore in one of his last major judgments. In Tilson's case in 1949, he refused to go so far as to say that the constitution, then unamended, did not grant the catholic church privileges denied to other religions: he contented himself with saying that the court was not holding in that case that it did.
Murnaghan retired from the bench in 1953 and died in Dublin on 13 November 1973, aged ninety-two. He was a connoisseur of fine art and his house in Upper Fitzwilliam Street contained valuable furniture and works of art, many of which he had bought in the early 1920s in dealers’ shops along the Dublin quays, where in those disturbed times bargains were to be had. He was a member of the board of governors of the NGI from 1925 and ultimately its chairman (1962). He was also a member of the board of visitors of the NMI and the Botanic Gardens, Dublin.
Murnaghan married, in 1919, Alice Davy, daughter of Thomas Davy, a member of a family well known in the professions and in business in Dublin. They had no children. She shared his love of the arts and after his death continued to live in the house in Upper Fitzwilliam Street. At the age of ninety-three she survived a robbery of the collection carried out by a gang led by the criminal Martin Cahill (qv) while she was still living in the house. She died in 1999 at the age of 104.