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Born in Dublin, but educated at Balliol College, Oxford, and at Lincoln's Inn, Pennefather returned to Ireland after his legal training. In 1845 he was appointed as under-secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, based at Dublin Castle.
He was High Sheriff of co. Tipperary in 1848 and was involved in the bringing to trial of William Smith O'Brien and the other prisoners at Clonmel accused of high treason.
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