By Jonathan Pearlman
When Damien Freeman graduated from the University of Sydney Law School in 2000, he worked as a clerk for a Supreme Court judge, yet frequently found himself occupied by the larger-than-life inhabitant of the notorious room next door, Justice Roddy Meagher.
Freeman was not alone in being drawn to Meagher, whose life and times were a source of intrigue and chatter for many in the bar, the judiciary, the art world and the public.
His curiosity was piqued at law school, when a teacher described Meagher as a person who “took a perverse pleasure in being gratuitously archaic”. Eventually, Freeman befriended the judge, though it was several years before he set out to write a biography of him. “I was always fascinated by him – he was a part of the mythology of the bar,” Freeman says. “I applied to work for him but he didn’t want me.”
Meagher had become widely known in various guises: as an avid art collector, a bastion of political incorrectness, a bohemian wit, a monarchist, a Catholic who read the Koran at mass, a self-confessed elitist and primarily, a natural and oversized eccentric.
He had his haters – his cousin, the novelist Patrick White, called him “my creepy lawyer cousin” – but he was also loved for his warmth, humour, friendship and oddities. The judge’s chambers at the NSW Supreme Court were a testament to the man: it was a trove famously overflowing with artworks, books and antiquities.
While Freeman was working as a tipstaff to Justice Kenneth Handley, he caught the attention of Meagher and the two struck up a sort of friendship. Strangely, or typically, the judge learnt that Freeman could speak Hebrew and announced: “I am in need of a Hebrew teacher”. So the young clerk became the older judge’s tutor. They began by working on a translation from the Book of Judges.
“He tested me to see if I would be politically correct. I remember being aware that this was a test. I must have passed.“
“He was funny – he would sort of test you,” Freeman says. “He tested me on something to do with reconciliation ... he tested me to see if I would be politically correct. I remember being aware that this was a test. I must have passed.”
In 2009, around the time that Meagher’s art collection attracted a record attendance at the Sydney University Art Gallery, Freeman began to consider writing a biography of him. The book, Roddy’s Folly: R. P. Meagher QC, art lover and lawyer (Connor Court), like its subject, is not conventional but is something of an intellectual biography that attempts to pick apart the main strands of Meagher’s life.
Freeman, who went on to complete a PhD in philosophy at Cambridge, where he now teaches, says the book on Meagher “needed to be done”. Meagher immediately agreed to assist with the biography, though he died last year before it was completed.
The role of a university
Meagher had a lifelong involvement with the University of Sydney and held strong views about the ideal role of a university. After finishing at Saint Ignatius’ College, Riverview, he lived at St John’s College, graduated with a University Medal in law and later taught at the University. Before he died, he donated his collection of paintings, drawings, sculptures, carpets, ceramics, furniture, and archaeological artefacts to the University.
“I think he really believed the University made him who he was,” says Freeman. “As a student, he appreciated that people wanted to share their knowledge. He had this view that there are intellectual pursuits, that here is an institution that is all about the dispassionate pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. He was interested in the refining of the mind - he was probably a bit romantic.”
Freeman spent more than a year working on the biography and had unrestricted access to Meagher’s papers. He interviewed dozens of people from Meagher’s life, including prominent judges such as Sir Laurence Street, Murray Gleeson, Jim Spigelman and Michael Kirby, as well as John Howard, Edmund Capon, Cardinal George Pell and architect Glenn Murcutt.
The High Court judge, Dyson Heydon, who wrote a foreword, also spoke at a rousing launch for the book in April at the old Law School building, along with speeches by the Federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, and Marie Bashir, the Chancellor and Governor of NSW.
Freeman says it is impossible to give anything more than a limited perspective of a man who straddled such varied spheres. But a shared outlook on law, politics, aesthetics and the nature of eccentricity, he believes, proved helpful in providing a fuller understanding. “Everyone will see him through a lens, but I think my lens does not distort him too much because we did see a lot of things in a similar way.”
In particular, says Freeman, he sought to show that “Roddy’s folly” – his eccentric take on the world – was an achievement of its own. ”If you’re an eccentric type of person, you tend not to be taken too seriously in our culture, in Sydney,” he says. “It is just not a world for that sort of person. He showed you could live that sort of life. My book wants to emphasise that this is the sort of person he was and it is a good thing.”