OBITUARY: Rory O’Connor sat as judge under African trees and Asian skyscrapers

Judge Rory O'Connor with daughter Siobhan
Judge Rory O'Connor with daughter Siobhan

Rory O’Connor’s work saw him hold court underneath African trees and in the metropolis of British Hong Kong.

The globetrotting judicial figure was accorded a CBE in recognition of his work, and died last month, aged 89.

He was born in Holywood, Co Down, on November 26, 1925, to Mary (nee Savage) and James Edward O’Connor, a general merchant.

He attended St Malachy’s Christian Brothers primary school in Belfast, before going to Blackrock College, Dublin, where he was a boarding student.

“I think he was the class geek,” said his daughter Siobhan. “He won a lot of academic prizes at school.”

After Blackrock, he studied a Bachelor of Commerce degree at University College Dublin (UCD), and then went to the law school of King’s Inns to study as a barrister.

She said he was aided in his studies by a “photographic memory” for details, and while at UCD he self-taught himself a module on accountancy because it happened to clash with his Spanish classes.

He was called to the bar in 1949, the same year that the Republic of Ireland Act came into force, formally severing the link between Dublin and London.

Most of his cases were on the Dublin and Monaghan circuit initially, and then he applied for a job in what was still called the British Colonial Service.

He was accepted and in 1956 he went to become a resident magistrate in pre-independence Kenya.

“When he was in Kenya, he said they were the best days of his life,” said Siobhan.

“He liked the African people, and their nature. They were always happy people.”

He was there during the Mau Mau uprising against British rule, and dealt with an array of criminal cases.

“He was talking about one where a white officer had killed a black prisoner in an internment camp, and he had convicted him,” she said.

“Apparently, it was the talk of the place, because that just didn’t happen.”

In another case, she said: “There was a camp where internees had refused to eat the food because they thought it was poisoned, and he and another magistrate went to eat the food to show them it wasn’t.”

He had been issued with a personal protection weapon during his service in Kenya – although Siobhan added that he was “not at all practical” with his hands.

He was based variously in Nyeri, Thompson Falls and Lake Nakuru and Nyeri, all to the north of Nairobi.

“He said he had to hold court under a tree at times, because there just weren’t any buildings in Kikuyu camps [the Kikuyu are a major ethnic group in the country],” she added.

He met his wife-to-be Elizabeth (nee Dew), who was working for Alitalia airline, while they were at a friend’s house in Nairobi in the early 1960s.

They wed in 1963, shortly after he had moved to Hong Kong as Kenya attained its independence.

He was a magistrate in the Far East territory until 1970, and then became a district judge from 1970 to 1977, before joining its Supreme Court in 1977.

During his tenure he handled cases sometimes involving Triad organised crime groups.

In a report by United Press International on May 6, 1984, records him as sitting at a “sensational murder trial that has placed a spotlight on the biggest financial collapse in Hong Kong’s history”.

In that case, a businessman was alleged to have strangled a banker whose body was bundled into a suitcase, after he refused to bail a multi-billion-dollar corporation.

Another particularly grim case he was involved with was the Braemar Hill double murder in 1985, when British teenagers Kenneth McBride and Nicola Myers were subjected to an exceptionally violent death at the hands of young robbers.

Siobhan said one aspect of Hong Kong which he particularly admired was the attentiveness of its jurors, and she recalled a story he told of how a lawyer in a fraud case was once interrupted by a juror who pointed out errors in the figures he was presenting to the court.

While in Hong Kong he also went on secondments to Brunei, which had been under British control until 1984.

He retired in 1990 and returned to Northern Ireland, settling in Bangor (although even in retirement he would sometimes be called on to sit in the Court of Appeal in Gibraltar).

He was given his CBE for services to the judiciary in 1991.

In his later years, his daughter said golf and social clubs were not “his thing”.

Instead he travelled and read prolifically, and enjoyed learning to use new gadgets such as his iPad, using it to read Hong Kong newspapers and The Times every day, as well as the Northern Irish press.

He died suddenly on August 10 of a heart attack.

His funeral was held on August 14 at St Comgall’s, Bangor.

He was buried in Clandeboye cemetery.

His wife predeceased him three years ago.

He is survived by brothers Nial and Brian, and sister Geraldine, his children Siobhan O’Connor (who has followed him into the legal profession, and is today a practicing barrister), Fiona Beattie, and Brendan O’Connor, as well as six grandchildren.