Professor RB McDowell: Colourful and clubbable historian of Ireland renowned for the high entertainment of his lectures
Saturday 17 September 2011
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.
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