Monday 16 September 2019

John de Courcy Ireland

Kieran Fagan

JOHN de Courcy Ireland who died last week aged 94, was a seaman, teacher, writer, pacifist and political campaigner on many fronts. But the sea was John de Courcy Ireland's great passion. The Irish know the value of the land. He wanted to teach us the value of the sea. He wanted us to realise what it means to be an island nation.

John de Courcy Ireland was born in 1911 in Lucknow, India where his father was serving with the British army. When his father died in China in 1914 of typhoid, his mother sent the boy home to Kildare. Later he described his mother returning from Peking "with an absolutely ghastly stepfather for me".

The stepfather took a poor view of John's friends, and the boy took refuge in Encyclopedia Britannica. "I read it from A to Z because I had nothing else to do".

He was educated at Marlborough, an English boarding school, the University of Oxford and Trinity College Dublin, where he was awarded a PhD in 1951 for his research on Irish maritime history.

Aged 17 he ran away to go to sea. He signed on as steward for a voyage to South America. "It was love at first sight", he said. "I was always aware that the sea is a very dangerous element and you cannot fool around with it." Early in his seagoing career his ship received an SOS from another vessel which had gone on fire. The attempted rescue led to his later involvement in RNLI, the lifeboat service.

Later he went to Oxford where he met Beatrice (Bet) Haigh, "this gorgeous red headed lady who I married", in a coffee shop frequented by Michael Foot and other left wing people. They returned to Ireland where he worked in Donegal. In 1940 he was sacked from a job in Derry running shipping stores because of his trade union agitation. Then he got a job as a teacher in St Patrick's Cathedral School in Dublin.

He became involved with "incredible" pupils, including journalist-to-be Arthur Reynolds, and Ken Blackmore, later headmaster of Wesley College. "We knew nothing about teaching, we tackled the whole thing in our own way". Later he taught at Kingstown which was absorbed into Newpark Comprehensive school in Blackrock.

Living in Dun Laoghaire, he become involved in running the lifeboat and became its secretary, directing its operations for more than a quarter of a century. Secretaryship of the Maritime Museum was combined with writing prolifically on the subject. Newspaper articles were followed by books. Topics included the seamen of Spain, Algeria and France, the maritime aspects of the 1916 Rising, and The Admiral from Mayo, a biography of the founder of the Argentine navy. The governments of Argentina, China, France, Portugal and Spain granted him honours for his work, as did the British Maritime Museum at Greenwich.

For John de Courcy Ireland, the sea and shipping were great unifiers. "With the lifeboat, when you get a call, you don't ask 'Who are they?' You go out and save them. Even after a sea battle, the victor picks up the [vanquished] others. The sea binds people together."

He spoke French, Spanish, Italian, German, Serbo-Croat and Portuguese, and regretted that he could only read Norwegian. President Tito decorated him for his support for the Yugoslav resistance to wartime occupation. Post-war Yugoslavia was a "fascinating non-aligned example of workable socialism" according to John.

And if socialism could work in Yugoslavia, it could work at home, he reckoned. He joined the Irish Labour Party in the Forties, and worked tirelessly in its committees, eventually being expelled for his trouble. Later he espoused the "two nations" approach to the North, joining Jim Kemmy's Democratic Socialist Party, and in his 70s contesting an election in which he won 1,000 first preference votes. His interventions in politics were characterised by principle, radicalism, determination - and naivety. Irish politics makes stony ground for intellectuals. John and Bet were also founder members of Irish CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament).

At the end of Ireland's Maritime Heritage, published in 1992, he quoted the Irish proverb: 'The person who owns a ship will some day find his reward'. And indeed he lived to see many of his campaigns bear fruit. Dublin bay is cleaner. Our maritime history is chronicled and the Maritime Museum guards the flame. We have a more rounded view of our relationship with the sea.

There is now a serious debate about how best to develop Dun Laoghaire's seafront, a debate in which he took part until his final illness. His wife Bet died in 1999 and his last book History of Dun Laoghaire Harbour (2001) is dedicated to her memory.

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Also in this section