Ó Dálaigh, Cearbhall (1911–78), chief justice of Ireland, judge of the court of justice of the European Communities, and president of Ireland, was born 12 February 1911 at 85 Main St., Bray, Co. Wicklow, second among three children of Risteard Ó Dálaigh, manager of McCabe's fish shop, and Una Ó Dálaigh (née Ní Dhroighneain). He was educated in the national school in Bray, Scoil na Leanbh in Ring, Co. Waterford, and the CBS, Synge St., Dublin. He graduated with a BA in Celtic studies from UCD and was conferred with the degree of barrister-at-law by King's Inns and called to the bar in 1934. At the time he was working as the Irish editor of the recently founded Irish Press. His keen interest in the Irish language was thus evident at an early stage in his career. In 1934 he married Máirin Nic Dhiarmada (qv), a fellow student who was also interested in Irish studies and with whom he spent many holidays in Co. Kerry. She was born in India, where her father was employed in the Indian civil service.
After his call to the bar, Ó Dálaigh embarked on practice as a barrister in Dublin. He made little impact as a junior counsel; it may be that his somewhat diffident personality was not ideally suited to the rough and tumble of practice at the bar. He was, however, active in politics from an early stage as a supporter of the Fianna Fáil party. He was on two occasions an unsuccessful candidate for election to Dáil Éireann. Ó Dálaigh became a senior counsel in 1944 and was appointed attorney general to the Fianna Fáil government in 1946; he was at that stage the youngest person to have held the office. He held it first till 1948, when Fianna Fáil left government till their return in 1951. He held it from then till his appointment as a judge of the supreme court in 1953.
Although his experience as a barrister was limited, his judgments as an ordinary member of the court displayed industry and learning and a notable ability to analyse difficult legal problems in a clear and logical fashion. He also won early praise for his courteous approach to all those who appeared in court, whether as counsel, solicitors, or litigants in person. But his appointment to succeed Conor Maguire (qv) as chief justice on the retirement of the latter (1961) did provoke some controversy in legal circles. Two formidable contenders, in particular, were passed over by the Fianna Fáil government, Cecil Lavery (qv), the senior ordinary member of the court, and Cahir Davitt (qv), the president of the high court. Lavery made no secret, in private at least, of his resentment and it was well known that relations between him and the new chief justice remained strained for some time after his appointment.
Under Ó Dálaigh's leadership, however, the supreme court embarked on what was to prove one of the most fruitful decades in its history. In particular, he made it clear that the court would be vigilant in upholding the fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution, and challenges to the validity of legislation and acts of the executive on constitutional grounds were now far more likely to succeed than had been the case in the early years of the constitution. Ó Dálaigh received notable support in setting the new course of the court from Brian Walsh (qv), who had been appointed to the court on the day that Ó Dálaigh had been appointed chief justice, and who shared his vigorous and innovative approach to the development of an Irish constitutional jurisprudence. He was also helped by the presence of two other powerful legal intellects on the court: Lavery, who ultimately came to accept the qualities that Ó Dálaigh was bringing to the position, and Theodore Kingsmill Moore (qv), whose finely written judgments were a feature of the court of that period.
An outstanding example of the new approach was the case of The State (Quinn) v. Ryan (1965). The claim made on behalf of the gardaí in that case – that they were entitled to arrest a citizen and whisk him out of the jurisdiction to England before he had any opportunity of considering his rights – was described by Ó Dálaigh as ‘the negation of the law and the denial of justice’ (The Irish reports, 1965 (1966), 121). He added:
It was not the intention of the constitution in guaranteeing the fundamental rights of the citizens that these rights should be set at naught or circumvented. The intention was that rights of substance were being assured to the individual and that the courts were the custodians of these rights. As a necessary corollary it follows that no one can with impunity set these rights at naught or circumvent them and that the courts' power in this regard are as ample as the defence of the constitution requires. [ibid., 122]
Another notable judgment in the history of the Ó Dálaigh court was Ryan v. The Attorney General (1965) in which Ó Dálaigh's judgment upheld the finding of John Kenny in the high court that the guarantee of personal rights in the constitution was not confined to the rights actually specified in the document but extended to ‘unenumerated rights’. The extent to which the courts were now prepared to strike down actions of the oireachtas and the executive on grounds significantly wider than those hitherto recognised was vividly demonstrated in Re Haughey (1971). That case arose out of the failure of a witness to answer questions before the Dáil Éireann committee of public accounts, concerning the expenditure of grant-in-aid monies for Northern Ireland. His refusal to answer the question was upheld by the supreme court, Ó Dálaigh holding that he had not been afforded reasonable means of defending himself: counsel was not entitled to cross-examine witnesses who had made allegations against him or to address the committee on his behalf. Ó Dálaigh made it clear that the constitutional guarantee of fair procedures were not confined to criminal trials and extended to any proceedings in which the good name, person, or property of the citizen was at risk.
In 1972 Ó Dálaigh resigned from the office of chief justice to become the first Irish member of the court of justice of the European Communities, to which Ireland acceded on 1 January 1973. His correspondence with Walsh and Kingsmill Moore at the time suggests that he was influenced in his decision to leave Dublin for Luxembourg by his belief that he had served too long in the supreme court. He was concerned that the executive might seek to halt, and even to roll back, the new constitutional developments, and considered the court needed a new chief justice. His letters leave no doubt that he thought Walsh should be his successor and that he was disappointed by the government's decision to appoint instead the more conservative William O'Brien FitzGerald (qv).
Ó Dálaigh adapted with apparent ease to his new role in Luxembourg, but his tenure of the office was to be relatively short-lived. The sudden death of the president of Ireland, Erskine Childers (qv), in November 1974 presented the political parties with a problem: they had depleted their finances in a general election and a presidential election in the previous year, and none of them had any stomach for another contest. The ‘national coalition’ of Fine Gael and Labour, which had come to office following the general election with Liam Cosgrave as taoiseach, agreed with Fianna Fáil that, if Ó Dálaigh was willing to accept the office, he should be put forward as an unopposed candidate. Ó Dálaigh was duly nominated without opposition and was inaugurated as president in December of that year in the traditional ceremony in Dublin Castle.
The office of president had been created by the constitution because of the wish of Éamon de Valera (qv) to replace what he saw as a constitutional void left by the abolition of the office of governor general. Save in two respects, the position was purely titular: the president could refuse to grant a dissolution to a taoiseach who had lost the confidence of the dáil and could refer bills passed by both houses to the supreme court for an opinion as to whether they were constitutional. In his inaugural speech, Ó Dálaigh made clear his ambition to extend the boundaries of the office so far as the constitution permitted. That had also been the hope of his predecessor, but like him, Ó Dálaigh was to find it difficult to achieve his ambitions.
Matters were not helped by his uneasy relationship with the executive. Ó Dálaigh was reportedly nettled by what seemed to him a disinclination on the part of Cosgrave to keep him informed on matters of state. The strained relationship, however, reached breaking point when Ó Dálaigh exercised one of the discretions left to him under the constitution by referring a bill to the supreme court after he had taken the advice, as he was required to do, of the council of state. The bill was the Emergency Powers Bill, 1976, introduced by the government in response to a worsening in the security position both north and south of the border arising from the continual political unrest in Northern Ireland, which had culminated in the assassination of the British ambassador. The bill provided for the detention, for up to seven days, of persons suspected of subversive activity, and was passed in pursuance of a resolution of the two houses that a state of emergency existed, thus effectively shielding the bill, once it became an act, from scrutiny by the courts. The supreme court in due course upheld the constitutionality of the bill.
However, the minister of defence, Patrick Donegan (qv), at an army function in Mullingar, criticised the action of the president in the course of some impromptu remarks and described him as a ‘thundering disgrace’. An alert reporter on a provincial newspaper transmitted the remarks to the national media. (The reporter in question has subsequently denied that the minister used even earthier language.) Ó Dálaigh was deeply offended by both the content and the tone of Donegan's remarks and sent him immediately a strongly worded letter of protest. He was particularly incensed by the fact that the comments were made by the minister for defence at an army function, since he (Ó Dálaigh) was the titular commander-in-chief of the army. Donegan apologised for his remarks, and an opposition motion calling for his resignation was defeated on 21 October.
However, Ó Dálaigh was in no way mollified by what he regarded as a lukewarm response by the taoiseach and the minister, and he resigned from office on the following day, stating that this was ‘the only way open to me to assert publicly my personal integrity and independence as president of Ireland and to protect the dignity and independence of the presidency as an institution’. This effectively brought Ó Dálaigh's public career to a close: he and his wife lived in retirement near Sneem, Co. Kerry. They paid a visit to China in May 1977 as guests of the Chinese government. Ó Dálaigh died suddenly on 21 March 1978 following a heart attack and was buried in Sneem cemetery after a state funeral.
Small in stature and invariably friendly and unaffected in his manner, Ó Dálaigh had many friends. He had a deep interest in the arts and was a lifelong lover of the theatre and an extremely active vice-president of the Dublin Theatre Festival. He numbered among his friends actors and writers such as Cyril Cusack (qv) and Paul Durcan.
He was survived by his wife, Máirin (d. January 1994). They had no children. There is a bronze bust by Garry Trimble and a portrait in black, red, and white chalk by Thomas Ryan, both of which are excellent likenesses, in the King's Inns. A portrait by Edward McGuire (qv), showing Ó Dálaigh in the judicial robes of the European court, hangs in Luxembourg; another portrait by McGuire is in the presidential room of the National Museum, Dublin.