In 2015, Kelly Buchanan compiled a series of posts to celebrate Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day with contributions from foreign law specialists, analysts, and interns at the Law Library of Congress. The final post in the series, Women and History: Lawyers and Judges, features the stories of the first women lawyers and judges from 19 different countries. While reading this post, I realized that March is also Irish Heritage Month. To commemorate both International Women’s Day and Irish Heritage Month this year, I would like to share the story of Averil Deverell, the first woman to practice as a barrister in Ireland.
Born in Dublin in 1893, Averil Katherine Statter Deverell attended the French School, Bray, Co. Wicklow, where she performed in many of their dramatic productions. While attending Trinity College, she continued to act and even appeared in a suffragette play. In 1915, she received a law degree and became one of the first female graduates of Trinity College. After the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was passed in 1919, Averil joined Frances Kyle as one of the first two female students at King’s Inn. In November 1921, alongside her twin brother, Averil was called to the Bar in Dublin. Just a few months later, in January 1922, Averil broke through gender traditions once again when she entered the all-male cohort of the Law Library at the Four Courts.
Serving as a pioneer for women in the previously male-only law profession is impressive on its own. Yet when I take a step back and consider that many of Averil’s accomplishments were achieved throughout the turmoil of World War I, I am truly in awe of her persistence. After graduating from Trinity College, Averil worked as a VAD Nursing Sister at both Trinity and in her hometown of Wicklow, where she served for hundreds of hours. With this experience, she convinced authorities to permit her to drive an ambulance in France until she began serving with the French Red Cross in 1918. It was shortly after her service in France that she began to train as a barrister at the King’s Inn.
For many who are not familiar with Irish history, it may be assumed that Averil escaped the perils of war when she finally joined the Law Library at the Four Courts. Yet the outcome of the Irish War of Independence had a great impact on her work at the Four Courts. After the creation of the independent Irish Free State in 1922, anti-Treaty forces set fire to the Four Courts in addition to the nearby Public Record Office. The fire destroyed most of the Law Library’s collection, including the personal belongings and correspondence of the barristers. Averil worked alongside her male colleagues to construct a temporary library in St. Patrick’s Hall of Dublin Castle, where the Law Library was housed until 1931.
Since many records were destroyed in the fire at the Four Courts, it was quite significant when a trove containing the personal objects and documents of Averil Deverell was discovered just two years ago. Retired English Judge Liz Goldthorpe found the collection while researching early women lawyers in the UK. The collection contains ephemera and other documents that add important context to the story of Averil Deverell that we know today.
As I have learned more about Irish women’s suffrage while researching for this post, it has been fascinating to consider what was happening concurrently in the United States. During the same year that the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was passed and enabled Averil Deverell to train as a barrister, Congress approved the 19th amendment in 1919, which granted women the right to vote. This women’s suffrage amendment was later ratified by the states in 1920. As we approach the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment, the Library of Congress is preparing to install a new exhibition, “Shall Not Be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote,” which opens on June 4th. The exhibition will draw from the Library’s collections of personal papers to tell the story of the campaign for women’s suffrage.