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Walsh, Sir Cyril Ambrose (1909–1973)

by John Kennedy McLaughlin

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Cyril Ambrose Walsh (1909-1973), by John Aloysius Mulligan, 1965

Cyril Ambrose Walsh (1909-1973), by John Aloysius Mulligan, 1965

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn3101431

Sir Cyril Ambrose Walsh (1909-1973), judge, was born on 15 June 1909 in Sydney, sixth child and fourth son of native-born parents of Irish descent Michael John Walsh, labourer, and his wife Mary Ellen, née Murphy. Despite their humble origins, at least three of the children achieved distinction in their chosen careers. Cyril grew up at Werrington on the western outskirts of Sydney, where his father had acquired a small dairy farm. He attended the convent school run by the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, St Marys, and Parramatta High School. While at St John's College, University of Sydney (B.A., 1930; LL.B., 1934), he was secretary then president of the college's students club. Having won sundry prizes and scholarships, he graduated in 1930 with first-class honours and the university medal in both English and philosophy, first-class honours in Latin and the James Coutts scholarship for English. He also gained first-class honours and the university medal in law, and shared the John George Dalley prize.

On 25 May 1934 Walsh was admitted to the New South Wales Bar and, shortly after, entered Chalfont Chambers, Phillip Street, where his colleagues included W. F. Sheahan and (Sir) Garfield Barwick. Although Walsh developed a substantial practice, especially in the Equity jurisdiction, an innate diffidence and reluctance for self-promotion precluded him from attaining public recognition. On 28 November 1942 he married Mary Agnes Smyth at St Joseph's Catholic Church, Enfield.

His colleagues at the Bar never doubted that his professional competence entitled Walsh to judicial office. At the relatively early age of 44 and although he had not taken silk, he was elevated to the bench of the Supreme Court of New South Wales on 8 February 1954. As a trial judge, he was outstanding. He was courteous, patient and fair; his judgements and charges to juries were models of lucidity. From 1958 he was the judge in charge of a separate commercial causes list and a judge in admiralty. He also heard appeals to the Full Court and sat on the Law Reform Committee. In 1962 he represented Australia at a meeting in Bangkok of the working party of the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East which discussed international commercial arbitration.

On the establishment of the Court of Appeal in New South Wales, Walsh was named one of the original judges of appeal on 1 January 1966. His membership enhanced the reputation of that court. Barwick noted his 'calm and incisive analysis of the facts of a case and his percipience in identifying the legal principles which were apposite to the case'. On 3 October 1969 he became a justice of the High Court of Australia (filling the vacancy occasioned by the death of Sir Alan Taylor). He was appointed K.B.E. the same month and, on 1 January 1971, to the Privy Council. Walsh assumed new judicial duties, especially in the field of constitutional law. Chosen for the Supreme Court by a Labor premier and for the High Court by a Liberal prime minister, he never divulged his private political views. As an appellate judge, he was scholarly and painstaking, 'ever anxious to understand the submissions of counsel'.

Walsh maintained a close connexion with St John's College; he was a fellow (1955-73) and deputy-chairman (1969-72) of its council. A foundation member (1945) of the St Thomas More Society, he was involved with it for the remainder of his life, as a councillor and as president (1955-58 and 1962-64). He frequented the University Club in Phillip Street and enjoyed attending conventions of the Law Council of Australia.

Although by nature gentle and unassuming, Walsh delighted in social occasions with family, friends and colleagues. He derived the utmost pleasure from a close-knit family life and from the professional and academic achievements of his three sons, of whom he was intensely proud. He was tall (6 ft 3 ins, 191 cm), and lanky with a broad and lofty forehead, dark hair and hazel eyes.

Walsh died of cancer, in office, on 29 November 1973 at Sydney Hospital and was buried in Northern Suburbs cemetery. His wife and their sons survived him. At the time of his death he and his wife were living at Mosman, but for most of their married life they had resided at Summer Hill. At the special sitting of the High Court, Chief Justice Barwick, who admired Walsh as a lawyer and as a judge, said that he 'had not reached his zenith. The Court has lost a Justice from whom increasingly distinguished service was confidently expected'. D. B. Wilson's portrait (1976) of Walsh is held by St John's College.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Neumann, The High Court of Australia (Syd, 1971)
  • G. Fricke, Judges of the High Court (Melb, 1986)
  • Oxford Companion to the High Court (Melb, 2001)
  • Australian Law Journal, vol 27, 1954, p 607, vol 43, 1969, p 636, vol 47, 1973, p 752
  • Commonwealth Law Reports, vol 128, 1972-73
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 Nov, 1 Dec 1973
  • St John's College records (University of Sydney Archives)
  • private information.

Citation details

John Kennedy McLaughlin, 'Walsh, Sir Cyril Ambrose (1909–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/walsh-sir-cyril-ambrose-11950/text21419, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 20 November 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2019

Cyril Ambrose Walsh (1909-1973), by John Aloysius Mulligan, 1965

Cyril Ambrose Walsh (1909-1973), by John Aloysius Mulligan, 1965

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn3101431