Atkinson, John, Baron Atkinson, of Glenwilliam 1844-1932, judge, was born at Drogheda, co. Louth, 13 December 1844, the elder son of Edward Atkinson, physician, of Glenwilliam Castle, co. Limerick, and Skea House, Enniskillen, by his first wife, Rosetta, daughter of John Shaw McCulloch. From the Royal Belfast Academical Institution he entered Queen's College, Galway (a constituent college of the old Royal University of Ireland), where he gained scholarships in his first three years, in his fourth a senior scholarship in mathematics, and in his fifth a senior scholarship in natural philosophy. He graduated with first class honours in 1861 and in 1862 he entered as a student both in King's Inns, Dublin, and at the Inner Temple. In 1865 he was called to the Irish bar, and in the same year took the Bachelor of Law degree with honours, becoming a bencher of King's Inns in 1885. He joined the Munster circuit, of which he remained a member until his appointment as a law officer. He was called to the English bar by the Inner Temple in 1890, and was elected a bencher in 1906. Meanwhile his practice in Ireland was increasing and became large. In 1880, at an exceptionally early age, he took silk, and after appointment in 1889 as solicitor-general for Ireland and in 1892 as attorney-general, he was sworn of the Irish Privy Council that same year, but the fall of Lord Salisbury's administration put a speedy period to his tenure of office. It was not until 1895 that he entered the House of Commons as conservative member for North Londonderry, having earlier in the year been once more chosen to be attorney-general for Ireland. He continued in that office until, in 1905, he was appointed a lord of appeal in ordinary with the title of Lord Atkinson, of Glenwilliam, co. Limerick, and was sworn of the English Privy Council. In office his knowledge of land and social problems in Ireland rendered him a highly valued adviser to the chief secretary for Ireland, Gerald Balfour (later second Earl of Balfour) in the framing and passing of the Irish Land Act of 1896 and the Local Government Act of 1898.
Atkinson was the first Irish barrister to go direct from his practice at the bar to the House of Lords. His appointment called forth criticism on the ground that the room of a great lawyer like Lindley should not have been filled by one better known as a politician than as a legist, but the sequel did not justify the doubts about his competence as a judge. Not that he was a profound lawyer—he was the last man to have made such a claim; but he was a ready speaker, an energetic worker possessing an instinctive and sincere passion for justice, and, above all, endowed with the gifts of courage both physical and moral, and an inflexible sense of duty, which enabled him to steer undaunted a straight course through the stormy seas of Irish political life during a period when navigation was by no means easy, and to resist the strong pressure put upon him to resign by the first coalition government in order to satisfy the requirements of the political party leaders. He resigned his seat as a lord of appeal in 1928.
Atkinson married in 1873 Rowena Jane (died 1911), daughter of Richard Chute, M.D., of Tralee, co. Kerry, and had four sons, the three elder of whom predeceased their father. He died in London 13 March 1932. An excellent portrait, by John St. Helier Lander, hangs in the dining-hall of King's Inns, Dublin.
The Times, 14 and 15 March 1932
Contributor: Theodore C. Tobias.