Professor RB McDowell: Colourful and clubbable historian of Ireland renowned for the high entertainment of his lectures

For a quarter of a century after the Second World War, Trinity College Dub-lin remained largely a British university, drawing many of its 1,500 students (and its lecturers) from the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. A treasured memory most shared was of the eccentric Dr McDowell, a history lecturer who was junior dean in charge of discipline during much of that period.

A bachelor who lived in college – instantly recognisable scurrying along at speed, untidily attired, wrapped up in an overcoat and woollen scarf in all seasons, often in earnest conversation with himself – he was a university don out of fiction. Highly sociable, he was omnipresent, attending functions and parties, engaging all-comers in wide-ranging conversation in an excitable, high-pitched and much-imitated Ulster voice. Priding himself on his practicality, he exercised his disciplinary function with just enough firmness to confirm wilder spirits in their self-image as daredevils.

Robert Brendan McDowell, known as RB, or to a few intimates as Brendan, was born on 14 September 1913 in Belfast, where his father, a Presbyterian from the Irish midlands, was a tea merchant. The boy survived the Spanish flu in 1918 but it left him in such a delicate condition that he did not begin school at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution until he was 11. He never played games. Reading filled the gap; it became a lifelong addiction.

Like many Ulster Protestants of his generation, McDowell went south to Trinity, where he read historyand political science. He failed an early examination because hiswriting was illegible but emerged with a first-class degree. He completed a doctorate within two yearsthat was the basis of his groundbreaking first book, Irish Public Opinion 1760-1800 (1944).

Turned down on medical grounds for military service in the war (in which his only brother was killed), he remained at Trinity until 1943, filling in for absent lecturers. Then he moved to England and taught at Radley, where he was, in his own words, "beaten and baffled" by a class of unruly teenagers.

He returned to Trinity as a lecturer in 1945. His lectures were high entertainment. But his books, of which there were many, were less so. "All I could achieve," he admitted, "was a competent clarity." He did, however, co-author an acclaimed academic history of the college and a fine biography of one of its greatest characters, the classicist John Pentland Mahaffy. Beloved of the students, McDowell had detractors among his colleagues who viewed him as giddy and attention-seeking.

He regretted the changes that in the 1970s made Trinity less intimate and more exclusively Southern Irish. He took early retirement in 1981, having been appointed briefly professor of oratory. Nothing could have been more apt, as he was a wonderful public speaker, never relying on notes and producing endless bon mots. He once told a college debate that had listened to a well-meaning Englishman lavishing praise on the Irish that that sort of thing was all very well, but it could leave the natives feeling like over-tipped waiters.

Quintessentially Irish as he was in English eyes, he professed never to have felt at home in the Irish Republic. As an historian of the Georgian period he rejoiced in the old architecture of Dublin but could not come to terms with all-pervading Irish nationalism, which he thought insular and embittered in its Anglophobia; an early unpleasant experience was being threatened by republicans for wearing a Poppy. He lived within the remains of the former unionist community, focused on the broader British world of which he felt proud to be part.

In retirement he resided in London while making regular sallies back to Trinity. Having written a history of British conservatism – Disraeli was his hero since as a boy he had read Coningsby – and promoted a Tory club in Trinity in the 1960s, McDowell now joined his local Conservative association in Brondesbury. They allowed him to address envelopes, but were reluctant to let him loose as a canvasser.

Seemingly ageless, he pursued his historical scholarship with undiminished vigour, producing inter alia an edited collection of Edmund Burke's papers. His Crisis and Decline (1997) was a perceptive study, peppered with personal reminiscence, of ex-unionists in independent Ireland. He had already written a history of their two clubs, the Dublin University Club and Kildare Street Club, whose merger he had helped to effect. He was a habitué of the Club, as he was of the Reform Club in London, addressing his fellows by their surnames and leaving newspapers scattered in his wake. If he could be careless about papers, he was never so about money, eschewing all extravagance and protecting tenaciously his comfortable inheritance he described as "mummy's money".

He was much celebrated, especially by Trinity alumni in England. When he was 90, one edited a collection of memories of him, Encounters with a Legend. There was a sequel, The Magnificent McDowell; Trinity in the Golden Era. When he was 95, he published a charming memoir which is admirably self-critical and never boastful. Reticent about his private life, he claimed he was unmarried only because a particular lady to whom he proposed had rejected him for being self-absorbed.

He had, after his 90th birthday, returned to live full-time in Trinity, where he was cared for as a college treasure until, with his mental faculties still intact, he retired to a nursing home close to a caring relative for the last two years of his life. He is survived by no relatives closer than cousins.

Robert Brendan McDowell, lecturer, writer and scholar: born Belfast 14 September 1913; died Celbridge, Co Kildare 28 August 2011.

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvDownton Abbey review: It's six months since we last caught up with the Crawley clan
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
premier league
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
Plenty to ponder: Amir Khan has had repeated problems with US immigration because of his Muslim faith and now American television may shun him
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments