Ronan, Stephen (1848–1925), lawyer and lord justice of appeal in Ireland, was born 13 April 1848 in Cork city, eldest son of Walter Ronan, local catholic solicitor, and Sarah Ronan (née McNamara). Historically, the family had owned property in Limerick which brought with it ancient ceremonial privileges recognised by Limerick corporation. Educated initially in Cork, Stephen spent three years at school in France, taking a great interest in its literary heritage. He was physically small but achieved notice by his sharp, dramatic appearance and intellectual brilliance. In 1864 he attended QCC, where he excelled in mathematics, science, logic, metaphysics, and political economy, and graduated BA in 1867. He studied law at the Inner Temple, London, in 1868, adopting at times an alarmingly aggressive procedural style, and was called to the Irish bar in 1870. He subsequently worked with leading barrister Christopher Palles (qv), a fellow catholic who became attorney general of Ireland (1872–4).
Ronan was appointed junior crown prosecutor for Co. Kerry in 1873, his entrée to a career as a criminal prosecutor. He became a QC in 1880 and acted at the Cork winter assizes of 1881 in cases of intimidation and ‘agrarian outrage’ during the land war. Varying his legal experience as widely as possible, he was appointed by John Naish (qv) (attorney general 1883–5), as his counsel. In 1887 Ronan was replaced by Edward Carson (qv) under John George Gibson, attorney general 1887–8, but was retained in an auxiliary role by Gibson, in deference to his professional reputation. He was called to the English bar in 1888, and after acting as counsel for The Times (replacing Carson, who had been taken ill) on the Parnell (qv) commission of that year, he worked directly for the attorney general of England, Richard Webster.
Ronan took silk in Ireland in 1889, and in 1891 became senior crown prosecutor for Cork city and county. In 1892 he became a bencher of King's Inns, Dublin, and worked in the admiralty court, which in the same year brought him the post of queen's advocate general for Ireland. He retained this appointment for over twenty years, increasing his role in chancery court cases and appeals to the house of lords. Although he was a liberal unionist in outlook (Ball, ii, 384), his personal contempt for politics and politicians earned him no favours outside his own profession, especially in the culture of political patronage that then prevailed. He continued as a senior counsel into the new century, taking silk in England in 1909. Eventually, under the chief-secretaryship of Augustine Birrell (qv), who recognised him as a meritorious and hard-working lawyer, he became a lord justice of appeal in Ireland in 1915 and joined the Irish privy council. However, after so many years of waiting, albeit in advocacy of a highly professional kind, he was now almost 70 and, having never been in robust health, was beginning to lose his incisive mental powers. He remained an able but overly analytical judge, whose complex decisions appeared obscure in a modernising legal system. The transition to Irish independence in 1922 displaced him further from his familiar environment, and he retired in 1924 when the courts of justice act officially changed the judiciary and courts system under the Free State administration.
Stephen Ronan's life had been devoted almost exclusively to the law, although his few outside interests had included cricket and sailing. He travelled abroad in mid-life, but although he was reputed to have been especially kind towards those in economic distress, he made few friends and never married. He became reclusive as he grew older and died 3 October 1925, aged 77, at his home, 45 Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin.