Thursday 18 July 2019

Obituary: Garrett Cooney

One of Ireland's most prominent barristers who fought high-profile defamation cases, writes Liam Collins

PRESENCE: Garrett Cooney
PRESENCE: Garrett Cooney

Described as "one of the most able advocates of his time" Garrett Cooney SC was involved in some of the most high-profile libel and defamation cases heard in the High Court during the 1990s and the early part of the current century. He was also "banished" from the Planning Tribunal following his refusal to apologise for clashing with the barrister for the tribunal.

Cooney was a genial figure in private life but was a towering presence in court, where he specialised in defamation and libel cases. He was more than just an advocate and often brought a powerful belief in the justness of his client's cause to the proceedings, sometimes drawing avid spectators to the courtroom who enjoyed the excitement he brought to a case.

"The barristers for the opposing sides, Garrett Cooney SC and Nicholas Kearns SC, became such passionate advocates for their respective clients that the judge implored them to cool down," went one report on the infamous Rocca v Ryan case, which "sent a shiver through the heart of Irish society".

Mr Cooney and the former gossip columnist Terry Keane also dramatically crossed swords during a libel action taken against the journalist and her then employer the Sunday Times, by columnist and commentator John Waters.

Tempers frayed dramatically during Mr Cooney's cross-examination which also appeared politically charged, as he was a well-known supporter of Fine Gael while Ms Keane was known for her liaison with the former Fianna Fail Taoiseach, Charles J Haughey.

But probably the most high-profile of his disagreements came during the Planning Tribunal in February, 1999, where he represented the interests of the Murphy building family and which drew huge media coverage and a fervent audience to the public hearings in Dublin Castle.

When Mr Cooney accused a tribunal barrister of trying to "sabotage" his cross-examination of its key witness, James Gogarty, Chairman Judge Feargus Flood intervened. "Are you going to give us a chance to defend ourselves in this tribunal?" Cooney asked.

"That is an insulting and insolent remark from you, consistent with the conduct to date by yourself in this tribunal," replied the judge, demanding that Cooney apologise.

"It would be both hypocritical and insincere on my part to offer the apology which you demand and I do not propose to make such an apology," replied Cooney, who was then banished from the proceedings.

It took mediation by the Bar Council and a clarifying statement, before he was allowed back.

At the eagerly awaited "rematch" Gogarty grandstanded, telling Mr Cooney: "Read the correspondence - it is all there for you. In the name of God, I can't help you any more... this is extraordinary from a senior barrister, well you will have a lot to answer for when I am finished with you."

Born in Longford in 1935, Garrett Cooney was one of eight high-achieving children of Dr Mark Cooney, Chief Medical Officer for Co Cavan and his wife Margaret (Blake). The family grew up in Lisdarn, situated in the grounds of the local hospital but the four boys were sent to Castleknock College and the girls to Loreto Abbey, Rathfarnham, Dublin.

The family was steeped in politics and Fine Gael. His elder brother Pat Cooney became a solicitor in Athlone and later TD for Longford/Westmeath and Minister for Justice in the Liam Cosgrave-led Fine Gael/Labour coalition, where his life came under serious threat because of his hard-line stance against the IRA. His younger brother, the late Mark Cooney, served two terms as a member of Westmeath County Council.

The family's political commitment to Fine Gael came from their uncle General Sean MacEoin, known as 'The Blacksmith of Ballinalee'. He was sentenced to death in 1921 and only the insistence of Michael Collins, that unless MacEoin was released he would not enter the Anglo-Irish negotiations, saved him from execution. Collins and Arthur Griffith were groomsmen at MacEoin's wedding to Alice Cooney, in St Mel's Cathedral, Longford, on June 21, 1922 and both of them were dead within weeks.

Garrett Cooney won the Debating Gold Medal in Castleknock College in 1953 and went on to study history and politics at University College Dublin and law at the King's Inns, where he qualified as a barrister. He was called to the bar in 1960 and practised on the midland circuit, before becoming a senior counsel in 1977.

He married Sheila Gillen, a solicitor whose father was a partner in the firm of Patrick Tallan & Co in Drogheda, which she now runs. They moved into a large house in Dartry, and, since his retirement in 2005, Mr Cooney spent time in their holiday home in the Algarve, Portugal.

During more than 40 years at the Bar, he appeared for the McColgan family in a high-profile negligence case against the North Western Health Board and in the hepatitis case taken by Brigid McCole he appeared for the Drugs Advisory Board.

But his reputation was cemented in a number of high-profile libel actions involving 'celebrity' clients.

In bad-tempered exchanges with gossip columnist Terry Keane during John Waters' case against the Sunday Times, Mr Cooney attempted to call the former manager of U2, Paul McGuinness, as a witness after the trial was sidetracked into a story that had been written under her name in the Sunday Independent's Keane Edge, which revealed the sex of Bono's child. Mr Cooney, who appeared with Gerry Danaher SC, was successful in the case and Mr Waters won substantial damages.

While he was a staunch Fine Gael supporter, there was also a strong 'Longford connection' and one visitor to the Cooneys' home recalls Albert Reynolds, as Fianna Fail Taoiseach, arriving at the house in the State car for a visit.

He also represented former Fianna Fail TD Beverley Flynn in her libel action against RTE and at one stage in the proceedings its lawyer, Kevin Feeney, accused Mr Cooney of bullying reporter Charlie Bird. Later Mr Bird ventured an opinion that Ms Flynn had not been badly damaged by his National Irish Bank investigation and she would "do all right" in Mayo at the next election.

"I am sure she is very consoled by that piece of encouragement from you, Mr Bird," Cooney replied acidly to laughter in the courtroom.

He also played a leading role in the notorious case in which former Miss Ireland Michelle Rocca sued the late Cathal Ryan, a founder of Ryanair, for assault. In his opening statement, Judge, Michael Moriarty told the jury that the evidence they were about to hear would not "fall into the realms of a vicarage tea party".

The case centred on events during a birthday party years earlier. It threw up more celebrity names than the guest list of a charity ball - featuring as it did Miss Rocca, members of the Ryan family, celebrity hairdresser David Marshall, Van Morrison who accompanied Miss Rocca, mother of two of his children to the denouement, and the current Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary who was mentioned in dispatches.

The court was told that during the party at Blackhall Stud, Miss Rocca attacked Sarah Linton, Cathal Ryan's girlfriend, when she found them together on a bed in an upstairs room, although they were both fully clothed at the time.

In a theatrical summing up, Mr Cooney, who was acting for Cathal Ryan, pointed to Ms Linton and told the jury: "She was the real victim; she has the emotional scars remaining with her for the rest of her life... wasn't she a lady? Wasn't she wholesome? Wasn't she restrained in her evidence... she told it as it is."

The jury found that Ms Rocca was assaulted by Mr Ryan and awarded her €7,500 in compensation.

Ironically the pair were later reconciled.

Last November, I had an enjoyable chat with the barrister about some of these old battles when we were guests at a lunch for the IRFU Charitable Trust for injured players on the eve of the Ireland v All-Blacks rugby match. Recently Garrett, who was a life-long smoker, went into hospital for a check-up and was diagnosed with liver cancer.

Garrett Cooney died last Monday, at the age of 84 and his funeral, conducted by three black-clad priests according to the old Latin Rite, took place in Harrington Street last Friday.

He was predeceased by his daughter Jeananne and is survived by his wife Sheila and their three sons Garrett, Stephen and Kevin.

Sunday Independent

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