Obituary: Rex Mackey

Click to follow
IN THE extrovert milieu of real-life Rumpoles, few Irish criminal barristers of recent decades could match Rex Mackey's sense of the dramatic. His talent for turning advocacy into public performance was no accident; his early ambition and first career apprenticeship was as an actor on the Dublin stage.

Mackey was born in 1911 into a family with British army connections through his father, the director of a railway company. His Donegal mother's uncle had been Roman Catholic Bishop of Raphoe. Mackey studied history at University College, Dublin, where his main recreation was in the boxing ring (he had already achieved note as an All-Ireland Schools Champion). To his dismay, Trinity College was barred to him by the Draconian Catholic Church decree (lifted only in 1970) forbidding its members to enter what it saw as an unacceptable Protestant enclave. The church refusal to grant him a dispensation rankled for the rest of his life.

While there he also began acting at the Gate, then the city's leading independent theatre. It had no repertory company and Dublin university students were paid a few shillings for playing lesser parts. This allowed Mackey to rub shoulders with the aristocracy of Irish theatre. It also led the young student to allege he had been the object of unwanted physical overtures from the late Michael MacLiammoir, the London-born stage and cinema actor (real name Alfred Wilmore) who reinvented himself as a camp Cork man on arrival in Ireland. The student responded by thumping MacLiammoir, who was neither the first nor last thus to feel Mackey's ire.

As a result the younger man left the Gate and went to the Abbey Theatre, Ireland's de facto national theatre and purveyor of traditional Irish fare from Synge to O'Casey. Mackey, borrowing a line from an early Irish film censor, observed "It was like going from Sodom to Begorrah."

In 1932 and 1933 he featured in supporting roles in nine Abbey plays ranging from Ibsen to Lennox Robinson. He joined the Irish Bar in 1938, working mainly on the north-western provincial circuit. It was a training ground noted for its demanding lunchtime regime; Mackey endeavoured to keep up. One contemporary claimed Mackey himself once fell foul of the law after hitting another man during an argument. "He was a bit of a wild man in his day, with his shock of black hair and rather unpredictable manner," a senior colleague recalled.

As a junior counsel Mackey established a strong reputation in customs law, successfully challenging the convention that customs offences were quasi-criminal and not requiring the application of the rules of natural justice in terms of criminal inquiry.

Keen to develop his theatrical career he moved to England first in the Thirties. There he appeared in various Ambassadors Theatre productions for the impresario Sidney Carroll. Once, while in London, he received a brief at short notice for a case in Donegal. He solved the logistical problem by sheer extravagance, getting into a London cab and telling the driver "Take me to Letterkenny." The client's response on opening his bill is not recorded.

Later he became involved in film production at Cricklewood and Twickenham Studios and among other tasks was employed as a voice coach for the then princely fee of pounds 15 a day. For Sinclair Hill's When Irish Eyes Are Smiling with Stanley Holloway as Father O'Flynn, he had to contend with a Hungarian actress in the leading lady's role of an Irish colleen. Her central-European vowels, alas, could not extend to the required accent. Mackey solved the problem, rewriting the part using only those words she could successfully pronounce.

Mackey privately confided he had also provided material for Peter Sellers's classic prison comedy Two Way Stretch. It featured an inmate's mother having Bing Crosby's "Don't Fence Me In" played as a birthday radio request, and Sellers, as the top crook, remarking when a posh visiting committee lady enquires about conditions: "Oh, we take things as we find them."

Called to the English Bar in 1947, Mackey increasingly concentrated on his legal career and by 1960 was back in Ireland. He also wrote two books, Walk of the Oyster (1964), on bridge, and Windward of the Law (1965), on landmark Irish court cases and unofficial history naming informers among the United Irishmen.

He left none of his stagecraft behind when donning the wig and robes of his legal persona. At least one client observed that it was almost worth the fee to hear his oratory. His ability to entertain won him a latitude from judges not extended to more sluggish counsels. He became a Senior Counsel (equivalent of the English QC) in 1973. A senior Irish Bar figure described him as "a very able criminal defender. Even until a late age he was very adroit on his feet and quite unpredictable. You never knew what was coming next."

He could be an irascible companion, but a sharp memory made him a compelling raconteur. His appetite for the courtroom was limitless; he was still working until shortly before his final illness. His greatest pleasure was his family, and especially his young granddaughter Chloe.

His most celebrated recent success was in having the murder conviction of the former disc-jockey Vincent Connell for a killing at an Eighties pop festival quashed, after Connell had already served a long jail term. The original trial had been the longest in Irish legal history. Mackey, fighting an unpopular case for a client widely thought to be guilty, located key witnesses and unearthed crucial documents not in the original book of evidence, producing a 45-page affadavit that freed his client in 1996 without a re-trial.

As Dublin's oldest practising barrister he was Father of the Bar. His final case, earlier this year had major political overtones, challenging the lawfulness of a prisoner's detention on the basis of the Dickensian squalor in Dublin's Mountjoy Jail. Last week, prison numbers there reached 800 in premises built to hold a maximum 430.

He also represented the Dublin photographer Eamonn Farrell after a unique photograph of the former Taoiseach Charles Haughey shaking hands with the tycoon Ben Dunne appeared on the cover of Sam Smyth's 1997 book Thanks a Million Big Fella, chronicling the tycoon's cash gifts to politicians. The printed image had been altered by computer by a publisher without approval, with an extra figure of another ex-cabinet minister and recipient of Dunne's largesse added.

Mackey won a settlement securing the photographer's right not to have a historic image altered without authority. In court the barrister noted the Kremlin had been the greatest exponent of airbrushing characters from history. But the defendants, he complained, had gone one step further: "Even Stalin never went as far as to put someone in who wasn't there."

Rex Mackey, barrister, actor and writer: born Bray, Co Wicklow 7 December 1911; called to the Bar, King's Inns, Dublin 1937; called to the English Bar 1947; twice married (two daughters); died Dublin 7 November 1999.