John Murray obituary: former chief justice gave lifetime of service through the law

Former chief justice, attorney general and judge of the European Court of Justice worked on several cases which developed European law and expanded its impact

As well as holding some of the most senior legal positions in the State, John Murray was a university chancellor, a visiting lecturer to many universities abroad and a sought-after speaker at international legal symposiums. Photograph: Stephen Collins/Collins

Born: June 27th, 1943

Died: January 18th, 2023

John Murray, the former chief justice, attorney general and judge of the European Court of Justice has died, aged 79. As well as holding some of the most senior legal positions in the State, he was a university chancellor, a visiting lecturer to many universities abroad and a sought-after speaker at international legal symposiums.

A proud Limerick man, he grew up on the Ennis Road, the first child born to Kitty and Cecil Murray. His mother was a teacher before she married, and his father was a civil servant and, later, a builder. He was followed by three brothers, all of whom grew up in a home where education was highly valued.

READ MORE

After attending Crescent College, Limerick, and Rockwell College, Co Tipperary, he completed a BA degree at University College Dublin. The university had an impact on both his personal and professional life. It was where he met his future wife, Gabrielle Walsh, who was studying law. Her father was Supreme Court judge Brian Walsh. A life in law also appealed to the young Limerick man and so he attended King’s Inns and was called to the Bar in 1967.

His student years also afforded him the chance to dip his toe in politics and he was elected president of the Union of Students of Ireland in 1966 and 1967. He married Gabrielle in 1969 and they had two children while he built up a busy practice on the southwestern circuit. He represented Neil Blaney in the 1971 arms trial and was part of the legal team representing the State in the Ireland v United Kingdom case taken to the European Court of Human Rights in 1977 over internment.

A Fianna Fáil member, he had another brief flirtation with politics when he contested the Dublin county council elections for the party in 1974, but failed to win a seat to represent Ballybrack.

He became a senior counsel in 1981 and emerged on to the public radar in a much bigger way in August 1982 when the Malcolm Macarthur affair unfolded. Macarthur had been staying at the apartment of the attorney general Patrick Connolly when he was arrested on suspicion of double murder. Mr Connolly resigned and taoiseach Charles Haughey urgently wanted John Murray to replace him. However, the Murray family was holidaying in France, his son Brian told mourners at his funeral. His father briefly became the most wanted man in France when the Irish government asked the French authorities to track him down.

It was a short stint as attorney general, so short that, on the December day the southwestern bar was hosting a dinner to celebrate his appointment, the government fell.

Despite the brevity of the appointment, it was an eventful time. He drafted the wording of what would become the 1983 anti-abortion amendment, the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. And his resignation was called for by Fine Gael in November when he poured cold water on its proposal for an all-Ireland police force and courts to combat terrorism.

His work as a barrister saw his involvement in many high-profile cases, including representing the State in opposing Senator David Norris’s action aimed at decriminalising homosexuality. In a 1991 interview, he described himself as a practising Catholic, but said religion was a private matter and that it was incumbent on legislators to cater for minorities. He was also involved in tribunals of inquiry into the Stardust fire and the Whiddy Island disaster.

He was again appointed attorney general by Mr Haughey in 1987 and held the role until 1991. Some controversial matters landed on his desk during this time, including the Fr Patrick Ryan extradition case in 1988. He refused to extradite the priest to face terrorism-related charges in Britain, on the basis that he would not receive a fair trial, a move which incensed British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

His term as attorney general was followed by an appointment to the European Court of Justice from 1992 to 1999. In his eulogy delivered at Mr Murray’s funeral, his friend, former attorney general Paul Gallagher, said he had worked on a number of important cases which developed European law and expanded its impact. The cases affected issues such as equal pay rights and the breaking down of internal market barriers for goods and services.

Supreme Court

He left that role when he was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1999. Chief Justice Donal O’Donnell said Mr Murray brought with him a deep knowledge of the operation of the State at domestic and international levels. “His judgments were carefully and painstakingly drafted and contained much thoughtful analysis that will continue to be consulted, and valued, for many years to come,” he told a special sitting of the Supreme Court convened to pay tribute to Mr Murray.

He spoke of Mr Murray’s strong pride in the State’s achievements but also his clear understanding of those areas where it fell short, and his commitment to making it the best that it could be.

Mr Gallagher said his work on the Court of Justice, and as a visiting lecturer in universities such as Georgetown, Heidelberg and Florence, and as a professor in Louvain, had greatly enriched his contribution to the Supreme Court.

There was no surprise when he became the 10th chief justice in 2004, a post he held until 2011. Towards the end of his tenure, he found himself wrestling with the thorny issue of judicial pay and pensions, following plans for a referendum which would allow for a reduction of judicial salaries in line with other public servants. The referendum was later passed by an overwhelming majority.

He retired from the Supreme Court in 2015, expressing gratitude at the privilege he had been given. Mr Gallagher said it was typical of his friend to express thanks at having had the opportunity to serve. “In truth virtually all of John’s life in the law was devoted to serving the public. The sacrifices he, Gabrielle and his family made were great, frequent and made without complaint,” he said.

He became an honorary bencher of King’s Inns after his retirement and he continued to support the institution and its students.

Paul Gallagher said those who knew John Murray well were struck by three outstanding qualities: his sense of duty; his devotion to honour and truth; and his pride and belief in his country and its institutions

His father Cecil was a member of the Limerick University Project Action Committee while John Murray had drafted the University of Limerick Act 1989 which allowed it to attain full university status. The circle was complete when he was appointed chancellor of the University of Limerick in 2013. Current UL chancellor Mary Harney said Mr Justice Murray had carried out “extraordinary work” in drafting the Act.

His vast legal experience meant he was asked to chair many committees. Posts he accepted included chair of the European Central Bank Anti-Fraud Committee, the Ad Hoc Ethical Committee of the European Commission and the Advisory Panel of Experts on the Election of Judges to the European Court of Human Rights.

Many awards were bestowed on him, including honorary doctorates, and the Order of Merit, with Grand Cross, from the Grand Duke of Luxembourg. His family said he was very modest about his achievements and took the public nature of his work in his stride.

Paul Gallagher said those who knew John Murray well were struck by three outstanding qualities: his sense of duty; his devotion to honour and truth; and his pride and belief in his country and its institutions.

John Murray’s son Brian told mourners at his funeral that his father treasured his connection with Limerick and also loved Greystones, Co Wicklow, where he and Gabrielle had lived for 46 years.

He was an avid follower of Munster rugby, an enthusiastic yachtsman, a cyclist and a keen swimmer who occasionally could be spotted getting the last puff from a cigar while in the sea.

Brian Murray said his father was a deeply devoted family man who had given him and his sister Catriona an “uncomplicated, carefree and really happy” childhood.

Other tributes spoke of his many small kindnesses and the consideration and support he offered others. His wit and good sense of humour and his skill at telling an entertaining story were also remembered by friends and former colleagues.

“He gave us everything, and there is nothing more that we could have asked for, except, more time,” Brian Murray said.

John Murray is survived by his wife Gabrielle, daughter Catriona, son Brian, grandchildren Samuel, Anna, Sarah, Kate, Chloe, Conor and Matthew and his brothers Michael, Hugh and Eugene, and extended family.