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Obituary: Justice John L Murray, distinguished former chief justice and attorney general known for his laughter, compassion, friendship and wisdom


Mr Justice John L. Murray addressed some extremely significant issues during his tenure as chief justice. Picture by Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie

Mr Justice John L. Murray addressed some extremely significant issues during his tenure as chief justice. Picture by Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie

Mr Justice John L. Murray addressed some extremely significant issues during his tenure as chief justice. Picture by Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie

Former chief justice, attorney general and member of the Court of Justice of the European Union, John L. Murray, who has died at the age of 79, served as a member of the Supreme Court from 1999 until his retirement in 2015, including seven years in the chief justice role from 2004 until 2011.

Born in Limerick on June 27, 1943, John Loyola Murray was educated at Crescent College, Limerick; Rockwell College, Co Tipperary; University College Dublin and the King’s Inns school of law.

His father was a civil servant and his mother a teacher. He was the eldest in a family of four boys: Eugene became editor of the RTÉ current affairs programme Today Tonight and later head of TV current affairs at the station; Michael became state solicitor for Limerick; and Hugh, an architect, was a founding partner of the local firm, Murray O’Laoire.

John was elected president of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) in June 1965 and held the post for two years until July 1967. He met Gabrielle Walsh, daughter of Supreme Court Judge Brian Walsh (1918-88), at UCD in 1965. They were married on May 24, 1969, and honeymooned in Dubrovnik.

Called to the Bar by then-chief justice Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh on November 7, 1967, he developed a successful law practice and became a Senior Counsel in 1981.

​Noted for his expertise in civil and constitutional matters, he defended Donegal TD Neil Blaney (1922-95) who was dismissed along with his cabinet colleague Charles Haughey from the Fianna Fáil government in May 1970. Both politicians were charged with conspiracy to import arms and ammunition illegally, for northern nationalists and republicans, following the outbreak of the Troubles. The charges against Blaney were dismissed in the Dublin District Court due to insufficient evidence.  

In the mid 1970s Murray was on the government’s legal team which challenged Britain at the European Court of Human Rights over the alleged ill-treatment of prisoners in Northern Ireland.

In mid-August 1982, Patrick Connolly (1927-2016) resigned abruptly as attorney general. This followed the arrest earlier in the month at Connolly’s apartment in Dalkey, Co Dublin, of Malcolm MacArthur, who was later given a life sentence for the murder on July 22, 1982, of Bridie Gargan (27) in Dublin’s Phoenix Park.

Taoiseach of the day Haughey, described the episode as “a bizarre happening, an unprecedented situation, a grotesque situation, an almost unbelievable mischance”, which was famously shortened to “GUBU” by one of his main critics, Conor Cruise O’Brien.

John Murray’s son Brian recalled at last Monday’s funeral how his father was on holiday in France with the family at the time. In that era before mobile phones, John was urgently sought by the French police at the request of the Irish government.

It took at least 24 hours to make contact with him and he returned home to take up the position of attorney general on August 17, 1982. His term came to an end four months later on December 14, 1982, when the Fianna Fáil government under Haughey was ousted by a Fine Gael-Labour coalition.

Fianna Fáil returned to office under Haughey’s leadership after the February 1987 general election and Murray was reappointed as attorney general on March 11, 1987, remaining in the post until September 25, 1991.

In December 1988 he advised the Garda Commissioner against the extradition of Fr Patrick Ryan to Britain on charges of involvement in Provisional IRA activity. In a detailed statement at the time, Murray referred to “certain material published in Britain, in newspapers and on radio and television” as well as “references to the case made in the British parliament” which were widely reported in print and broadcast media.

Margaret Thatcher was among those commenting on the matter and Labour MP Tony Benn said the House of Commons had become “a lynch-mob, headed by the prime minister”.

Murray said the prejudicial nature of this material was “irredeemable” and no direction to the jury could remove the bias which had been created. He added that the charges in the case were of a most serious kind and could be tried in an Irish court. In October 1989, Ireland’s DPP announced he would not be initiating proceedings against Ryan

Murray represented the State in opposing the action by Senator David Norris aimed at decriminalising homosexuality. During his first term as attorney general, he drafted the wording of what became the 1983 anti-abortion amendment, the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.

​In 1992, he became a judge in the European Court of Justice where he served until 1999, when he was appointed to the Supreme Court of Ireland, becoming chief justice five years later. During his seven years in that position, the court addressed some extremely significant issues on the recovery of nursing home and hospital charges, criminal law and the Constitution, and the rights of borrowers.

He was the driving force in promoting an amendment to the judicial mode of address, replacing the anachronistic “My Lord” with “Judge” or, in Irish, “Breitheamh”. He was also the prime mover in an initiative for changes in the attire of Supreme Court judges.

From 1997 to 2000, he held a visiting professorship in Law at the University of Louvain, Belgium. He chaired the Anti-Fraud Committee of the European Central Bank and the Ethical Committee of the European Commission. Other roles included membership of the Council of State and chairman of the Advisory Panel of Experts on Candidates for Election as Judge to the European Court of Human Rights.

In 2013 he was appointed chancellor of the University of Limerick and chairman of its governing authority. On his retirement from the Supreme Court in 2015, then chief justice Susan Denham said he was “passionate about the Irish nation” and that this was “infused throughout his work”.

In early 2016, he was appointed by then justice minister Frances Fitzgerald to carry out a review of the legislation allowing access to the phone records of journalists. He concluded access should be permitted only when the journalist was suspected of a serious criminal offence or for unlawful activity posing a serious threat to state security.

Concluding a warm tribute at his funeral, another former attorney general, Paul Gallagher SC, said: “John brought clear light to our doorsteps. He touched us on our shoulders to guide us. His many skills and gifts eased our burdens and guided us on our way. His laughter, his compassion, his friendship and wisdom will be greatly missed. And all we can give in return is our great gratitude for what he did. That is his legacy.”

John L. Murray passed away peacefully on January 18, surrounded by his loving family. He is survived by his wife Gabrielle (née Walsh), children Catriona and Brian, grandchildren Samuel, Anna, Sarah, Kate, Chloe, Conor and Matthew, brothers Michael, Hugh and Eugene, son-in-law David O’Brien, daughter-in-law Leonora, extended family and friends.

Requiem mass took place in the Holy Rosary Church, Greystones, Co Wicklow last Monday, after which he was laid to rest in Priestsnewtown Cemetery, Kilquade.

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