Toler, John (1741?–1831), 1st earl of Norbury , judge and MP, was second son of Daniel Toler of Beechwood, Co. Tipperary, and of the latter's second wife, Letitia, daughter of Thomas Otway, of Castle Otway, also of Co. Tipperary. After school in Kilkenny, he attended TCD, where he proceeded BA 1761 and MA 1766. Entering Lincoln's Inn in 1761, he was admitted to the Irish bar in 1770. A career in law and in politics beckoned. In 1777 he was appointed chairman of quarter sessions for Co. Dublin; four years later he became a KC; in 1784 he was advanced to third serjeant, and in 1787 to second serjeant. Two years later he became solicitor general, and in 1798 attorney general. Elected to the house of commons for Tralee (1776), he subsequently represented Philipstown, King's Co. (1783–90), and Gorey, or Newborough, Co. Wexford (1790–1800).
Toler enjoys a conspicuous place in revolutionary demonology. Not least of the reasons was his regular and unstinting support for the policies of Dublin Castle in the countdown to the rising of 1798. It was put thus by the Rev. John Scott in his Review of the Irish house of commons, 1789: ‘as a placeman and a lawyer seeking to be a judge, [Toler's] political conduct is readily known; it is invariably guided by the Pole Star of the Castle’. In 1778 he voted against the catholic relief bill of Luke Gardiner (qv), in 1780 against the motion by Henry Grattan (qv) on the rights of Ireland, and in 1783 against the parliamentary reform bill of Henry Flood (qv). The latter measure he castigated as ‘the legitimate offspring’ neither of the parliament nor the people; it was, rather, ‘the spurious abortion of the lying-in hospital sent into the world before its time – scarce half made up’ (Ir. parl. reg., ii, 256). Two years later, he furnished a stout defence of the controversial use by the Irish king's bench of an attachment against Reily, the Co. Dublin high sheriff (ibid., v, 396). In 1790, by now solicitor general, he spoke against Grattan's motion berating the sale of places and peerages under the administration of the marquis of Buckingham (qv). The following year, in a rebuke directed at Arthur Browne, the MP for Trinity College who sought unsuccessfully an inquiry into tampering with court records, Toler demonstrated that he was abreast of constitutional developments by which even the Castle in an appropriate case might have to abide: ‘Were this a case where the benefit of the habeas corpus act had been denied, or the principles of the bill of rights, or the declaration of rights had been violated, this house would feel itself called on to vindicate the law, and to assert the liberty of the subject’ (ibid., xi, 62). In 1792, remarks of Toler uttered in the commons which were critical of Napper Tandy (qv) triggered a challenge from the latter which led to Tandy's incarceration for breach of parliamentary privilege. Surviving the purge of senior Castle officials planned by the lord lieutenant, Fitzwilliam (qv), Toler in 1795 spoke at length against another measure of catholic relief, arguing that this could not be carried without repeal of the bill of rights, a breach of the coronation oath and the compact between the two countries (ibid., xv, 208–15).
It fell to Toler to prosecute state prisoners, including Henry (qv) and John Sheares (qv), at the special commission of July 1798 – another reason for his diminished reputation. Along with Arthur Wolfe (qv), 1st Viscount Kilwarden, and Hugh Carleton (qv), 1st Viscount Carleton, the chief justices respectively of king's bench and common pleas, he at first opposed the striking of the deal that saved the residue of the major United Irish prisoners from trial and execution in return for their agreement to suffer banishment. In 1800, on Carleton's retirement, Toler was made chief justice of common pleas and thus entered on the final stage of his career. Contemporaries, most of whom had their own axes to grind, were dismayed at the news. Toler's scanty knowledge of the law, his gross partiality, his callousness, and his buffoonery, it was asserted, completely disqualified him for the position. Clare (qv), the lord chancellor, in remarks quoted by R. Dunlop (DNB), was of like mind. Toler, in his estimation, was quite unfit: ‘Make him a bishop or even an archbishop, but not a chief justice’.
But chief justice he became, earning at the same time the title of Baron Norbury of Ballycrenode, Co. Tipperary; and he served in that capacity for twenty-seven years. Little is known of Norbury's regular discharge of his judicial duties, Irish law reports remaining infrequent and haphazard until just after Norbury's retirement. But controversy continued to dog him. When Kilwarden was murdered in July 1803 it was suggested by some that the assassins had mistaken Kilwarden for Norbury. If so, it was ironic – to employ no other epithet – that it fell to Norbury to preside (September 1803) at the trial by special commission in Dublin of Robert Emmet (qv) on treason charges. In consequence, it was Norbury at whom Emmet's famous speech from the dock was to be directly aimed. At the end of the allocutus, with its barbed reference to Norbury's ‘blood-stained hand’, the chief justice yet managed to find words that sought to create the impression in Green Street at least of an intellectual ‘draw’: ‘I was in hopes that I might have been able to recall you to a more composed state of mind, suitable to the melancholy situation in which you are placed. I lament that it was vain to attempt it’ (quoted, T. A. Emmet, Memoir of T. A. and Robert Emmet (2 vols, New York, 1915), ii, 215). At 10.30 p.m. on 19 September Emmet was sentenced to death, the warrant sanctioning the execution the next day in front of St Catherine's church at 3 p.m. For the speed marking the final instalment of the drama, Norbury can scarcely be blamed: it was the new attorney general, Standish O'Grady (qv), who had opposed the motion presented by Emmet's counsel, Leonard MacNally (qv), that judgement might have been postponed.
A letter to Norbury from a later Irish attorney general, William Saurin (qv), provoked an exchange between Brougham, who raised the issue, and Robert Peel (qv) in the house of commons at Westminster in June 1822. The letter was interpreted as advice to Norbury to use his position as an assize judge to coach the local gentry on the choice of potential MPs. The letter had been found tucked down the back of a worn-out sofa standing for sale on the Dublin quays – a circumstance that led Peel to fancy his put-down would lead the matter to be forgotten. ‘He would rather, 10,000 times over’, Hansard has Peel aver, ‘be the person who wrote that letter, even though it were 10,000 times worse, than the person who, after finding it in the street – if indeed he did find it there – made so infamous and disgraceful an use of it’ (Hansard 2, vii, col. 407). The matter was not, of course, forgotten.
In May 1826 Norbury's name was again to be bandied about in parliament. James Scarlett, soon to become English attorney general and later Chief Baron Abinger, and prompted by Daniel O'Connell (qv), presented a petition seeking Norbury's removal from office on grounds of incapacity and infirmity (Hansard 2, xv, col. 911). It was alleged that Norbury had fallen asleep during a murder trial. While defenders of the chief justice maintained that his ‘admirable temper and unequalled suavity’ would be remembered in days to come, it would appear to have been agreed that the judicial career of a man now in his eighty-sixth year should be brought to an end. Nothing happened immediately. Eventually, in 1827 a promotion in the peerage was arranged and Toler became the earl of Norbury with special remainder in favour of his second son, being created at the same time Viscount Glandine of Glandine, King's Co. (Offaly): an extraordinary accomplishment for a man whose favourite boast had been that he had begun in the world with but £50 and a pair of hair-triggered pistols. Norbury died in Dublin on 27 July 1831 and was buried in St Mary's churchyard.
He married (2 June 1778) Grace, daughter of Hector Graham, an official in the court of common pleas, and of Isabella, daughter of Robert Maxwell of Fellows Hall. They had two sons and two daughters. Norbury's wife (d. 22 July 1822) was made a peeress in her own right in 1797 as Baroness Norwood of Knockalton, Co. Tipperary. His eldest son, Daniel, 2nd Baron Norbury, was of unsound mind and survived his father but a year. The titles of both father and mother were thus inherited by the second son, Hector John, who was murdered in the grounds of his residence at Durrow Abbey near Kilbeggan, Co. Westmeath, on New Year's day 1839. The family butler, egged on by Ribbonmen, was reputed to have been the assassin.