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Breffni O'Rourke, Globe-Trotting Journalist Known For Elegant Writing, Dry Wit, Dies At 72

RFE/RL senior correspondent Breffni O'Rourke
RFE/RL senior correspondent Breffni O'Rourke

Laurence Francis Breffni O’Rourke, a former senior editor and correspondent for RFE/RL who was known for his dry wit, gentle demeanor, and elegant writing, has died. He was 72.

Breffni, as he was known to everyone, died in Prague on January 12, 2017, from complications of Parkinson’s disease.

Born in England, Breffni began a globe-trotting life quite early, when he moved as a young boy to Milan with his mother, sister, and father, a Manchester wool merchant. The family later relocated to Canberra, Australia.

Breffni graduated from Australian National University with a bachelor’s degree in English literature and political science. He soon began what would become a distinguished, distinctive, and peripatetic career in journalism, working as a writer and editor for The Canberra Times, The Star in Johannesburg (taking one of the last steam liners, the Angelino Lauro, from Australia to South Africa), The Times of London, The Sydney Morning Herald, the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation in Bern, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) in Munich and Prague.

He met his future wife, Elfrieda, while traveling in Antwerp, Belgium. They married in 1978 and had two sons.

Breffni was among a number of talented veteran expats who worked in the Central Newsroom of RFE/RL in Munich before the radios moved to Prague in 1995. Soft-voiced and congenial, he was especially solicitous toward younger colleagues, walking them through the paces of a sometimes quirky office.

As both a supervising editor and writer of news copy, he was known for his steady work ethic, attention to detail, and rigorous sourcing.

They're Finished, My Prague Days, An Essay By Breffni O'Rourke

Breffni also had a disarming dry wit. He was fond of recounting experiences from his wide-ranging travels and his many jobs, including picking hops and apples in England.

After the closing of RFE/RL’s Munich offices, Breffni took a newspaper job in Australia but returned to the radios’ relocated headquarters in Prague in 1995 to help new hires, many of them with newspaper backgrounds, learn the ropes of writing for the ear.

"At a time of rebuilding and renewal with a very young staff, Breffni had the perfect balance of even temperament and professionalism to bring to the Prague news team," said former Central Newsroom Director Bob McMahon, who was also a colleague of Breffni's in Munich. "He never lost sight of the mission of the radios to be a credible source of information for its many audiences."

Jay Tolson, who was the director of the Central Newsroom when Breffni retired in 2011, recalled the unique place that he held among the newsroom staff.

“Breffni always seemed like the wise older brother who had seen and experienced everything yet never became jaded or cynical and had even preserved a quiet, sacred idealism from which, in large part, his devotion to the art and craft of our shared profession flowed,” Tolson remembered. “He never seemed to know how much we all relied on him for what he did and what he represented. But we knew, and we loved him all the more for that innocent, instinctive generosity.”

As a correspondent, Breffni had an uncanny ability to take the driest of topics and turn them into compelling prose, injecting a bit of humor, a literary reference, or a wink of the eye into his opening sentences.

His ledes were especially deft. Knowing he had only one chance to grab the listener’s interest, Breffni never missed the mark. For example:

Whether one cuts one's own throat slowly or quickly, the end result is the same. That seems to be the choice facing the European Union's fishermen.

Titles like the European Free Trade Area or the European Common Market are difficult to make interesting. Probably only an economist's pulse beats faster after hearing such names.

Amid the mainstream languages of modern Europe, the continent's many minority languages sound a subtle chord hinting at lost worlds.

Swimmers entering a wide and swift-flowing river usually select a spot where they wish to land on the opposite shore. But then they have to battle the current, and if they make it across at all, they often land in a different and unforeseen place. European Union summits are somewhat similar.

Let's imagine we have the good fortune to be flying around the world in search of fine wines.

Ocean travel today is a pastime for the wealthy. If you want to see the dawn break over the Indian Ocean, if you want to glimpse the edge of the ice pack in Antarctica, or to see emerald islands dotting an azure sea, a cruise liner is the way to do it.

His talents as a writer were not limited to journalistic reports. In a personal essay he wrote upon leaving Prague for Australia in October 1995, and which he shared with some of his colleagues, Breffni wrote:

On a cold, gusty autumn night, one of my last in Prague, I heard the full tones of a violin playing in the street called Celetna. Under a street lamp, a young man was playing Mozart, Bach, many things I half-recognized. I stood for some time in the cutting wind as he went through an accomplished repertoire. A few tourists hurried by with turned-up collars, like leaves swept along. Then I walked down the darkened street alone, reflecting that most great romances end that way.

In the end, he couldn’t stay away from Prague – that “mistress of rare charm,” as he called the city – returning to RFE/RL a year later and staying put until his retirement.

Unbeknownst to most of his Prague colleagues, Breffni was a former member of the Australian Parachute Federation. In addition to jumping out of airplanes, he also enjoyed walking, sailing, opera, theater, poetry, antiques, and vintage motorcycles and cars.

He is survived by his wife, Elfrieda; two sons, Ryan and Tyrone; a daughter-in-law Viki O’Rourke; and one granddaughter, Sofie.

A memorial service will be held at 1:15 p.m. on January 20, 2017, at Krematorium Motol in Prague.

Written by Grant Podelco