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Ralph Devlin discusses law, faith, music, and growing up in an Irish Catholic household

The big questions: Donna Lynch sat down with Queen’s Counsel and Member of the Order of Australia Ralph Devlin

Question: Tell me about your early years. 

Answer: I grew up in Chermside at the end of the tram terminus. Of a father who served in the Second World War who barely survived it, and a mother who, as a very young person, taught through the Second World War. Our family was, you’d have to say, lower middle-class. But my parents sacrificed a lot to send us all to private, Catholic schools. So I was lucky in that sense.

Question: Did you know you were going to get into the legal area when you were at school?

Answer: Good question, look towards the end of my schooling at (St Joseph’s College) Gregory Terrace, I realised what I wanted to do was the humanities and I was very comfortable with public speaking, I was in the debating team and so on. And a grandfather of mine was a very prominent labour lawyer back in the ‘30s, but died young. You’d say it was in my blood.

Question: Religion has obviously been in your blood all the way through too?

Answer: I was raised by a very classic Irish Catholic mum – so, yes. And my wife Francis and I raised our children in the Catholic tradition. Whilst they were growing up, I probably spent 30 years as the church choir conductor at one church or another, which I was ill equipped to do. But they were great people; I got a love of liturgical music over that time.

Question: You talked about always wanting to be in that legal area when you left school, you were a major player in the Fitzgerald Inquiry.

Answer: Well there’d be a lot of people who’d say I wasn’t a major player, so there was a QC and I was his junior assisting Mr Fitzgerald. So that required me to go out in the field with a team and do lawyer-like investigations or to direct police to make inquiries in certain areas. So my team did all of country Queensland north of the Brisbane River and it was an exciting couple of years I can assure you.

Question: Okay you have five children, how have they been with their faith?

Answer: I think every one of them is a very good person. I think they would regard themselves as of the Catholic culture. None of them are observe in the church today that I know of. But, in a sense, that’s my own view of my religion that I’m an accountable human being and my duty is to treat others always appropriately. I think my kids do that.

Question: In your job, how do you handle – and you must have seen this on numerous occasions – the evil side of life?

Answer: As a criminal lawyer, you get a bit used to seeing people who have made awful mistakes. Some of those make them again and again and again, so they’re of the criminal disposition. Others make one bad mistake in their life that ruins their life and no doubt the life of their victim. So, I was a criminal lawyer working even as a clerk as soon as I left school. So I guess, I got a bit used to dealing with people who had made big mistakes. Right up to who were sociopathic or psychopathic in the way they approached life. Some people would say I’m a little bit inured to that. But it also teaches me to be tolerant because I’ve rarely met a client I haven’t found some reason to like for some quality that they had.

Question: You also had a duty in life where you’ve given yourself on a volunteer level; you’ve been heavily involved in the surf life-saving movement. Well, you’re just out there like an Energizer battery, you just keep going!

Answer: That’s very kind of you to say but I was introduced to surf life-saving by my dear old dad. He was a life-saver from the ‘30s, interrupted by war of course.

Question: It’s kind of like a passion like the church in a way, the Australian icon that brings people together kind of like how the church brings people together.

Answer: Yes, we in surf life saving are very inclusive. We are a broad church. We are full of people who’ve made a humanitarian decision to volunteer their time to the safety of others. The church is full of people who believe in leading a righteous life and the Catholic Church I particularly support for its humanitarian work.

Question: Okay, we talked about the surf, the legal, the QC, the singer Ralph Devlin. Tell us about the singer Ralph Devlin.

Answer: I owe a lot to St Joseph’s College, Gregory Terrace. One of my earliest mentors outside of my own family was a wonderful musician called Eunice Wilkes, who was a radio star. And her son was a senior Christian brother. Eunice Wilkes donated her time to St Joseph’s College, Gregory Terrace as a singing teacher.

Question: Do you sing at church in the choir?

Answer: All the time, all the time. And I have a group called the Tatty Tenors, and we have travelled all around Australia and we’ve done two world tours overseas just to a couple of countries at a time, mind you, as guests of the Australian embassy on both occasions. There’s two other singers and a pianist, all fellows my own age, we met in the church choir at the West Ashgrove Catholic Church, Mater Dei. And we’ve been 21 years singing together out of that church choir in this group.

Question: Alright, on that note, do you have a message for the Catholic Church?

Answer: Yes I do. The Church needs to continue to strive to be inclusive. By that I mean, I passionately believe in the right of women to participate in the life of the church. And I know that won’t be achieved in a day, a month, a year, or in my lifetime. The Church needs to be accountable to its people. In surf life-saving, misconduct is met with zero tolerance. And I’m proud to say surf life-saving was called to the Royal Commission to explain what that meant. And I’ve played a role in that internally in the surf life saving movement. So I believe passionately that the church, my church, our church needs to continue to strive to be inclusive and accountable.

Interview by Donna Lynch 

Catholic Church Insurance

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