Robert McVeagh, the son of Margaret Read and her husband, Robert McVeagh, and the eldest of a large family, was born at Maungakawa, near Cambridge, on 20 or 22 September 1866. Both parents were Irish Catholics. Robert senior, a tinsmith by trade, had served with the armed constabulary and became a farmer-settler on a 50-acre allotment of confiscated land.
As a boy living on a racial frontier, Robert became fluent in Maori and acquired an enduring interest in Maori culture. When he left the Cambridge public school at the age of 15, his formal education gave way to a lifelong process of self-education. He moved from school to the Cambridge office of the law firm of Frederick Whitaker and John Sheehan. When the solicitor to whom he was articled, J. P. Campbell, shifted to Auckland in mid 1884 to become a partner of Russell and Campbell, he invited his young clerk to accompany him. Robert's mother, recognising her son's talents and having high ambitions for him, urged him to go. Thus he became an employee of the law firm which was coming to the fore in Auckland's commercial affairs.
After his admission as a solicitor in 1889, McVeagh courted Agnes Hannah Reardon, a member of the strong Irish Catholic community in Ponsonby. They married on 22 June 1892, and shortly after built a home in Grafton Road. It was from this house that McVeagh walked to his law office every day of his working life. The marriage was a happy one, and there were three children: two girls and a boy. When his wife and only son Robert died during the influenza epidemic within four days of each other in November 1918, McVeagh, beneath an apparent Christian resignation, was deeply bereft, and remained so for some years.
McVeagh's rise in Russell and Campbell was not rapid. During the 1890s he became the managing solicitor of the practice, but was denied the partnership and litigator's role to which he aspired. However, when Hugh Campbell, the common law partner, became terminally ill in 1904, McVeagh was invited to take his place. With R. E. N. Russell, a company law specialist, McVeagh helped the firm to become a dominant force in the Auckland legal scene over the next three decades.
In his last years McVeagh was acclaimed as 'Auckland's Grand Old Man of the Law' – a not undeserved title. His legal opinions, it was said, were 'sought by litigants and counsel throughout New Zealand'. In the courts he was equally formidable. Covering the whole range of litigation – he did little criminal work – he was a true generalist, yet he had the record of success of a specialist. His style was understatement. He shunned the then fashionable theatricality of less restrained barristers, trusting to the cogency of his case to prevail. The key to his success was his encyclopaedic memory, a profound knowledge of case law, and hard work. He always did his own devilling; each morning he rose at five and worked until breakfast time on current cases. When he appeared at sittings of the Native Land Court, his fluency in Maori gave him an advantage over most competing counsel.
The respect in which McVeagh was held in his profession was shown in the offices to which his peers elected him. For a lengthy period he was a member of the New Zealand Council of Law Reporting. Members of the Auckland District Law Society elected him to their council in 1908 and kept him there until 1932; he was their president from 1916 to 1918.
This autodidact was a cultured man. He read voraciously in literature, history (Maori and colonial especially), and cultural anthropology. He was a devotee of theatre – of Shakespeare and opera above all. He was the close friend and confidant of C. F. Goldie, the painter; from sittings of the Native Land Court in Auckland, he brought elderly tattooed Maori to Goldie's studio as subjects.
After a setback to his health during a world tour, McVeagh withdrew from full-time work in 1931. He was also anxious to give more time to the affairs of the Catholic church, of which he was a devout member. He had long been legal adviser to the Auckland bishops Henry Cleary and James Liston. McVeagh helped to organise the celebrations of the New Zealand Catholic centenary culminating in March 1938 in Credo, a pageant performed at the Western Springs Stadium.
McVeagh's last four years, a time of failing health, proved a great strain. With the outbreak of hostilities in 1939 and the departure of partners and staff of Russell McVeagh for war service, he felt obliged to help out once again in the firm which bore his name. He died at Auckland after a brief illness on 30 May 1944, survived by a daughter.
After the celebration of McVeagh's requiem mass, Bishop Liston paid eloquent tribute to a layman who combined loyalty to his church with a 'profound veneration for law, its dignity, its sanctity'.