Monday 1 May 2017

David Nowlan

Doctor, journalist and enthusiast of Ireland's inland waterways is fondly remembered by Emer O'Kelly

David Nowlan was that walking cliche: a man of many parts. He was a medical doctor, a human rights campaigner, a theatre critic, and a passionate advocate of the waterways of Ireland. He was also a funny, gentle soul and a loving and proud family man.

Where to start? David was a rector's son (once talking to me about his and Nora's plan to renovate their dining chairs, an inheritance from his father, I said they must be part of his childhood. His reply was "God help us, no. The only time the dining room got used was when the Bishop came to lunch!"). He certainly had faith in humanity, but not very much in the faith of his fathers. In conversation I learned that if a law were to be passed requiring one to belong to a religion, David would have favoured the Quakers; but only as a last resort: he was firmly humanist and secular in his outlook.

Maybe it was that which influenced his passionate support for the provision of contraception for the women of Ireland. Already out of medical practice when the issue burst into flames, David had been a founding member of the Irish Family Planning Association, and at a time when doctors willing to provide its services were thin on the ground, he was among the first in line as a working clinician for the IFPA.

He was already working as the Medical Correspondent of the Irish Times, and I never met a doctor who didn't respect his work, although at times many of them disagreed with his forthrightly liberal views. But David had true journalistic strength: he always presented the facts before offering an opinion on them at a time when some newspapers were beginning to confuse their editorial opinions with reportage.

That approach, which he favoured even more strongly in his 30 years as theatre critic, fostered many a cheerful argument between us. David believed that analysis should play no part in theatre criticism: "Tell them the story, tell them who's in it, and tell them where it's on. Six paragraphs: that's what it should be about; forget the analysis and context. They can find that somewhere else." And he did that faithfully for many years.

In the years before his retirement, I would watch him tearing along the city streets late at night, heading for D'Olier Street to produce a review within half an hour of the curtain coming down. Those were the days (10 years ago) of reviews appearing the morning following opening night. I never knew how he did it: working for a Sunday newspaper, I had what was then the luxury of allowing the production to gel in my brain before having to deliver an opinion on it.

We broke the conventions: David and his wife Nora and I often had a drink together in the interval; but it was understood we never discussed the play. He and Nora were inseparable, and her interest in theatre was as passionate as his; the late Hugh Leonard once described him as the "excessively uxorious David Nowlan". It was not intended kindly, but it was a label David was proud of.

His other great passion was cruising on the Shannon in what he referred to as "the Boh-hat" and when in boating company, it was obvious that he was as expert as he was devoted.

David ended his career as Managing Editor of the Irish Times, a title that afforded him considerable amusement as he was still reviewing plays, and as the boss, it gave him mischievous pleasure to point out that in his feature work he had to defer to his "inferior", the Arts Editor.

A nice, good, cheerful, ragingly humane, and thoroughly principled man and journalist; that was David Nowlan.

Sunday Independent

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