IPRT - Irish Penal Reform Trust

Join Donate

Get News Updates:
  • Print
  • Email author
  • Bookmark and Share

"Mr Justice Dermot Kinlen", The Times

6th August 2007

When Dermot Kinlen, just retired as a judge of the Irish High Court, was appointed the country's first Inspector of Prisons in 2002 it was, he felt, the expectation that he would not do any real work. He confounded such expectations by a succession of reports calling attention to the deplorable state of the country's prisons and the poor administration of the prison service.

Most of the prisons date from pre-independence days and have not been modernised. The primitive practice of slopping out is still to be found in some of them. Drugs and bullying, especially of foreign nationals, are rampant. Mental care and rehabilitation courses are hopelessly inadequate.

All this was highlighted and condemned by Kinlen. Eschewing the normal careful style of official reports, which he regarded as a turn-off, he rejoiced in the colourful and provocative, sometimes at the cost of total accuracy. He described the attitude of the minister for justice as "frightening and fascist" and referred to a power and control mentality in his department.

Kinlen castigated the prison service as administratively over-heavy and criticised its officers for travelling first-class to view prisons overseas. But a suggestion that privatisation of prisons should be tried found him at odds with the reformers who generally rejoiced in his efforts.

In 2004 officials in the Department of Justice refused to publish his annual report, which they said was defamatory of them. The Attorney General was consulted and an independent barrister had to be brought in to arbitrate before publication.

He criticised his former colleagues in the judiciary for their lack of interest in prisons and its alternatives. No Irish judge since Sir Thomas Molony, the last Lord Chief Justice of Ireland under the Union, rivalled him in his active concern for prisoners. Later, he played an active, and sometimes unwelcome, role on the visiting committees of prisons, so amassing the expertise that was to make him such a formidable critic.

Dermot Patrick Kinlen was born in Dublin in 1930, the eldest child of Louis Kinlen, a prosperous building contractor and his wife Aileen, whose father, Tom O'Donnell, a former Irish Nationalist MP in the House of Commons, was Circuit Court judge in his native Kerry when Dermot was a boy.

Kinlen was at St Conleth's School in Dublin before taking a good degree in history at University College Dublin. He was less successful as a law student at King's Inns, where he was called to the Bar in 1952. Significantly, as a practitioner, it was in the human dimension of litigation rather than knowledge of the law that he was strongest. His advocacy was flamboyant and had a period flavour about it.

An immensely convivial bachelor, his professional and social life were heavily intertwined both on the Munster Circuit, where he kept a hospitable house in Sneem in Kerry, and in Dublin after he took silk in 1971. As such he had the uncongenial task of defending the destruction of the ancient Viking settlement at Wood Quay to make way for civic offices. A devotee of the opera, he provided lavish entertainment for friends and professional associates at performances in Dublin and Wexford.

A lifelong supporter of the Fianna Fáil party, he was identified with those within the organisation who had opposed Charles Haughey. As a result, no offer of a judgeship came Kinlen's way until 1993, the year after Haughey was ousted as Taoiseach and party leader by Albert Reynolds. As a judge, he was happiest on circuit where he could socialise with some of his vast acquaintance throughout the county and go on expeditions to scenic venues. He was a lenient sentencer, although canny enough not to go so far as to court appeals

All his life he was a mighty traveller, often combining work and pleasure as was his way. He inspected re-education camps in Vietnam on behalf of the International Commission of Jurists and was an observer at the trial of the Negros Nine in the Phillipines. He sat on the Court of Appeal of the OECD.

China was a special interest from the time he accompanied former president Cearbhall O Dalaigh there in 1979, a visit that paved the way for an exchange of embassies. Kinlen was chairman of the Irish Chinese Cultural society and one of only two Irishmen to be conferred with the title of Ambassador of Friendship by the Chinese government. In 1998, after the EU decided that defects in the observance of human rights there were best challenged by dialogue rather than ostracisation, he led a party of Irish judges who visited China.

As devout as he was compassionate, Kinlen helped to organise the annual pilgrimage of the sick of the diocese of Kerry to the Marian shrine in Lourdes. In recognition of this as well as of his work for prisoners, he was created a Knight of St Gregory by the Pope in 1997.

He died in his sleep at his house in Kerry, having just entertained a party of Chinese visitors to dinner.

He is survived by one sister, who is a nun, and one brother.

Mr Justice Dermot Kinlen, High Court Judge of the Republic of Ireland, as born on April 24, 1930. He died on July 18, 2007, aged 77