Brewster, Abraham (1796–1874), lord chancellor of Ireland 1867–8, was born 10 April 1796 in Ballymutra House, west Co. Wicklow, son of William Bagenal Brewster and his wife Mary, daughter of Thomas Bates of Askinvillar, Co. Wexford. After boarding at Kilkenny College, he matriculated into TCD (November 1811) and graduated BA (spring 1817). Completing legal studies at Gray's Inn, London (1817–18), he was called to the Irish bar (1819) and admitted to the Leinster circuit. During the 1820s and early 1830s he won standing as a tory barrister of skill and vigour, and was characterised (in repeal circles) as a political reactionary. He took silk (13 July 1835) under William Conyngham Plunket (qv), lord chancellor 1835–41, and his legal practice benefited greatly from enhanced seniority on circuit. He was offered the unsalaried but rewarding position of law adviser to the chief secretary, during the formation of the Peel (qv) administration (August 1841). Nationalist outcry unnerved Sir James Graham (home secretary 1841–6) sufficiently to have the offer suspended. But Francis Blackburne (qv), attorney general 1841–2, refused to bow to pressure against his recommendation from either side and the appointment was ratified 10 October 1841.
Though the administration had its share of political and legal controversy, Brewster's contribution to executive decisions is not known. Thanks largely to the influence of Graham, he was made solicitor general 2 February 1846, relinquishing office after the tory government fell in late June that year. He now advanced his private practice, working with fierce energy on the various circuits and in Dublin. His acceptance of the position of attorney general (appointed to that post and made privy councillor 10 January 1853) in the minority administration of the earl of Aberdeen (1852–5) offended diehard tories in Ireland and in England, suspicious of liberal–tory coalition. Their doubts seemed confirmed when in May 1853 Brewster went against type and prosecuted a military party and superintending magistrate on a coroner's warrant for the murder of four persons in an election riot at Sixmilebridge, Co. Clare, the county grand jury having rejected bills of indictment at the spring assizes. His handling of crown prosecutions was reportedly even-handed. Though invited to remain in office by Viscount Palmerston, he felt obliged to resign when the coalition broke up (February 1855).
Returning to the bar, he chalked up some of the most notable victories and defeats of his career in advocacy over the next decade. It has been reckoned that he took part in most major Irish trials between 1835 and 1865. He was also said to have been retained more frequently in cases at law than any contemporary barrister in the United Kingdom. This was partly on account of his great stamina on circuit, but it was primarily his outstanding ability in court that attracted the heavy case-load. He had a superb grasp of equity and the law of property, and a solid grounding in criminal law. He possessed great ingenuity in the psychology of interrogation: ‘in tact and the general management of cases, in the mastery of complex facts . . . in the knowledge of human nature’ (Irish Law Times, 423). Judicial interruption or a spat with opposition barristers usually fired him up: he took pride in never being caught out in argument, which suggests much careful pre-trial study. Sooner than sway a jury with eloquent appeal, he would break down witnesses with sheer verbal ferocity. He was one of the most feared barristers on circuit. Some of the noteworthy cases in which he took part included those of the Mountgarrett peerage claim (1854); the abduction of Eleanor Arbuthnot by John Rutter Carden (qv), tried at Clonmel (July 1854) (as attorney general); the Yelverton marriage (1861), which he lost; and the will of the earl of Egmont (1863).
By the early 1860s he worked principally in the courts of chancery and equity in Dublin. After James Whiteside (qv) proved hostile to the choice of Brewster as lord chancellor for Ireland in the Derby administration (1866–8), there was a bitter wrangle for seats on the bench. Blackburne was made lord chancellor of Ireland in the interim and Brewster was made lord justice of appeal (August 1866) after the brief appointment of Joseph Napier (qv). He was one of the few barristers to have got to the nineteenth-century bench without entering politics. In March 1867 he succeeded to the office of lord chancellor on the resignation of Blackburne. By now he was regarded with ill-favour by Irish tories. He was not rated highly as a judge and may have been worn-out; his temper often got the better of him in court during his short tenure. He resigned 17 December 1868 after the fall of the government. Continuing to practise quietly, he was considered for the office again in early 1874, but set aside because of his making it a condition that he be granted a peerage with remainder: he wanted to leave his only grandson with a title in addition to a large inheritance. Though he lacked powers of oratory, he was seen as one of the best Irish advocates of the nineteenth century. He died 26 July 1874 at his home in 26 Merrion Sq., Dublin, and is buried in the family vault at Tullow, Co. Carlow.
He married (1819) Mary (Maryanne) (d. 1862), daughter of Robert Gray of Upton House, Co. Carlow. They had one son and one daughter; both died in early adulthood.