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Members: 14 September 2021

An update from Diarmuid O’Leary BL, 2020–2021 McCarthy Scholar

An update from Diarmuid O’Leary BL, 2020–2021 McCarthy Scholar

Recent Barrister–at–Law Graduate Diarmuid O’Leary BL reports on his experience as the 2020–2021 McCarthy Scholar.

Every year, King’s Inns awards the McCarthy Bursary to one student who might not otherwise be able to take the degree at Barrister–at–Law course. The purpose of the Bursary is to encourage their understanding of human rights law and its increasingly complex application in the courts and elsewhere.

The McCarthy Bursary consists of:

  1. Full remission of fees (€12,560) for the degree of Barrister–at–Law course
  2. A grant to help the Scholar with their studies
  3. An internship at the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg – usually taken in the summer following the award of the bursary
  4. Grant to cover travel and subsistence costs while interning in Strasbourg

Learn more about the Bursary here.

In Diarmuid’s own words

It is no understatement to say that the Justice Niall and Barbara McCarthy Bursary changed my life and opened doors for me that I could not have envisaged. This short piece is intended to encourage all prospective students of the degree of Barrister–at–Law at King’s Inns to consider applying for this Scholarship. I will discuss why I applied for the McCarthy Bursary, the responsibilities associated with the great McCarthy legacy and the opportunities afforded to me following my selection as McCarthy Scholar.

Applying for the McCarthy Bursary

I had a strong desire to practise as a barrister since I was in school. However, being someone who had no family in the legal profession, the path to and through the profession appeared daunting to me. Nevertheless, when the Justice Niall and Barbara McCarthy Bursary applications opened, I decided to chase the opportunity to attend King’s Inns straight after my undergraduate law degree. I did not expect the process to be so transformative. Taking the time to study the champion of the legal system that was Justice McCarthy and the lasting impact that his judgments have had on Irish law and society gave me a real sense of the importance of the roles of barristers and judges. 

CJ with Diarmuid O'Leary

Chief Justice Frank Clarke with McCarthy Scholar Diarmuid O’Leary at the degree of Barrister–at–Law induction day in September 2021

I was fascinated by his persistent and unwavering desire to protect individual rights, especially those of the vulnerable. In particular, Justice McCarthy’s words in The State (Trimbole) v Governor of Mountjoy Prison [1985] 1 IR 550, where he emphasised that “what is most relevant is that the courts should defend the Constitution and the constitutional rights of every person within the jurisdiction of the courts”, gave me a deep sense of the responsibility of the Irish judicial system. Barristers, of course, play a key role in this process and must assist the judiciary in arriving at sound decisions. I believe that the rights of individuals should be consistent to the fore. However, Justice McCarthy never sacrificed the rule of law; instead, he rigorously applied legal rules and principles but recognised that the legal system’s core role and purpose are, in many ways, to protect individual rights. This is a legacy that can only have a positive influence on students of his legal work. 

The Legacy of Justice Niall McCarthy

The importance of this legacy is recognised and promoted by the McCarthy family and friends of the McCarthy family in the form of the Justice Niall and Barbara McCarthy Bursary. The creation of this Scholarship gives people the opportunity to enter into this great profession with a sense of purpose and guidance based on the ideals expressed in the judgments of Justice McCarthy. The bursary also allows the selected student to see these ideals in action during an internship in the European Court of Human Rights. In this context, the process of applying for the bursary and being selected for the bursary will have fostered a strong generation of barristers who are intent on keeping the legacy of one of Ireland’s most outstanding legal minds alive. Unfortunately, I have not yet had the opportunity to undertake this internship due to Covid–19. Still, I do not doubt that the experience will greatly assist my understanding of international human rights issues and deepen my understanding of Justice McCarthy’s passion for their vindication.

For me, being selected as the McCarthy Scholar nurtured a sense of purpose and responsibility during my time at King’s Inns, pushing me to work as hard as I could and encouraging me to give myself the best possible opportunities going forward. As a result of my commitment to the McCarthy legacy, I achieved the highest mark in the degree of Barrister–at–Law exams, receiving the John Brooke Memorial Prize.


The McCarthy Scholarship also opened up doors beyond Ireland and greatly assisted me in applying for a Master of Laws degree in the United States. In large part, as a result of holding a scholarship bearing the great McCarthy name, I was fortunate enough to be selected as the Rudolf B. Schlesinger Scholar of Cornell Law School. While at Cornell, I will pursue courses related to international human rights, criminal law and the judicial role. The McCarthy legacy influences these topics, and I believe they will help me preserve his fundamental approach to law. After completing my LL.M. at Cornell, I will return to Ireland and devil at the criminal bar. 

Cornell tower

McGraw Tower on the central campus of Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York

The opportunities that this bursary presented to me are immeasurable, and I am sincerely grateful for this. Arguably more important, however, is the responsibility entrusted to those who read the judgments of Justice McCarthy and discover values contained therein. For these reasons, I greatly encourage all students entering King’s Inns to consider the lives and legacy of Justice Niall and Barbara McCarthy, apply for the bursary, and use what you discover to enhance your understanding of the importance of Ireland’s great legal tradition.

Diarmuid O’Leary, September 2021