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Roderick Pitt (Roddy) Meagher (1932–2011)

by Damien Freeman

Roddy Meagher, who died on Sunday at the age of 79, was a Judge of Appeal of the Supreme Court of NSW.

Latterly, he had also become an inadvertent alpaca breeder, having acquired a juvenile male alpaca for each of his two grandsons. He was given an elderly female alpaca to nanny the two young males, and, miraculously, she gave birth earlier this year to a healthy chocolate alpaca in the lower paddock at his country home in Bowral.

Only two weeks before his death, he was discussing the possibility of sourcing a zebra for one of the other paddocks. Infirmity, however, seems to have led him to give up hope of acquiring a giraffe.

Formerly, he had been one of the most accomplished barristers of his generation. What he loved most about the bar was its combination of individualism and collegiality. The bar, in turn, loved him for his wit. The memory of his wit might soon recede into the annals of bar folklore. What will not recede into the background any time soon is his scholarship. Upon Meagher’s retirement, former NSW chief justice Jim Spigelman saluted him as “one of the intellectual giants of our legal history”.

Meagher’s deep understanding of the law of equity is exhibited in his textbooks on the topic, notably his groundbreaking work with two colleagues, High Court judge Bill Gummow and the late John Lehane, a former Federal Court judge.

High Court judge Dyson Heydon wrote that their book “has extremely strong claims to be placed on, indeed at the top of, a short list of the greatest legal works written in the English language in the 20th century”.

Meagher’s magisterial command of this body of law rarely suggested to him any need for reform.

As Murray Gleeson said, “He has been a powerful restraining influence. Because he has expressed his point of view so forcefully, even people who haven’t been persuaded that he’s correct have been more cautious than otherwise they would have been.”

Outside of the law, he was perhaps best known for his colourful stance against political correctness. In presenting him for admission as a doctor of laws, Sydney University’s vice-chancellor said: “He is a living illustration of the way this university disdains compulsory orthodoxy and encourages those who stand against the tide, even when the tide reaches tsunami proportions.”

In his reply, Meagher deplored political correctness for what he saw as an attempt to control free thought and impose orthodoxy within the academy. In this, he had many fellow travellers from all walks of life.

However, as was so often the case, his resistance to political correctness took the form of being gratuitously politically incorrect; an approach which amused him and his circle, but which alienated many others. It also attracted controversy, which he enjoyed.

Roderick Pitt Meagher was born into a dynasty of highly successful merchants who had achieved social and political prominence in Sydney and south-western NSW since their arrival from Ireland.

The Catholic faith remained central to the family: his uncle and confidant, John, became Provincial of the Jesuits in Australia.

Roddy was the product of a Jesuit education at Riverview, where he formed a deep and enduring bond with the fathers who taught him. They served, in his eyes, as a model of what it meant to be a scholar and a gentleman.

These he became at St John’s College, an institution to which he maintained a lifelong devotion, as he did Sydney University’s Faculty of Law, in which he was sometime Challis Lecturer. The decline of the Jesuits exemplified the deterioration of the world that he had loved. Father Frank Brennan SJ was, to his mind, the archetypal modern Jesuit: long on witchetty grubs; short on Greek verbs.

Brennan’s father, Sir Gerard, authored the celebrated Mabo judgment, which Meagher genuinely deplored as an appalling judgment that did as much damage to the High Court as the learned judge’s son had done to the Jesuits. Such outbursts betrayed a streak of nastiness which he seemed to share with his cousin, Patrick White, who found Meagher as creepy as Meagher found him pretentious. His friends, however, often struggled to reconcile such public outbursts with the shy, gentle, caring, and humble man to which they were privy.

In 1962, he married Penny Moss, who, with his encouragement, gave up employment as an economist in order to devote herself to art.

Her paintings he treasured for precisely the same reason that he treasured her: they exuded her gentleness. She was the gentlest person he had ever known. After her untimely death, he lived with his mad Alsatian, Didier, who was as ferocious as his wife had been gentle.

Where her love of art found expression in artistic creation, his found expression in collecting.

While he was well known for the size of his collection, what was less well known is the nature of his appreciation of the works. He was highly sensitive to aesthetic qualities and despised those who looked at art as an investment.

In retirement, he accepted the invitation of a former tipstaff, Richard Weinstein, to perch on the eighth floor of Selborne Chambers, where he had spent the happiest years of his professional life, and where he remained until a broken hip rendered him an invalid for the last 18 months of his life.

He is survived by his only daughter, Amy.

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Citation details

Damien Freeman, 'Meagher, Roderick Pitt (Roddy) (1932–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


17 March, 1932
Temora, New South Wales, Australia


3 July, 2011 (aged 79)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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