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Gerard O’Brien: Convicted judge overcame severe physical disability to teach and pursue legal career

Disabled from birth due to Thalidomide, Gerard O’Brien previously served as Fianna Fáil town councillor and as State solicitor for North Tipperary

Gerard O’Brien, who was born severely physically disabled with no arms and just one leg, was appointed a judge of the Circuit Court in 2014.

Now aged 59, O’Brien was disabled as a result of Thalidomide, a drug used to combat morning sickness during pregnancy until its withdrawal here in 1962, a year after it was withdrawn internationally due to causing major birth defects. The Irish Thalidomide Association has said the drug remained on pharmacy shelves and in homes for some years after 1962.

O’Brien was the subject of a documentary broadcast on RTÉ Radio 1 in 1992 which featured contributions from him, his mother, and several friends and acquaintances.

His mother said she was not permitted see her son after his birth for some three weeks and was told only that he was very weak and might not survive.


“He was a lovely baby, no matter what is wrong with them, sure you want him to live,” she said.

“I was praying he would survive and everyone else was praying he would die.”

In the documentary, O’Brien said his father died in 1973 after a long and unsuccessful battle with the Thalidomide board for compensation over the administration of the drug.

O’Brien told the documentary he had never asked himself why he could not have “a straightforward life” like everyone else, and just got on with life as best he could. He also said he would have liked to get married, have children and have someone to share life with.

His main frustrations concerned getting dressed and going to the toilet, he said.

Before embarking on a teaching career, O’Brien had qualified as a solicitor. However, having been unsuccessful in getting work as a lawyer, he secured teaching hours at a second-level school in Co Dublin during the 1990s.

The offences that gave rise to the criminal proceedings against him occurred between 1991 and 1997.

After he ceased teaching, O’Brien secured work with the law firm Garrett Sheehan & Co Solicitors.

He also worked with Roger Greene & Sons Solicitors, whose clients included health boards and the HSE, before he established his Thurles-based firm, Gerard O’Brien Solicitors, in 2006.

Well-known in Thurles through his involvement in musicals and youth choirs, he ruffled some feathers when first elected to Thurles Urban District Council in 2009.

Running for Fianna Fáil, O’Brien said in his election literature that he “believed in a different kind of politics… it is my desire to work not only for a better Thurles but a better council, a council that will work tirelessly for the town of which we are all so proud, a council where all members will work for you”.

He was not long elected as a councillor when, as deputy mayor of Thurles, he provoked something of a backlash when he tried to streamline council proceedings by limiting the numbers of items that could be raised under any other business (AOB) to just two items per councillor.

He told his colleagues in October 2009 he was left aghast by the number of items raised by members under AOB – 47 at the previous month’s meeting. His proposed reform attempt was condemned by Cllr Noel O’Dwyer, who said the local authority was “turning into a dictatorship”.

O’Brien’s term of office on Thurles UDC was relatively short-lived. Just three years later, he resigned from the council upon his appointment as State solicitor for North Tipperary.

After the announcement in November 2014 that O’Brien had been appointed a judge of the circuit court, he came to Cork Circuit Court and spent a number of months shadowing his senior colleague Judge Seán Ó Donnabháin before he began hearing cases on his own.

After formal complaints were made to gardaí in 2019 about alleged offences in the 1990s, investigations commenced, led by Insp Jonathan Hayes of the Garda National Protection Services Bureau, and O’Brien was charged in 2021.

On Friday, Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said she noted the criminal conviction secured against the judge.

“My thoughts are with the victims – these are appalling cases of sexual assault, I thank them for coming forward. I would also like to thank the gardaí,” she said.

“I have been clear that we have a lot of work to do to achieve my aim of zero tolerance in our society for all forms of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence.

“Part of that is clearly demonstrating that nobody, no matter what position they hold in our society, is above the law or immune from prosecution for such crimes. Today is clear proof of that.”

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