Brian Bourke, Barrister and Irishman (1929-2018)

Memories of ‘Bourkey’ by Angela Nordlinger

b.13 June 1929, Wangaratta – d.30 March 2018, Bellarine Peninsula 

‘Brian Bourke barrister’ was the way he answered his many phone calls in his chambers.  He practised as a criminal barrister for nearly 58 years at the Victorian Bar, until he was 88. When he retired in October 2017, he was the longest continuously serving barrister at that Bar, and perhaps in Australia.

Bourkey, as he was universally known (with many spelling variations), was a natural barrister.  His advocacy was spare and to the point, controlling the Court room with narrative brilliance and humour, never flamboyant or showy.  His cross-examination skills, particularly when exercised against a policeman on his notes, were legendary and young barristers were advised to listen to him in Court in their early learning days at the Bar.

‘Brian Bourke barrister’ was so recognized as his telephone label, that it saved him a speeding conviction. He was pulled over on the Geelong Road on his way home to the Bellarine Peninsula by a very new policeman.  Brian elected to have the matter heard in the Geelong Magistrates’ Court, where he was very well known. The young policeman gave his evidence first, reading from his notes. He recounted, in the usual expressionless police manner, that he had asked the defendant his name and occupation and the defendant had replied ‘Brian Bourke solicitor’. The Magistrate immediately interrupted to say: ‘Stopping you there, Constable, I’m afraid I won’t be able to believe any further evidence you give.  Case dismissed’.

Bourkey retrieved this wig from a wastepaper basket at the Inns of Court, London, in 1958, and wore it for his entire career.

His legal practice was the central thread of his life.  He was a meticulous preparer for every one of his legal appearances, while elevating feigned ignorance of the law to an art form (a perilous trap for many a prosecutor). He was always prepared to breach those rules that he thought limited his ability to work or represent his client fully, most particularly in relation to the number of Courts in which he entered an appearance in any one day – the rule being one only.  That was not nearly enough for Bourkey: two briefs a day was standard for him, three often, four sometimes and five not unknown.  Delayed in another Court, he was once asked by the Full Court to justify his late appearance.  His answer was disarming: ‘Greed your Honours, pure greed’.  Only a man of Bourkey’s generosity, trustworthiness and humanity could have such an answer accepted without demur.  It was so clearly a falsehood – from a man who did staggering amounts of pro-bono work.  He appeared in over 150 murders in his long career, and famously represented Ronnie Ryan, the last man hanged in Australia.

He was a modest man, unimpressed with his own achievements and always, in response to numerous accolades during his career, genuinely surprised that anyone ‘bothered about’ him. He disliked pretentious language and labels.  He referred to his chambers as ‘the room’, Bourke’s Liquor Laws as ‘the book’, his University education as ‘the course’.  Last October he received an accolade that surpassed all others in his eyes: a group of criminal barristers named their chambers for him.  His speech at the opening occasion began: ‘When I woke up this morning I was just plain old Brian Bourke.  But now I am Brian Bourke with chambers named after me’.

His achievements, outside the law, were many and varied:

  • He was a champion debater, a member of the Victorian Debating Team in the ’50s and ’60s, and wrote a widely used book on debating with Senator Alan Missen.
  • He was President of the South Melbourne Football Club, which later became the AFL Sydney Swans, sat on the VFL Board, was a life member of the Swans and of the AFL, sat on the Tribunal and the Appeals Board.

    Ardent Swans supporter.

  • He organized the first meeting of the Australian chapter of Amnesty International, which was held in his chambers.
  • He was a founding member of Doxa, a charity for providing positive experiences for disadvantaged children.
  • He successfully bred cattle on the Bellarine Peninsula for 40 years.
  • He was awarded an AM for services to football and the law in June of 2018.

He was an official Legend of the Victorian Bar but never applied to become a QC, famously explaining that he thought the Queen had quite enough Counsel, and he was Irish. Indeed, he regularly identified as Irish although his claim relied on one Irish born grandparent.  Bourkey’s paternal grandfather left Thurles in County Tipperary and arrived in Australia the year Ned Kelly was hanged – 1880.  He came in a hurry as a young man, by himself, and never went back.  No family members followed him.  He lived into his 90s and died after Bourkey achieved adulthood.  His identification as Irish must rest in large part on his grandfather’s influence on him from an early age.

What was Irish about Brian Bourke? Of course, he had the name and the face, a map of Ireland.

Then there was his charm and his ability to talk to anyone.  He was egalitarian, in his professional and his personal life, paying as much regard to the leading businessmen who sought his advice as to the teenager on a traffic offence; to the many judges he knew as to the lowliest member of the Court staff; to the owner of the restaurant as to the waiter serving at table.  Through the busiest years of his practising life, it was generally known that he stayed up in town on Thursday night and would be in chambers from after Court until the last waiting client had been interviewed.  There was no pecking order in the waiting area – Bourkey took people in the order that they arrived.  The famous waited on the infamous, the leaders on the lowly.

Sitting with him, his attention was undivided.  He focussed on the person at hand wholly and solely, to the exclusion of any other pressure that might be looming.  He could exclude everything else from his mind and deal with the matter at hand. Many people met him only once or twice, but felt they knew him well.  This was his gift – he was warm and welcoming, totally non-judgmental and very comfortable in his own skin. People wanted to be with him.

Bourkey was Irish in his mistrust of authority and authoritarian decisions.  He decided to exercise his own brand of civil disobedience when the conductors were removed from the trams in the 1990s, replaced by MYKI cards.  He ceased to pay his fare.  This required eagle-eyed monitoring of inspectors getting on the tram and strategic moves around the tram once they had boarded.  If he was addressed by an inspector, he became the old bumbling uncomprehending senile man that he wasn’t, but it fooled them.  He apologised for his ignorance and was forgiven ‘this once’.  It was carefully explained to him where and how he could buy a MYKI card.  He was never booked for fare evasion and his rebellious Irish soul delighted in getting away with it.

Brian Bourke was a man of Irish contradictions.  He built the leading practice in Liquor Law and edited the reference loose leaf service known as Bourke’s Liquor Laws – the ‘go to’ publication for this area of the law. This, despite his own abstinence – a life time non-drinker of alcohol. He labelled alcohol as the most destructive force in our society.

He loved thoroughbred racing, as so many Irish people do.  Bourkey was attempting to pick Melbourne Cup winners as a 7-year old, setting chooks on eggs, labelled with the names of the horses running in the great race. The first egg to hatch provided the hot tip! He attributed his love of the sport to the influence of his uncle Jim, his father’s brother, a priest who lived permanently near the racecourse in Randwick.  It was Jim who directed many jockeys of his acquaintance to break their frequent car journeys between Sydney and Melbourne at the Seymour Hotel, run by Bourkey ‘s parents before the war.  Bourkey, as a young lad, met the leading jockeys of the day there – the likes of Maurice McCarten, Billy Cook, Darby Munro, and listened in to their racing talk.

His knowledge of racing was greatly expanded during numerous admissions to St Vincent’s Hospital over a 2-year period for treatment of a serious kidney ailment which resulted in infections in his neck and treatment by an orthopaedic surgeon: his top teeth were removed and he had to wear a plaster cast to his waist for eight months. Bourkey was 14 before he was cleared to play sport again.  By then he had learned a great deal about the racing game from the jockeys who were always treated at St Vincent’s and became Brian’s heroes and talking companions. He followed the races to the very end of his life.  A modest punter, he received greater joy and satisfaction from picking a winner and collecting $50, than from receiving a brief fee 100 times larger.

Bourkey was brought up on a diet of Irish history and outlook and he attributed this to his father Tom, his grandfather, also Tom, and his father’s eldest brother Larry. He did not visit Ireland until 1959, but he was familiar with the stories of the place from a very young age. He was indoctrinated with a hatred of the English Black and Tans and of the English landlords who controlled huge estates while depriving the Irish.  Once Brian had spent time in Ireland and met his relatives, he found some of his inherited notions were exaggerated or misconceived, but in his words, he ‘never did warm to the English’.  He judged the dominance of the Catholic Church in Ireland to be all embracing, and found it repressive and very unhealthy, but he also experienced much less antagonism between the North and the South than he had been led to believe in his youth.

He enjoyed many Irish writers – Wilde, Yeats, Beckett, C S Lewis, and others – and he read Joyce’s Dubliners in his 20s.  In 2000, a grandchild of mine was born on 16 June, Bloomsday, and I decided I had to come to grips with Ulysses before she grew up.  I suggested to Bourkey that I read it out loud to him and he enthusiastically agreed. He had, like me, not broached the great book ever, although together we had enjoyed some years of Bloomsday celebrations in Melbourne, disguising our ignorance.  And so, over two and a half years, on most Monday afternoons, I read Ulysses to him in my sitting room.  He sat with the dictionary, and looked up every unknown word.  We chose the Oxford World’s Classics edition, which is heavily notated, and we addressed every single note.  Bourkey loved those afternoons and only very occasionally, after a heavy morning in Court perhaps, nodded off.  When we finished, we both felt an enormous sense of achievement and Bourkey declared himself a completely qualified Irishman.

Brian Bourke once recorded in his daily diary,a quotation from Saul Bellow, taken from The Dean’s December.  It reads: ‘This world as you experience it, is your direct personal fate’.  This is an apt thought for a man who lived such a full, useful and long life, surrounded by people who valued his presence and sought his company; a man of humour and humanity and the ability to enrich the lives of others.

Angela shared Chambers with Brian at the Victorian Bar for 10 years and knew him for 35 years.

One thought on “Brian Bourke, Barrister and Irishman (1929-2018)

  1. This is a truly charming picture of a wonderful man. Congratulations to Angela and to Tintean for doing such an honour to a very significant Irish/ Australian figure who graced the Victorian Bar for so many years.

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