FitzGerald, William O'Brien (‘Billy’) (1906–74), barrister and judge, was born 26 March 1906 in Cork. His mother, Mary Frances Dormon, was married first to William Dwyer, and then, after Dwyer's death, to William FitzGerald who was clerk of the crown and peace in Mallow; the younger William (or ‘Billy’ as he was always known) was the only son of her second marriage. His father was a widower when he married Mary, and there had been one son of his first marriage, John Mary FitzGerald (‘Jack’; 1882–1946), who like his half-brother became a prominent barrister.
FitzGerald was educated at Belvedere College, Dublin, and UCD. He was admitted to the King's Inns, Dublin, in 1924 and called to the bar in 1927. He practised initially as a junior counsel in Cork, where he became known for his lively, combative courtroom style and his knowledge of many branches of the law. He took silk in 1944. This was an era of great Irish advocates, such as John A. Costello (qv) and Cecil Lavery (qv); when Costello became taoiseach and Lavery went on the bench, FitzGerald was seen as their obvious successor. Stocky and rubicund, he was a particularly devastating cross-examiner notable for a much envied ability to catch witnesses off guard with a series of staccato questions delivered in a rasping voice.
Although FitzGerald initially practised in a number of different areas, the legal scene in the 1940s and 1950s, when he flourished, was dominated by personal injuries cases which were tried by juries. His forensic skills and his shrewdness in handling juries made him the acknowledged leader of the ‘running down’ bar as it was called, but it was a source of regret to many solicitors and clients that his remarkable legal talents were not always available in other areas of the law. He was immensely popular with his colleagues, was elected a bencher of King's Inns in 1950, and served as chairman of the bar council for three years in the 1950s.
FitzGerald married Clare O'Brien on 31 July 1933. They had nine children, of whom two, a boy and a girl, died in infancy. While he was not a particularly active politician, he was a member of the Fine Gael party for many years and there was widespread surprise when a Fianna Fáil government appointed him to the supreme court in 1966. Until then appointments by governments of every hue were almost invariably made on a political basis, and FitzGerald's elevation was seen as a welcome departure from that practice. Of even more significance was his appointment as chief justice in December 1972, again by a Fianna Fáil government. It had been expected in legal circles that Brian Walsh (qv) would succeed the retiring chief justice, Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh (qv), and FitzGerald's appointment was seen as prompted by the government's desire for a more conservative figure – a reaction to the increasing problems of crime and security, deriving in part from the situation in Northern Ireland. That FitzGerald's instincts were those of a conservative is not in doubt, but in the event he was to hold the highest judicial office for less than two years.
FitzGerald's relatively brief period as a judge found him in conflict on a number of occasions with his more liberal-minded colleagues Walsh, Ó Dálaigh, and Gardner Budd (qv). Thus he dissented from the majority in Byrne v. Ireland (1971) when they held that the state could be sued in an action for tort (a civil wrong other than a breach of contract). Again he was the solitary dissentient when the supreme court held in McGee v. Attorney General (1973) that the legislative prohibition of the importation for personal use of contraceptives violated the implied constitutional guarantee of privacy. Even those who sympathised with FitzGerald's preference for a less activist approach than that favoured by his colleagues conceded that his record as a judge was on the whole unimpressive, particularly when contrasted with his dazzling career at the bar. But he had made no secret to his close friends at the bar of his misgivings in accepting appointment to the bench, and they proved justified when he found the constraints of office at odds with his exuberant and pugnacious nature. He also missed the gregarious and convivial life of the bar library, a smaller and more intimate institution in those days.
FitzGerald died after a short illness on 17 October 1974, survived by his widow and seven children. There is a portrait by Pat Phelan in King's Inns, painted posthumously from photographs in 1979.