The cause of death was complications from a lung infection.
Durkan had been ill and confined to hospital since the middle of October. He made his last public appearance on Oct. 7 when he delivered the keynote speech at the annual gathering of the Mayo Society of Greater Cleveland in Ohio.
Born Francis Patrick Durkan in 1930, Durkan was a member of the extended family from Bohola, Co. Mayo, that was to give New York a mayor, a city council president and the Irish half of one of the city’s best-known law firms.
He was a nephew of Mayor William O’Dwyer and the late Paul O’Dwyer, a first cousin of both attorney Brian O’Dwyer and broadcaster Adrian Flannelly.
Durkan, whose parents were both teachers, arrived in New York by ship in 1947.
His first night in his adopted city was unusual, but not to become typical. He was put up in Gracie Mansion, official residence of the mayor, who at the time was his uncle William O’Dwyer.
As quickly as he was installed in Manhattan’s most prestigious address, Durkan was ousted at the behest of his other New York uncle, Paul O’Dwyer.
The new arrival from Mayo, it was bluntly put to him, would have to work his way up from street level like everyone else.
This the young Durkan did by way of a variety of jobs and also by pursuing an education with the intensity, commitment and vigor that would characterize attorney Durkan in later years.
He initially earned a bachelor or arts degree at Columbia University before
attending and graduating from New York Law School.
Durkan’s legal career was based at the Downtown Manhattan firm of O’Dwyer and Bernstien and it was from this operating base that he progressed through a distinguished career that focused, in the main, on negligence and malpractice cases and, most famously, on cases involving the denial of human and civil rights and others linked to the situation in Northern Ireland.
It was with the North as the legal starting point that Durkan appeared in courtrooms all over the United States representing individuals and groups of accused such as the “Fort Worth Five” and “Brooklyn Five,” chief among them his fellow Mayo native, George Harrison.
In 1982, Durkan successfully defended Harrison – a man who openly admitted to running guns to the IRA – by linking the operation in the minds of the jury to the Central Intelligence Agency.
Durkan was at the center, or in a close supporting role, in a number of extradition and deportation cases during the 1980s, including that of Desmond Mackin who was wanted in Northern Ireland for shooting a British soldier.
The judge’s opinion in favor of Mackin, delivered in the Southern District of New York, embraced Durkan’s argument that a political exception clause applied in the case. The ruling is considered by many legal experts to be a landmark decision in the field of extradition law.
Durkan’s career as a lawyer was matched by his political activism and also the promotion and welfare of organizations linked to his native county.
At the time of his death, Durkan chaired the lobby group, Americans for a New Irish Agenda.
Durkan was a central figure in Irish Americans for Clinton Gore, which played a key role in the evolution of President Clinton’s groundbreaking Irish policies during the 1990s.
Durkan was a member of the Mayo Society of New York, a trustee of both the Irish Institute of New York and Mayo Foundation for the Handicapped.
He represented the New York Mayo Football Club as a delegate to the Gaelic Athletic Association and also served as its president.
Durkan was also active over the years in the cause of immigration reform and securing greater access to the U.S. for his fellow Irish. At the time of his death he was a board member of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform.
A resident of Rye in Westchester County, Durkan is immediately survived by his wife Monica, daughters Ashling and Mary Louise, and two grandsons.
In the aftermath of his death, tributes to Durkan came from many leading figures in the Irish-American community.
The New York Times ran a lengthy obituary while a separate obituary written by the Associated Press appeared in a number of newspapers including the Boston Globe.
Throughout his years as an activist and attorney, Durkan was closely associated with the work of Irish Northern Aid, a group he publicly defended by arguing that it raised money for the families of Irish Republican prisoners and not for the IRA’s campaign.
“Frank was a strong advocate for a united and free Ireland. Frank will be missed by many, but his dedication and commitment to help the oppressed and disenfranchised was an inspiration to all and we will be forever in his debt,” INA chairman, Paul Doris, said in a statement.
“We just lost a great Irishman and as fine a gentleman as you could ever meet,” said Jim Gallagher of the Irish American Unity Conference.