Rice, Sir Stephen (1637?–1715), lawyer and chief baron of the exchequer, was the son and heir of Edward Rice (d. a.1671) of Dingle, Co. Kerry. Rice's immediate background and the origins of his family are somewhat uncertain, although the surname was recorded in Dublin and Waterford as early as 1480. The family were resident in Dingle by the time of Henry VIII and, during the early seventeenth century, they represented Dingle in the Irish parliaments of 1613 and 1635. Stephen Rice is believed to have been related to Dominick Rice, member of parliament in 1635, and his wife, Alice, a daughter of James Hussey, Baron Galtrim, though the exact relationship is not clear. By the later seventeenth century, branches of the family were prominent in counties Limerick and Cork and, throughout his legal career, Rice was closely associated with the city of Limerick. He entered the Middle Temple in 1671 and became a member of King's Inns in 1674. The Rice family did not appear to have had a tradition of inns of court membership before the restoration period but before the end of the seventeenth century three further students from various branches of this Munster family were admitted to the inns of court.
By 1678 Rice had established a sizeable private practice and many of his clients, such as Theobald Burke, Baron Brittas, Patrick Arthur and Thady Quin, came from families variously associated with Limerick city and county. Like fellow lawyer Sir Toby Butler (qv), he was involved in the legal affairs of the prolific O'Brien family of counties Limerick and Clare. In 1680 he appeared as witness on a land lease involving Donough O'Brien of Lemenagh, Co. Clare (later Sir Donough O'Brien of Dromoland), and throughout the 1680s he acted as legal counsel for the Irish affairs of Sir Joseph Williamson, former English secretary of state, and his wife, Lady Catherine, widow of Henry O'Brien, son of the seventh earl of Thomond. When he became chief baron of the exchequer court in 1687, Rice recommended the Co. Limerick lawyer James Nihell (qv) to Sir Joseph Williamson as his legal adviser, with Nihell assuring Sir Joseph, in October 1687, that Rice would continue ‘to give countenance to any just affair of yours that falls under my management’ (CSPD, 1687–9, 78).
Shortly after James II (qv) succeeded to the throne, catholic lawyers were gradually appointed to the Irish bench, with an accompanying dispensation from taking the oath of supremacy. In June 1686 Rice replaced, as baron of the exchequer court, the protestant judge Sir Standish Hartstrong, a man who also had strong family and professional ties with Co. Limerick, having served as recorder of Limerick city from 1660 until his appointment to the bench in 1680. Initially Hartstrong's replacement was to have been the English lawyer Charles Ingleby, whose appointment was announced on 23 March 1686. The Irish viceroy, the second earl of Clarendon, was assured in mid-April that Ingleby would shortly be departing for Ireland but, for reasons unknown, he declined the office. Rice's appointment was confirmed a week later, much to the annoyance of Clarendon, who felt aggrieved that he had not been consulted in the matter, claiming his patent granted him the right to appoint all judges and officers to the exchequer court, with the exception of the chief baron.
Rice became a member of the privy council in May 1686, an appointment not generally accorded to a puisne judge. Like fellow lawyer Richard Nagle (qv), he was drawn into the circle surrounding Richard Talbot (qv), earl of Tyrconnell, and he gradually became involved in the political controversies of James II's reign. In August 1686, together with Tyrconnell and Nagle, he attended a meeting with Clarendon at Dublin castle, the viceroy being anxious to re-establish a commission of grace in order to resolve the land question. Rice supported the views of Tyrconnell and Nagle, who believed that a commission would achieve very little and would serve only to confirm estates that should not be confirmed. The three men argued strongly that such matters could be decided only by a parliament. Before the end of the month, Tyrconnell and Nagle had left for Whitehall to consult with the king, causing Clarendon to comment that they ‘will pretend to confirm the settlement but with so many exceptions and alterations, as will in truth overthrow it’ (Correspondence of . . . earl of Clarendon, i, 555).
The following November, Rice was involved in a matter of court privilege with the court of common pleas. When a dispute arose between certain revenue officials and merchants in the city of Limerick, the officials were arrested on the head of writs issued by the court of common pleas. Rice went to common pleas, with the black books of the exchequer, and demanded the privilege of his court for these officials, maintaining that they were officers of the exchequer court and, therefore, should not have been impleaded in the court of common pleas.
When Tyrconnell arrived in Ireland in February 1687 to replace Clarendon as Irish viceroy, the policy changes that had been implemented gradually in 1686 accelerated under his lord deputyship. Rice was knighted and appointed chief baron of the exchequer court in April 1687, following the removal of the English judge Henry Hene (or Henn). The policy of readmitting catholics to urban corporations, by dispensing them from the oath of supremacy, intensified with the instigation of quo warranto proceedings against the chartered towns. Rice played a major role in these proceedings as the old charters were brought into the exchequer court for legal determination. Rice himself was one of the catholic burgesses listed in the new charter granted to the city of Limerick in 1687. Quo warranto proceedings were designed not only to give catholics a greater role in local councils, but also to ensure a catholic majority in any future Irish parliament.
In August 1687 Rice accompanied Tyrconnell and Nagle to consultations with James II in Chester, where they succeeded in persuading the king to agree to a modification of the restoration land settlement, with permission to prepare two draft parliamentary bills for his approval. Early in 1688 Rice and Sir Thomas Nugent (qv), chief justice of the king's bench, travelled to London with the draft bills. Rice reputedly acted with great tact and eloquence, but Nugent was said to have been rash and confused. Although James II's response to the proposed bills is not known, they were strongly opposed by the English privy council. Furthermore, the two Irish judges were mocked by an angry London mob brandishing potatoes on sticks and shouting ‘make way for the Irish ambassadors’.
In January 1689 Tyrconnell sent Rice to France with William Stewart, Viscount Mountjoy (qv), ostensibly to negotiate on his behalf with the exiled James II. Mountjoy was commander of one of the few protestant regiments still serving in Ireland. As he remarked to Ormond, he was not an orthodox catholic, whom ‘in all likelihood the King would sooner give credit to’, and he clearly had reservations about the visit (Ormonde MSS, viii, 14). When the two men arrived in France, Mountjoy was confined in the Bastille, where he remained in detention until 1692. His military experience and local influence marked him out as a possible leader of the Ulster protestants and Rice, under secret instructions from Tyrconnell, effectively orchestrated his removal. Rice returned to Ireland with James II in March 1689 and, as chief baron of the exchequer court, he presumably took his place in the house of lords in James II's Irish parliament (May 1689). After the battle of the Boyne (1 July 1690), Rice accompanied the king to France, although he was soon back in Ireland, arriving at Galway with Tyrconnell and Nagle in January 1691, from whence they proceeded to Limerick.
After the final Jacobite defeat in 1691, Rice, benefiting under the articles of Limerick, retained his property and resumed his career at the bar. In 1692 he leased land in the barony of Bunratty, Co. Clare, to his son and heir, Edward, and a certain Thomas Hickman. By Hilary term 1693 he was practising in the Irish chancery court. Nicholas Rice (d. 1709) from Co. Limerick, who had been a student of the Inner Temple in 1683, was also practising in chancery by the 1690s. However, the relationship between the two men is not certain. The Rices' involvement with the O'Brien family of Co. Clare continued well into the eighteenth century. In June 1695 Sir Donough O'Brien forwarded documents to Rice relating to a land agreement of 1681 with Sir Joseph Williamson, reiterating his sole right to the property which, he informed Rice, was not to be parted with without his consent. In July 1696 Sir Donough received a letter informing him that Rice would probably go on the Munster circuit, as land inquiries were being made on behalf of the king in counties Cork, Limerick and Kerry, and Rice ‘wished to preserve his interest in Tarbert’ (Inchiquin MSS, 41). In 1704 Rice, together with fellow catholic lawyers Sir Toby Butler and Edmond Malone, appeared before the bar of the Irish house of commons to petition, on behalf of their co-religionists, against the severity of the Bill to Prevent the Further Growth of Popery, although to little avail – the bill was passed by parliament shortly afterwards.
Rice, like his catholic contemporaries on the bench, did not escape the critical pen of William King (qv). Although King acknowledged that he was ‘a man of the very best sense among them, well enough versed in the law’, he maintained that Rice was inveterate against the protestant interest and considered the Act of Settlement to be against all natural justice (King, 79–80). He accused Rice of having been a rook and a gamester at the inns of court, though this was hardly a serious indictment, given that gambling was a common pastime among students of the inns of court.
Rice died in 1715 and was buried in St James's churchyard in Dublin. He was married to Mary, daughter of Thomas Fitzgerald of Ballylaghan, Co. Limerick, and the couple had three sons, Edward, James and Thomas, and one daughter. Edward, who conformed to the established church, died just five years after his father, in 1720, but, like many catholics, he reputedly reverted to the old faith at the time of his death. The family were closely linked to other notable members of the legal profession in Munster. A sister of the Co. Limerick lawyer James Nihell married into the Rice family and Pierce Nagle from Co. Cork, brother of the attorney general, Sir Richard Nagle, married as his second wife Elizabeth Rice, frequently stated to have been the sister of Sir Stephen Rice. An incomplete patent, conferring the title of Baron Monteagle on Rice, was allegedly found among the papers of James II after the battle of the Boyne. The title was revived in September 1839 and granted to Thomas Spring Rice (qv) (1790–1860) of Mount Trenchard, Co. Limerick, who became Baron Monteagle of Brandon.