Sir Donald Murray

Sir Donald Murray.

Eulogy delivered by Lord Kerr of Tonaghmore, Justice of the Supreme Court.

Donald Bruce Murray was born in Belfast on 24 January 1923. He was the third child in his family of four, his much-loved sister, Moyna, being the fourth. He and all of his siblings attended Belfast Royal Academy, a circumstance that gave Donald enormous pride, a sentiment fully reciprocated by the school. Indeed, the school’s pride in the achievements of this most distinguished alumnus finds expression in the magnificent singing of BRA’s Chamber choir at the service today. And it is a particular pleasure for Donald’s family that several of the current senior pupils and members of staff at the school are here today and that the Old Boys’ Association has been represented by the former Headmaster, Moore Dickson, whom we heard from a few moments ago.

The secure, close-knit family circle that Donald enjoyed and the strong bedrock that his education at BRA provided led naturally to his undergraduate career at Queen’s University where he rejoiced in his study before those legal titans, Professor Montrose and Professor Newark. Many years later, in a public lecture he paid them the moving tribute, “to them I owe any understanding of the great principles of law and justice I may have been able to achieve in my lifetime”. 

This statement is entirely typical of the man. Ineffably modest, underplaying his own enormous intellectual powers, his undoubted and profound insight and his innate passion for justice.

Although he claimed to have been an indifferent student at BRA, Donald was first in the Bar Final examinations in London, a quite remarkable achievement. He was called to the Bar at Gray’s Inn in 1945. He might have stayed in London, having completed a pupillage at 11 King’s Bench Walk, one of the premier chambers in London at present. No doubt, he would have enjoyed a glittering career there. Fortunately for us, and for the legal system and the legal community in Northern Ireland, fate intervened and he accepted the position of legal draftsman at Stormont. He remained there for 6 years. The experience that this specialised area of law provided equipped him well for his future career but it was not nearly enough to exploit his manifold talents. Happily, for us, he decided to come to the Bar and was called in 1953. 

Many of us who have practised at the Bar have been consumed by the work that preoccupies us so intensely. This is not a healthy way to live one’s life. And it was not how Donald lived his. He had a hinterland, long before the significance of the need for one was recognised. Part of that hinterland was his love of music. And in the early 1950s this led to his joining the Ulster Operatic Society. This was a most propitious, not to say serendipitous, circumstance. One evening he arrived for a rehearsal and heard what he later described as “a gorgeous voice”. I teased him that he fell in love with a voice and he came up with the unanswerable riposte that her beauty more than equalled the magnificence of her voice. And so it did. For the possessor of the voice and the bearer of the beauty was Rhoda Parke who became Donald’s wife in 1953. 

Theirs was a true, undeniable love story; a love story that endured and grew stronger throughout their life together. They were, quite simply, utterly and absolutely devoted to each other. Rhoda was his beloved wife and soulmate from the time that they married until her death 52 years later.

Donald’s career at the Bar flourished. When I was called in 1970, he was the unquestioned leader of the Chancery Bar. But he was also a champion for his family. He and Rhoda had three magnificent and much-loved children, Adrian, Rosalind and Paul. Rosalind has told me of Donald’s assiduity in attending school prize-giving and concerts.  He played cricket with Adrian and Paul in the back garden.  He coached Rosalind in how to play his famously effective ‘half volley’ tennis shot. Family holidays, usually spent in the sun, were devoted exclusively to family pursuits. These are the mark of a rounded and grounded man, alive to the need to ensure that family comes first and I salute him for it.

Donald was appointed to the High Court in 1975 and appointed to the Court of Appeal and sworn of the Privy Council in 1989. He was always a delightful tribunal. He encouraged rather than challenged counsel. A characteristic remark was, “let me expose my mind” on a particular issue. It was typical of him to let counsel know how his mind was working so that he might be persuaded to a different conclusion. This was a refreshing, candid and helpful approach to the transaction of litigation which I think is an exemplar of how sensible, constructive resolution of contentious disputes can be achieved.

But let me return finally to Donald’s personal life outside the law. He had, as I have said, a wonderful hinterland. Part of that hinterland involved his passion for snooker. After the outrageous attack on Donald and Rhoda’s house in Cadogan Park, he and Rhoda established a beautiful home in Ballylesson. A central feature of that house was the dedicated snooker room complete with full sized snooker table and a small bar – affectionately known as the ‘Estoppel Inn’. Geoff Foote, Liam McCollum and John Creaney were his invariable playing partners. Yellow and red waistcoats were made for the members.  I just think that this is magnificent. Newspapers sometimes suggest that judges are remote figures, divorced from experience of real life. Donald’s way of living his life gives the lie to that.

His was a life well lived. He combined a committed, highly successful professional career with an enormous devotion to his family. That is something to which we should all aspire but which so many of us fail to achieve.