Obituary: Mary Delaney

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The Independent Culture
IT WAS impossible to label Mary Delaney. None of the roles she performed defined her - family law barrister, defender of abused women and children, human-rights campaigner, confidante, loyal friend or mother. She brought her own slightly eccentric style to all of these roles. Her vitality and energy made things happen and she became a focal point for people from all walks of life.

She was born in Bristol, the eldest of two brothers and two sisters. Her mother, Audrey, was a GPO telephonist and her father, Patrick, an electrician from County Down. Mary's passion for justice came from Pat's belief in the Labour movement and his sense of fairness and compassion; her quicksilver mind, unpredictability and intense interest in other people's lives from Audrey.

At the age of seven she announced that she wanted to be a lawyer having watched Crown Court on television. It was a decision she never wavered from, and after leaving La Retraite High School she graduated in law at University College London, going on to bar school at Gray's Inn. She was intelligent and blessed with a phenomenal memory, so her student days were spent in pursuit of what she enjoyed most in life - chatting with an ever-growing circle of friends.

It was her interest in other people and her concern about how their lives were turning out that made conversations with Mary Delaney so absorbing. She would get right alongside people emotionally, listen intently, always propose solutions to any problem. Most people who met her were at some point counselled on their love life by her. On the next occasion you met she would cut straight to the chase and her infamous memory ensured she remembered every detail, however embarrassing.

She was called to the Bar in 1984 and during her pupillage, an abysmal time financially, she became a gypsy, staying with one friend after another, gathering more stories and thoroughly enjoying herself. A tenancy at 3 Temple Gardens and then at 1 Pump Court brought the beginnings of financial stability as her reputation as a popular family barrister grew.

At Pump Court she was the first of a new generation of women at the Bar who didn't feel obliged to behave like honorary men. She cross-examined without hectoring, without any macho behaviour, getting the truth out in her own way. She brought her own humour and refreshing way of doing things to the profession, working hard for her clients and making them feel she really cared about their fate. Packed inside a tiny bag she used to call the Tardis was her wig, gown and other necessary items that she would lose at heartstopping moments. And stuffed inside a huge bag nearly as big as her own small self were the bundles of files she spent so much time on.

From 1986 to 1991 Mary Delaney was a pivotal part of the Friends of John McCarthy pressure group, campaigning for the release of the British hostages held in Beirut. The campaign would not have been possible without Delaney's clarity of thought and her ability to get people together. She had an instinct for what was right, for how to interest people in what was for a long time a lonely cause, and could enthuse others enough to make things happen.

She put much of her spare time and energy into persuading others that supporting the Friends was the right thing to do and she was such an eloquent, persuasive individual that all kinds of people supported up. Every decision I as the group's founder made, small or large, was first checked with her. Virtually ever trip made in connection with the campaign was with her alongside, to Paris for the release of one French hostage after another, up to Blackpool for the political party conferences, to countless other meetings up and down the country.

Her daughter Anna was born in 1991, just before the release of the British hostages. Delaney's inventiveness and her understanding and compassion for children, qualities she shared with her partner Rob Small, made her a magnet for them. She was never happier than when she was surrounded by kids, organising a mad game that she had just made up.

In 1995 she was drawn to Camden Women's Aid, a local authority-funded organisation that provides refuge accommodation for women fleeting violence in the home. She became a linchpin of its management committee and children's sub-committee, attending meetings, raising money and organising events. Again, her talent for bringing people together and enthusiasm for the cause brought vital practical support and funds.

Towards the end of 1997 Delaney was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of bone cancer and underwent a series of debilitating treatments. She would weaken and then revive but her zest for company and talk, for games and children, never left her, even when it became clear that she had little time left. Her fate, and what little self-pity she felt, were opened up for discussion with her friends.

She married Rob, her partner for nine years, two months before her death and the wedding breakfast - an evening barbecue in a Cornish cove - had all the usual Delaney ingredients, children, fun and games. The night before she died she was in EuroDisney with Rob, Anna and her sister Nicola. Mary Delaney's many friends are left without her guiding light, her phone calls, her gift for bringing people together and making things happen. But she has also left us knowing what love and friendship are all about.

Mary Eileen Delaney, barrister: born Bristol 20 February 1961; called to the Bar, Gray's Inn 1984; married 1998 Rob Small (one daughter); died London 23 January 1999.