Remembering Peter Fitzpatrick

by | 27 May 2020

In her beautiful piece for CLT on the life and career of Professor Peter Fitzpatrick, Sundhya Pahuja offers a provocation for someone to write more on Peter’s years in Belfast, teaching Law at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) in the late 1960s/early 1970s. While others are much better placed to write about that time, especially Professors Abdul Paliwala and Tom Hadden, who were his colleagues at QUB, I do have a couple stories, which I would like to share. These were told to me by Peter and his wife, Shelby, after taking up my first academic position at QUB School of Law in 2005.  In particular, I recall their reminiscences about working on the political and cultural magazine, Fortnight, which was started by Hadden in 1970. Looking back at the early issues, I find not only cultural pieces (particularly book reviews) written by both Peter and Shelby, but also some political commentaries as well, such as Peter’s ‘Strikers and Squatters’ (9 Oct 1970, no. 2, pp. 12-13) and ‘When Will Catholics be the Majority’ (22 Jan 1971, no. 9, p. 17). While Peter and Shelby did not talk much about their time in Belfast (which I think is pretty standard for anyone who lived through ‘The Troubles’ there), one story in particular has stuck with me. In keeping with the Canadian/Irish/English obsession with talking about the weather, during one conversation somehow Peter and I got on to the subject of winter and snow. I was probably lamenting about the lack of snowfall in Ireland and/or how I was missing the Canadian winters of my youth (believe me, I do not miss these anymore!). Peter assured me that Belfast does get snow. How did he know? He spoke about driving one winter in the city, being pelted by snowballs by neighbourhood children. This memory stuck with him not because of the unusual quantity of snowfall, but because of his concern that the snowballs might contain more than just snow….

One further memory of Peter in Belfast comes to mind. It was September 2013 and the Critical Legal Conference (CLC) was being hosted by QUB School of Law. My co-organisers, Yvette Russell, Bal Sokhi-Bulley and Catherine Turner, had secretly arranged for the launch of my book, Justice as Improvisation: The Law of the Extempore (Routledge, 2013) at the conference, a book based on the research I did while a PhD student with Peter at Birkbeck School of Law. Peter spoke at the launch and chose to focus on what would otherwise be a slightly unusual academic topic: lawn-mowing. I think I only cut the lawn at the Old Vicarage twice; the first time, I remember quite well. I was thoroughly missing being at my family’s cottage on Mazinaw Lake in Canada for the summer (and doing the requisite manual labour) and I offered to take over the mowing of the lawn from either Peter or Shelby one very hot summer’s day. It took much convincing, but I think the heat won over in the end. Henceforth it become a recurrent joke between us, with Peter regularly ending correspondence with a line about the length of the grass at the Old Vicarage, the insinuation being that a visit from me would very much be welcome. I will accordingly end this remembrance of Peter with his own words, those spoken at my book launch: ‘Initially I was not going to let anyone committed to improvisation and the extempore work on my lawn, but resistance was futile. And she did a perfect job. It is an unusually irregular lawn the mowing of which does call for, not just the standard measure of elegant ordering, but also an inspired improvisation – and a fusion of the two. And there, you have the book…’. And there, you have Peter: whose determinate wry wit and exceptional brilliance was matched only by his responsive kindness, gentility, andincomparable generosity (see Sundhya’s CLT piece). The perfect fusion – both as person and academic – and I will remember and miss Peter dearly for the rest of my days.

Sara Ramshaw


Who is this ‘PhD supervisor’, about whom I speak so much? The person who was the reason that in 2010, I took up his invitation (after one conversation this leading scholar simply said to me, ‘I’d be delighted if you came to continue your PhD with me’) and move to London – changing countries, PhD institutions, forgoing existing funding. The person that picked me up on many occasions from the rail station at Sturry and always insisted on carrying my backpack, or walking my bicycle, from the station to the Old Vicarage. The person who I always suspected was who he was because of Shelby. The person who, after reading group sessions, or in supervision meetings would look at me and ask, ‘have you eaten?’ ‘Are you sleeping?’ The person whose disapproval of my thesis writing caused me those many, many sleepless nights. The person who, without fail, would ask about my sisters, with genuine interest. The person who, without fail, supported my (many) job applications and no matter what had come to pass with the PhD itself, always embraced me with a warmth that was familial, full of care, respect and love. This was Peter. I struggle to write that using the past tense. I want to resist and only speak in the present, the presence, that is, the presence of Peter (side note: how, I wonder, will the Father haunt us? What is the Spectre of Fitzpatrick? I believe he would join us in laughing at that question). Peter is care. Consideration. Attentiveness (to the point of immense frustration at his meticulous comments on grammar alone when you are his PhD student). Compassion. He is infuriatingly real, whole, and human, such that I remember his generosity and grace together with the frustration, confusion when communication did break down and my work (at that point, my life) seemed incapable of meeting his expectations. And yet, at no point did the respect stop. At no point did Peter stop caring. For this, we love him. We are drawn to him and we remain in the embrace of his presence as a reminder of the grace that is present in the world, as the world. Even, dare I say, the grace that is possible – no matter how impossible it may seem to us now – in the modern University. Peter was in many ways part of what we see as a bygone era of the University. But we were drawn to him because what he created in the reading groups and the integrity, rigor, with which he guided himself is the University we want. A University of slow reading, of engagement, of deep thinking. A University of real, human, flawed, whole people with lives, passions and hobbies. A University of generosity. Of time. Of integrity. Of risks and challenges. Of beauty and creation, expressed in music, art, poetry, dance, trees and stories.

Peter’s legacy is that of an academic artist: passionate, and perhaps obsessive, but ever creative in his relentless pursuit of the questions that give meaning to life: power, oppression, marginalisation, translation, communication, transgression, norms and mythologies. Ties that bind. And we in turn have been bound by something: a way of being in the world that does not disappear with Peter’s absence or reside in the text of his writing. It is the excess in all of us that is what causes us – his former students – to feel a bond, a friendship, beyond time and space. We, his community, are the unspoken text. We are all the exscription of his text, and in being drawn to Peter we became response-able. We are responsable to carry the pursuit of the question; a question that is, in its inoperativity and aporetic nature as much unknown as it is known. The text, the words, the languages of the question may differ, but we know what envelopes the question: the care, the time, the grace, the wonder, the generosity of spirit of being response-able to life and to the world. And we know this through Peter. This ‘PhD supervisor’, about whom I speak so much.

Anastasia Tataryn


My early years with Peter Fitzpatrick, as a doctoral candidate at Birkbeck, University of London from 2007, and the years of friendship that followed my return to Melbourne, Australia, were replete with the extraordinary generosity, thoughtful reflection, abiding hospitality and rare kindness that defined his life’s work. This care, gratefully received, I now consider an inheritance for which I am responsible as a scholar, teacher, mentor, colleague and friend. To give, receive and fulfil this responsibility is a labour of love. My own scholarship is deeply influenced and enriched by Peter’s vast intellectual legacy, most particularly his critical renderings of law and empire, laws of the postcolonial, law and literature. Drawing these together, his work revealed the fictive elements of the common law, its constitutive ambivalence, and its literary dimensions. These ‘affines’, law and literature, share in an oscillatory rhythm that opens each to the possibility of ‘being otherwise’. For ensuing generations of scholars, these revelations form an integral intellectual premise to scholarship in law and the humanities. Modes of decolonial praxis appropriate to encounters between legal traditions, as between academic disciplines, can be imagined with Peter’s rendering of this constitutive ambivalence. Beyond these illuminations, his companionable constancy, generous encouragement, and liberating exhortation to ‘wallow in the reading’ despite the imperatives of contemporary academic life provided an ethic of care, which suffused the intellectual community he gathered around him. I am incredibly grateful for this care which, together with a remarkable rigour, emboldened my scholarship as a doctoral candidate and well beyond. Without Peter, we are bereft. But it is this care for which he was beloved, and that will sustain us all as we care for one another in his memory.

Kathleen Birrell

1 Comment

  1. Love to you all. Beautifully written.


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