Atkinson, John (1844–1932), lawyer, politician, and judge, was born 13 December 1844 at Ballynoe, Drogheda, Co. Louth, the elder son of Dr Edward Atkinson (1801–76), of Glenwilliam Castle, Co. Limerick, and Skea House, Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh, and his first wife, Rosetta McCulloch (d. 1849), daughter of Captain John Shaw McCulloch of the 27th Regiment.
Educated at the RBAI and QCG (from 1858), Atkinson graduated BA with first-class honours in 1861 and in 1864 was awarded a diploma in elementary law. After reading for the bar at King's Inns he was called to the Irish bar in Hilary term 1865. While practising on the Munster circuit he built up a large miscellaneous practice, and despite his relative youth took silk in 1880. He became a leading member of the inner bar, and on occasion Irish appeals brought him before the house of lords. In 1885 he was made a bencher of King's Inns. He was briefed in many high-profile cases, as when he represented The Times before the Parnell commission (1888). A lawyer with political ambitions, Atkinson was appointed solicitor general for Ireland in December 1889 and was called to the English bar by the Inner Temple in 1890. In July 1892 he was appointed Irish attorney general and a member of the Irish privy council. However, with the fall of Lord Salisbury's administration just a month later he found himself replaced as attorney general, and he resigned from the privy council.
In 1895 Atkinson was elected MP for Londonderry North, a seat he held until 1905, and with the return of Lord Salisbury to power he was once again appointed attorney general. In politics he was a conservative unionist favouring progress and justice without discrimination. He also favoured abolition of dual ownership of land, and in his role as attorney general his advice on the Irish land problem was of immense assistance to three successive chief secretaries. He was highly thought of by Gerald Balfour (qv), most particularly for his work on the Land Act (1896) and the Local Government Act (1898). Critical of the scheme for devolution put forward by Sir Anthony MacDonnell (qv), he described the proposals as ‘a weak and silly attempt to grant home rule on the sly’ (Ir. Times, 14 Oct. 1904) and was to the fore in presenting the loyalist case against MacDonnell and George Wyndham (qv), leading to Wyndham's resignation. Having carried out the duties of the chief secretary during Wyndham's breakdown, he declined the post in 1905, arguing that he was a lawyer, not a politician.
In December 1905 Atkinson was appointed a lord of appeal in ordinary, becoming the first member of the Irish bar to be appointed directly to the highest level of the judiciary. Given a life peerage, he took the title Baron Atkinson of Glenwilliam , Co. Limerick. At the same time he became a privy councillor. Atkinson never claimed to be an intellectual lawyer and his appointment was unpopular with many in the profession, who viewed him as a politician rather than a lawyer. However, his subsequent career dispelled any fears about his lack of competence and partisanship. In 1915 efforts were made by the coalition government to remove him in favour of James Campbell (qv), but Atkinson refused to resign. He retired in February 1928.
On 22 March 1873 Atkinson married Rowenna Jane Chute (d. 1911), the daughter of Dr Richard Chute of Tralee, Co. Kerry. They had four sons, including Cecil Thomas Atkinson (1876–1919), KC (1917) and judge of the high court of India, who died in an accident on the Indian railway. Two of Atkinson's other sons also predeceased him. The family lived at 39 Hyde Park Gate, London, and Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin. Atkinson died 13 March 1932 in London. A portrait of him by John St Helier Lander is in the possession of the King's Inns, Dublin; a facsimile appears in King's Inns portraits.