Roddy Meagher speeches

Image of Roddy

Speech at the launch of Roddy's Folly: R P Meagher QC; Art Lover and Lawyer by Damien Freeman at the Assembly Hall, University of Sydney Law School, on 23 April 2012

Justice Dyson Heydon

Dean, Your Excellency, Mr Abbott, Vice-Chancellor:

This book has numerous virtues. I give only five examples.

First, when a celebrated person dies, a prospective biographer is often chosen, commissioned and announced. Then years of silence and procrastination descend – sometimes, as in the case of R G Menzies or Owen Dixon, for decades. This is not so with Roddy's Folly. Nine months after his death, a fine biography is in our hands. The great advantage which Damien's admirable drive and energy has secured is that his book lives among us while our memories of the subject are still green, and further contributions can be made on the solid foundation just laid.

A second virtue is that although there have been some fine judicial biographies, and even biographies of barristers, putting on one side the heroic labours of Dr J M Bennett, there is a shortage of judicial biography in Australia. This book ranks very high in the genre.

Thirdly, this book is in a sense a double biography. One strong theme, particularly in the early part, is its account of Penny Meagher before she knew Roddy, and their joint lives together. She was deeply cultured. She was immersed in literature. She was intensely sensitive to pictorial art. She was a sadly underrated painter, and the book will create for her the beginnings of a great rise in reputation to the level her ability deserves. She was a woman of the most touching personality and the most flawless character.

Above all, she was the kindest of souls. Her greatest achievement was, to speak colloquially, that she kept her husband on the rails. No-one who ever knew her could possibly forget her or fail to weep at her untimely passing. The greatest tribute to Roddy's own character is that she saw fit to join her own life with his.

Fourthly, this work analyses the background of both Roddy and Penny. He was the fourth generation of his family to live in Australia, his great grandfather having arrived in 1863. She was the fifth generation of her family to live in Australia, her great great grandfather having arrived in 1834. Two of the oldest and the richest strands in our multicultural cloth have the Catholic and the Jewish legacies from European civilisation. The Meaghers and the Mosses stood out as great figures against the Protestant background of nineteenth century Sydney. It is absorbing to read of their achievements.

Finally, the book places these two flowers of high Australian culture not only against their disparate backgrounds, but in their own time, against the many parts of Sydney life they touched in the last five decades of the twentieth century.

Much has been said of Roddy since last July, but I might add this. This book analyses the career of a man who had many qualities – courage, sympathy, generosity, determination. One of his greatest qualities was to treat all people alike, on their merits as he saw them, whether they were the august ones of the earth, or the most humble. There is one story that illustrates that quality, and some others.

Often great men of affairs would seek his advice. One day a large brief arrived concerning a commercial dispute. A conference was fixed for 4.30pm the following Monday. Unlike some barristers, who are far too clever to know the facts, Roddy and the junior spent the weekend examining the papers thoroughly. The clients and their advisers came in from their counting houses – probably sleek bankers, as Roddy would have said. They knocked the shine off their shoes on unopened paintings, tore their Zegna suits on sharp weapons, tripped over the Portugese cannon, banged their heads on Papuan masks, averted their squeamish eyes from gory scenes of mongooses attacking snakes, stumbled on Persian carpets much mangled by a flourishing and well-fed insect life, and moved Graeco-Roman busts as they sat down on the none too comfortable seating arrangements.

There were 19 questions. The first was whether the clients had reasonable prospects of success of recovering billions of dollars in some contemplated litigation. The remainder turned to what should be done if the answer to question 1 was "Yes". Roddy passed a weary hand over his brow, bloodied by a tough day's struggle in court, gazed at the clients with mournful eyes, and said: "The answer to question 1 is 'No'." He then paused and said: "So questions 2-19 don't arise. Good afternoon gentlemen."

The clients limped away muttering disconsolately among themselves and brushing dust off their immaculate clothes. Roddy turned to his solicitor and junior and asked earnestly: "Who were those people?" Now there, in the beauty of his surroundings, was his diligence, his courtesy, his style, his dignity, his professional ability and his concentration on the central point and nothing else. They wanted his opinion on what mattered, not his opinion on what did not matter, and they did not want his reasons for either. His opinion on what mattered is what he gave them.

In many ways Roddy lived too generous a life. He was perhaps too profligate with the valuable gifts he was given. He threw away too much to those he encountered on his journey. But we can say of him what Churchill said of Birkenhead: "He banked his treasure in the hearts of his friends."

This book will revive many memories of its remarkable subject. Out of the labour and thought on which it rests Damien has created a magnificent achievement. Damien Freeman is unlike Hugh Trevor-Roper, who on one occasion ran into Margaret Thatcher. She asked what he was doing, and he said he had a book on the stocks. She retorted: "On the stocks? On the stocks? A fat lot of good that is. In the shops, that is where we need it." You do not have to worry about the stocks or the shops: it is here. Buy it now, in vast numbers!

Damien Freeman

Your Excellency, Ladies and Gentlemen:

I think you will all agree that a reception to celebrate the memory of my subject is hardly the occasion for a rodomontade – xenophobic or otherwise.

Those of us who count ourselves amongst his epigoni regard the Dean’s decision to bring us back to the Old Law School as an inspired one, not only because it was here that he lectured in the principles of equity for over thirty years, but because he very much wanted the Faculty to remain here.

But the Faculty left this place and my subject has left this world. He is now amongst the saints in heaven. I am sure that if he is able to tear himself away from Cardinal Newman and Margaret Whitlam, he will be deeply moved by the Chancellor’s words. That my subject’s esteemed friend and the figurehead of his beloved university should be fused in the person of the Queen’s representative, speaks volumes more than a biographer could ever write.

That he became my subject, and I his biographer, stemmed from our antecedent friendship. That we became friends stemmed from an earlier relationship of teacher and pupil, when I found myself teaching Hebrew in his Chambers. My perception of my subject is utterly shot through by the experience of teaching him. He was almost 70 and I not yet 25. This situation amused others. I was aware that our respective ages were really of no significance for him: every other consideration was as naught once the opportunity arose to engage in the disinterested pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Truly, his life was most real in those moments when he was lost in the quest for the true, the beautiful, or the good.

The last time I saw him was en route to Cambridge. I asked if there was anything he would like from England. He thought for a moment before replying, “A zebra.” To understand him was to understand how fitting such a last request was coming from one about to depart a world of chatterers and their causes, the fusion fallacy and the pretentions of restitution, the scribbling and prattling of academic homunculi, and African chiefs unruffling their plumages and polishing their nose bones in anticipation of Justice Kirby’s next lecture on breast feeding. I hope that you will all buy my book; and, having bought it, read it; and, in reading it, come to appreciate a little better the remarkable life that was Roddy’s folly.

Those of you who have not attempted to write or publish a book cannot image what an involved undertaking it is. So many have contributed at every stage, including my subject’s successors to the Challis Lectureships in Roman Law and Equity in this Law School, and, in particular, during the final stage, the Dean’s most illustrious predecessor, Justice Heydon. It would never have been commenced, however, had my mother not phoned me up in Cambridge and insisted that I come back to Sydney and write a book about Roddy as art lover and lawyer.

But, the manuscript that would never have been written without her support, could not have been published without the efforts of Dr Anthony Cappello of Connor Court Publishing.

I can only assure you all that I know all too well just how George Orwell felt when he received yet another letter from a publisher rejecting his manuscript for Animal Farm, this time from T. S. Eliot at Faber & Faber. Eliot is reputed to have written to Orwell, “Your pigs are far more intelligent than the other animals, and therefore best qualified to run the farm… What [the book needs is] not more communism but more public-spirited pigs.”

Ladies and gentlemen, this publication is proof that Dr Cappello knows a public-spirited pig when he reads about one. Having found a suitable publisher, it remained to find someone appropriately qualified to launch the book. I am sure that many of you will share my confidence in the Honourable Tony Abbott’s ability to recognize a public-spirited pig when he reads about one. Mr Abbott knows the green and pleasant pigsties of Riverview and St John’s, in which my subject grazed so happily. Like Orwell’s pigs, Mr Abbott might yet prove himself best qualified to run our great Australian farm. With this prospect in mind, I am sure that we are all keen to hear what he makes of the life of a pig far more intelligent than the other judicial animals; one whom our former chief justice numbered amongst the intellectual giants of our legal history, and the most widely loved judge of his time.