Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Ball, John Thomas

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BALL, JOHN THOMAS (1815–1898), lord chancellor of Ireland, was the eldest son of Major Benjamin Marcus Ball, of the 40th regiment of foot, an officer who served with distinction in the peninsular campaign; his mother was Elizabeth, daughter of Cuthbert Feltus of Hollybrook, co. Carlow. Ball probably owed some of his most characteristic qualities to his paternal grandmother, Penelope Paumier, a member of an old Huguenot family settled in Ireland. He was born in Dublin on 24 July 1815 and was educated at Dr. Smith's school in Rutland Square, Dublin, and at Dublin University. Entering Trinity College in 1831 at an unusually early age, he obtained a classical scholarship in 1833, and in 1835 graduated as senior moderator and gold medallist in ethics and logic. He was an active member during his college days of the College Historical Society, holding in 1837 the office of president. In 1844 he took the degree of LL.D. During the latter part of his college career, and in his earlier days at the bar, Ball was a frequent contributor to the 'Dublin University Magazine,' and was intimately associated with Isaac Butt [q. v.], Samuel and Mortimer O'Sullivan [q. v.], Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu [q. v.], and others. Ball's contributions were for the most part concerned with historical and biographical subjects, but he also wrote some graceful verses. All his writings evince sound classical scholarship and severe and fastidious taste. In 1840 he was called to the Irish bar, where he quickly rose to an eminent position, and in 1854 he was called to the inner bar. As a queen's counsel his practice lay mainly in the ecclesiastical courts, and later in the probate and matrimonial division, where his knowledge of civil law and argumentative subtlety rapidly raised him to the leading position. In 1862 the primate, Marcus Beresford [q. v. Suppl.], appointed him vicar-general of the province of Armagh. This appointment marked the commencement of his active interest in the affairs of the Irish church, of which he was a devoted member. In 1863 Ball was elected a bencher of the King's Inns, and in 1865 was made queen's advocate in Ireland. In the same year he first appeared in the arena of politics, coming forward at the general election of 1865 as a candidate for the university of Dublin in the character of an independent churchman. The agitation against the Irish establishment had already commenced; and Ball, foreseeing the fierceness of the storm, counselled legislation for ecclesiastical reform. His policy involved the admission of deficiencies which the majority of churchmen were not prepared to own, and Ball was defeated at the polls. In 1867 Ball was nominated as a member of the royal commission appointed by Disraeli to inquire into the state of the church of Ireland, and in the following year became a member of the conservative administration as solicitor-general for Ireland. Later in the same year he was advanced to be attorney-general for Ireland. In the meantime Gladstone's declarations had raised the issue of disestablishment in a direct form, and in face of the impending peril the conservative electors of Dublin University recognised the importance of making Ball's abilities and knowledge of ecclesiastical affairs available for the defence of the threatened institution. Accordingly he was at the general election of 1868 returned to parliament as member for the university. 'Upon him from that moment devolved the task of inspiring, instructing, and inspiriting all the opposition that was possible in a hopeless minority of 120 to the mighty purpose which had rallied and united the liberal party' (Times). On the introduction of the Irish Church Act Ball at once took a leading part in the opposition to the measure. His speech on the second reading was a remarkable oratorical triumph, and placed Ball in the front rank of parliamentary speakers. Disraeli, on hearing it, expressed to his colleagues his regret that his party had not much earlier received the assistance of so powerful a champion. Ball's efforts were sustained throughout the long struggle over the details of the bill. Early in 1870, when the Marquis of Salisbury was installed chancellor of the university of Oxford, his services were acknowledged by the gift of the honorary degree of D.C.L. of that university.

Subsequently Ball helped to frame the future constitution of the disestablished church of Ireland, not only devising and drafting that constitution, but acting as assessor to the primate in the often stormy contentions of the earlier meetings of the general synod.

From 1869 to 1874 Ball remained a vigorous member of the conservative opposition, and took an active part in the debates on Gladstone's Irish land bill of 1870 and the Irish university bill of 1873. His opposition to the first-named measure was confined to effective criticism of its details; but his objections to Gladstone's university scheme went to the root of its principles. But Ball's part in parliament was not confined to merely Irish questions; one of his finest speeches dealt with the Ballot Act.

In 1871, on the formation of Disraeli's second administration, Ball's position and services clearly designated him for the highest office in the law in Ireland; but the prime minister desired to retain his services in the House of Commons in connection with the Irish judicature bill, and he was reappointed attorney-general. The care of the Irish seals was meanwhile placed in commission till he should be free to undertake their charge. In 1875 he left his place in parliament to become lord chancellor of Ireland. His tenure of office in that capacity lasted till the resignation of the Disraeli government in April 1880. In that period he earned a high reputation as a judge; his judgments, especially in appeals from the probate division, being marked by legal learning, argumentative power, and literary form. On his retirement from the chancellorship Ball withdrew to a great extent from active public life. But he accepted in 1880 the nomination by Earl Cairns to the office of vice-chancellor of the university of Dublin. In 1881 he presided over the section of jurisprudence at the meeting of the social science congress at Dublin, and delivered an enlightened address on jurisprudence and the amendment of the law.

On the return of his party to office under Lord Salisbury in 1885, Ball's health did not allow him to resume the Irish chancellorship, and he devoted such strength as remained to him to literary work. In 1886 he published 'The Reformed Church of Ireland,' a work in which he traced with impartiality and detachment the history of the church from the Reformation to his own time. The book won the praises of Canon Liddon [q. v.] for its 'very equitable handling of matters in which religious passion is apt to run riot.' A second and enlarged edition appeared in 1890. In 1888 Ball issued 'Historical Review of the Legislative Systems operative in Ireland from the Invasion of Henry the Second to the Union.' Here he sought 'to trace the succession of these systems to each other, the forms they respectively assumed, and their distinctive peculiarities, and at the same time to consider the controversies connected with the claim made by the English parliament to legislate for Ireland' (Author's preface). The fair and balanced temper in which the author dealt with contentious topics was recognised by men of every shade of opinion. Gladstone acknowledged Ball's calm and judicial method of handling his subject, and the great ability with which his uniform uprightness and intention were associated. Mr. Goldwin Smith wrote that the book 'would stand out like a block of granite amidst the tides of political and rhetorical controversy.' And Mr. Lecky expressed 'his admiration for its clearness and its perfectly judicial impartiality.' A second edition was published in 1889.

From 1890 Ball's failing strength and advancing years kept him more and more a prisoner in his house at Dundrum, co. Dublin. But he retained down to 1895 his office of vice-chancellor of the university. Subsequently increasing debility compelled him gradually to divest himself of numerous honorary offices. Among these may be mentioned those of chancellor of the arch-dioceses of Armagh and Dublin, assessor to the general synod of the church of Ireland, senator of the Royal University, and chairman of the board of intermediate education. He died at Dundrum on St. Patrick's day, 17 March 1898. He was buried at Mount Jerome cemetery, Dublin. He had married in October 1852 Catherine, daughter of Rev. Charles Richard Elrington [q. v.], regius professor of divinity in the university of Dublin; she died on 7 Sept. 1887. A portrait of Ball by Mr. Walter Osborne is in the hall of the King's Inns at Dublin.

Apart from his judicial eminence, Ball merits remembrance as one of the few Irishmen who have been strong enough to impress their convictions upon English statesmen. As an orator he achieved with great rapidity an extraordinary reputation. In his writings he was studiously sparing of ornament, and both of the treatises mentioned above suffer in point of form from excessive condensation. But their judicial tone will always render them valuable.

[Ball Wright's Records of Anglo-Irish Families of Ball; Dublin Univ. Mag., April 1875; obituary notices in the Times, 18 March 1898, and in Dublin Daily Express of same date; private information.]

C. L. F.