John de Courcy Ireland

Maritime historian and CND activist
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The Independent Online

John de Courcy Ireland, maritime historian: born Lucknow, India 11 October 1911; married 1933 Betty Haigh (died 1999; one son, two daughters); died Dublin 4 April 2006.

John de Courcy Ireland was a teacher, maritime historian and a polymath who was not afraid to express himself forcefully in favour of nuclear disarmament and the politics of the left.

The son of a British army major from Co Kildare, he was born in 1911 in the Indian city of Lucknow. His father died of fever in China when John was very young. His mother continued to live in Beijing for several years, but John was sent back to England, to Marlborough College, where he was expected to work towards a respectable university education.

Just before his 17th birthday he ran away to sea, serving as a deckhand on a Dutch vessel sailing to South America. He consented to return to read History and Spanish at New College, Oxford, which offered him a scholarship. After Oxford he and his wife Betty, whom he married in 1933, spent much time in the Aran Islands in the west of Ireland and in Co Donegal, in order to master the Irish language.

In 1943 he was a founder of the Maritime Institute of Ireland, an educational charity first sited at Dún Laoghaire, and in 1959 of the Maritime Museum in Dún Laoghaire. He undertook research into Ireland's maritime history and campaigned for recognition of the country's maritime heritage. (The lack of merchant vessels and the consequent precarious supply of essential imports had been a particular worry to the authorities in Dublin during the Second World War.)

In 1949 he taught at St Patrick's Cathedral School in Dublin and the next year received his doctorate on the sea in education from Trinity College Dublin. He moved in 1951 to Drogheda Grammar School and subsequently taught at Bandon Grammar School, Co Cork, and from 1968 at Kingstown Grammar School, Dún Laoghaire. This was amalgamated with Avoca School, Blackrock, to become Newpark Comprehensive School, south of Dublin, where he stayed till 1986. There in 1983 he produced Ireland's Sea Fisheries: a history, the first of a wide-ranging series of books on the sea.

With his wife, de Courcy Ireland was an early member of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and at the end of his life its president. He feared for the health of the seas and the potential disaster from nuclear fall-out that could ruin the water and do away with its potential as a source of clean renewable energy.

Betty, who had been a nurse in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, and he were supporters, at various times, of the Irish Labour Party, the Communist Party, the Democratic Socialist Party, the Democratic Left and latterly the Socialist Workers' Party. John de Courcy Ireland campaigned in favour of a continuance of Ireland's neutrality and argued that all wars were crimes against humanity. They emphasised differences between peoples, he said, when to achieve a peaceful world, the common humanity of all people had to be emphasised.

De Courcy Ireland was a director of the National Museum of Ireland and in 1996 he was awarded the Caird Medal by the National Maritime Museum in London. In 1975 he was a founder member of the Irish-Chinese Cultural Society, keeping up the strong links with China which went back to his early childhood. As I found to my delight in many conversations with him, he also maintained a close interest in Latin America: in 1995 he published a life of Admiral William Brown, the Irish-born founder of the Argentine navy (The Admiral from Mayo: a life of Almirante William Brown of Foxford, father of the Argentine navy).

The following year he brought out The Sea and the Easter Rising and in 2001 History of Dún Laoghaire Harbour, an account of what was in its time the largest man-made anchorage in the world. He was active till the end of his life and celebrated his 90th birthday in Melilla, the Spanish possession on the coast of Morocco, where he was researching what seems to have been the world's first organised lifeboat service.

Hugh O'Shaughnessy