Wylie, William Evelyn (1881–1964), judge and doyen of the RDS, was born 26 June 1881 at Kenilworth House, Kenilworth Square, Dublin (the residence of his maternal uncle John Girdwood Drury), son of the Rev. Robert Beatty Wylie, LLD, minister (1871–1913) of Terrace Row presbyterian church, Coleraine, Co. Londonderry, and his wife Marion (née Drury) of Dartry, Rathmines, Dublin. William was the only son; there was no brother, contrary to the suggestion of Gertie McDowell in Joyce's (qv) Ulysses. Educated at Coleraine Academical Institution, TCD (large gold medallist 1904, graduating from Dublin University BA (mod.) 1905), and the Kings Inns, Dublin (Victoria and Brooks prizeman, Hilary term 1905), he was called to the bar in 1905, commencing practice on the north-western circuit. After the usual lean start, his ready, concise, and emphatic manner won him success. His surviving fee books show a mainly common-law practice in the county court and the king's bench, with only the occasional brief in land commission cases. He was called to the inner bar (27 June 1914) when barely 33.
A member of the Trinity College OTC, he saw action in Dublin during the 1916 rising. Although mentioned in dispatches, his most significant contribution was as prosecutor at the subsequent military tribunals, a task which he found disagreeable, for he objected to both the secrecy of the trials and the absence of counsel for the defence. Having prosecuted W. T. Cosgrave (qv), he proceeded to conduct the defence at Cosgrave's request; a reprieve was recommended on the subsequent sentence of death. He later denied that he had prosecuted James Connolly (qv), despite rumours to the contrary, but there is some uncertainty about whether he prosecuted Éamon de Valera (qv), as their recollections differed nearly fifty years later.
Appointed senior crown prosecutor for Londonderry city and county in July 1917, Wylie was elected a bencher of the King's Inns in 1918. Ambitious and without political influence, he used the contact he had made with Gen. Sir John Maxwell (qv) in 1916 to procure an introduction to the chief secretary, James MacPherson (qv), who revived the office of law adviser to the government of Ireland, to which Wylie was duly appointed in July 1919 with the right to continue to practise privately.
Unless he was on circuit prosecuting (travelling by himself, as he felt that the absence of an escort added to his security), Wylie attended most of the meetings which the viceroy, Lord French (qv), had with his advisers. With the exception of James MacMahon (qv), Wylie regarded the Dublin Castle advisers as a hopeless lot, at least until a new team led by John Anderson (qv) descended on the Castle in 1920. As the Anderson regime gained experience, he felt his own influence decline, perhaps due to his frequent absence prosecuting. His other journeys to the country, for hunting or judging horses at shows, kept him in touch with the pulse of the people and enabled him to see the confusion of crime with politics. But as the strain began to tell, he expressed a wish to come in out of the rain. Hamar Greenwood (qv) agreed in May 1920 to appoint him to the next judicial vacancy.
Wylie came to recognise that Sinn Féin were capable of governing. In May 1920, after a discussion with Gen. Macready (qv), he argued with David Lloyd George, prime minister, at Cobham and Andrew Bonar Law at the house of commons, for dominion home rule, an opt-out for Ulster, and a federal link with southern Ireland. Although Edward Carson (qv) concurred, Bonar Law would not give way. Following a cabinet sub-committee conference (23 July 1920), at which he ‘gave it to them hot and strong’ (PRO, CAB 24/109, P445), Wylie felt he had failed to get his views across to the politicians. He stood up to Churchill, and was honoured with an apology, but Arthur Balfour (qv) thought ‘that young man has lost his nerve’ (Denis Henry (qv) to Wylie; PRO, Wylie memoir). Correspondence advocating dominion status, which Wylie addressed to Anderson in early August 1920, is in the Lloyd George and Bonar Law papers.
With both the passing (9 August 1920) of the Restoration of Order in Ireland Act and Black and Tan reprisals, in particular at Balbriggan the following month, Wylie found his principles of government compromised. In a memorandum dated September 1920 he complained of flaws in government policy which undermined the ‘new English executive . . . all men of tact sympathy and skill’ (Wylie papers). Wylie himself now elected to get out. He approached his uncle James Wylie, the land judge, who was convalescing in Belfast, and when the latter obligingly resigned, Wylie was appointed, after some unnerving delay, to replace him (November 1920). He went on assizes and took the land judge's list but, although a familiar figure in the Castle, he was never sworn of the privy council. For Wylie the complete resolution of the land question was necessary to secure the prosperity of the country. He used his influence to have the role of the land commission raised in the treaty negotiations, and was subsequently appointed as an ‘arbitrator’ in the financial agreement of February 1923 between the governments. Days later, Wylie crossed swords with Hugh Kennedy (qv), attorney general, over the naming of the state as Southern Ireland on court documents, stating that the judges considered the attorney's language, seeking a political reference to the Irish Free State, to be ‘unhappy and unwarranted’ (Kennedy papers).
After ratification of the treaty, Sir John Anderson formally introduced Wylie to Michael Collins (qv), who subsequently appointed him as chairman of the Irish Civil Service Compensation Commission. Over the succeeding years Wylie would serve the new state on a number of administrative bodies connected with transport and racing, acting as chairman of the Irish Railway Wages Board (1924–45), vice-chairman of the Irish Betting Board of Control (1930–45), and chairman of the Racing Board (1945–6). He was also a director of the Dublin United Tramways Company and of CIÉ, the state transport company. In 1943 he was appointed chairman of the Banking Arbitration Board.
Wylie was the youngest (and the last to retire) of the judges reappointed when the courts were reconstituted in 1924. He accepted reappointment on the basis that he would be ‘assigned the position of judicial commissioner which I now hold’. Although judges were required to deliver reserved judgements before the end of Hilary term 1924, in anticipation of the new judiciary taking office over the pending Whit vacation, the Irish Reports of 1924 record Wylie as delivering judgements in late June on two motions which he had heard under his previous jurisdiction. His decision to limit himself to the role of land judge irked his brethren on the bench, who faced an increasing workload, but, with his knowledge of the countryside and wide personal contacts, he smoothly supervised the implementations of the 1923 land act which might otherwise have been contentious. His infrequently reported judgements are for the most part technical and short, being rarely the subject of an appeal, but they bequeath no corpus of jurisprudence whose relevance would survive the completion of the work of the land commission. He retired from the bench in 1936.
Wylie joined the RDS in 1910 and became involved with its committees in 1921, unsurprisingly establishing himself as draftsman and leading authority on show jumping rules. Vice-president (1926–38), president (1939–41), thereafter honorary vice-president, and chairman of the executive committee (1936–59), Wylie's contacts with the new government were used by the RDS in the negotiations for the sale of Leinster House to the state in 1923. Wylie saw the importance of equestrian events in establishing the identity of the new state and safeguarding its equestrian trade. His efforts culminated in the 1926 Horse Show. He built a close relationship between the RDS and the Irish army, which provided the national show jumping team both at Ballsbridge and abroad until 1963. His involvement in the RDS is commemorated by the gate to Simmonscourt Road and a perpetual trophy, which bears his name.
With no RDS Horse Show from 1940 to 1945, Wylie became involved in ‘101 things during the war’. In a lengthy letter to the Irish Times (March 1941), subsequently published as a pamphlet (A dream of Ireland), he lamented the apathy of the people and the absence of direction for public opinion. While others were raising money for aircraft to destroy people (a side-swipe at Sir Thomas Molony (qv), who supported a fund to raise money among Irishmen in Britain for RAF aircraft), Wylie felt money would be subscribed to save them. Within ten days of the proposal to launch a Guild of Goodwill at the Mansion House, Dublin (19 March 1941), Wylie had 12,000 signatures of support. Together with A. P. Reynolds (qv), he secured the backing of leading business and professional men for a specially incorporated company, the Guild of Goodwill Ltd, which created outlets for additional produce, thereby enabling farmers to employ more men. The company, through two subsidiaries, established restaurants supplied with produce grown in Ireland and brought food and fuel to Dublin. It met discreet competition from Archbishop J. C. McQuaid (qv) through the Catholic Social Service Conference (also founded in early 1941), notwithstanding that Arthur Cox (qv) was solicitor to the company. Wylie sided with Senator Prof. R. J. Rowlette (qv) of TCD when the senator's initiative of 1943, concerning tuberculosis, was diverted into the Red Cross, of which Wylie was vice-chairman from its foundation in 1939 to 1946, to the annoyance of the chairman, Mr Justice Conor Maguire (qv).
During the war his daughter, a temporary civil servant, was precluded from travelling home. Wylie successfully approached Sir John Anderson to have ameliorated the British regulations governing the return home on furlough of Irish people serving with the British forces. He would later assist Sir John Wheeler-Bennett in his biography of Anderson, though he declined in 1964 a request from de Valera to see a researcher.
A competitive sportsman who had engaged in rowing, athletics, cycling, and show jumping, Wylie was a respected judge of horses, which he acquired in Ireland on behalf of Queen Elizabeth, consort of George VI. While on the bench he purchased a stud-farm at Clonsilla House of some 240 acres. Master of the Ward Union Staghounds (1925–39), he was owner of the champion hunter at the RDS Horse show in 1934, 1936 (the year he retired from the bench) and 1955. He was, too, steward of the Irish Turf Club (1951–4; 1957–60).
Quick-tempered and a stickler for punctuality, Wylie was clever, honest, encouraging, and direct. He loved Ireland passionately and gave his loyalty to the government in power yet resented total partition which had broken so much that he valued. His closest friends, like his marriage, reflected the dual strands of north and south, presbyterian and catholic, which were the fabric of his life. He married (1913) Ida, daughter of John Moloney of Dungarvan. They lived in 7 Upper Fitzwilliam St., the house formerly occupied by his uncle James, before moving to St Brendan's, Sandymount, and then to Clonsilla House which, following the death of his wife (27 September 1950), he sold, moving to the St Stephen's Green Club, Dublin, where he had been a member since 1908. He died at Portobello nursing home, Dublin, on 12 October 1964 (his death is commemorated in the Adelaide Road presbyterian church which he attended), and was buried with his wife at Clonsilla. He was survived by his daughter Marion (‘Biddy’), senior temporary assistant, Combined Production and Resources Board, Washington, on the Lend Lease programme during the second world war, who was awarded an MBE (civil) in June 1945, and by his son John, sometime secretary of the RDS.
A portrait (1944) of Wylie painted by Leo Whelan (qv), RHA, hangs in the RDS board room. A second Whelan portrait (signed but undated) of Wylie as master of the Ward Union Hounds hangs in the RDS council room with a group portrait of the first executive council painted by Dermod O'Brien (qv) in 1939.