Charles Lysaght pays tribute to the British army brigadier who wrote the acclaimed 'The Story of Ireland'
WILLIAM Magan, who died in Kent on January 21 at the age of 101, was an Irishman who, after a full career in the British army and intelligence, turned to writing. He produced an acclaimed book, titled Umma-More after the place in Westmeath where his family were Gaelic chieftains until the 17th Century. It narrated their evolution over succeeding generations into members of the Anglo-Irish Protestant ascendancy that ruled the roost in Ireland almost until independence. He was also the author of An Irish Boyhood, an evocative memoir of his own childhood on their ancestral land on the Roscommon side of Athlone.
Umma-More was substantially republished in 2000 under the title The Story of Ireland. Indeed, the story of the family was a microcosm of Irish social history. The author maintained that the members of the Gaelic upper class, like his own family, were descended from the Celts and were racially distinct from the mass of the Irish whose ancestors were pre-Celtic Picts. His portrayal of his immediate ancestors was vivid and evocative -- whatever their politics and religion, they loved Ireland dearly and never thought of themselves as anything but Irish. His judgments on modern Ireland were highly perceptive for a man who had spent his whole adult life out of the country.
Born on June 13, 1908, Magan was sent to school at Rossall, a tough public school in Lancashire that had quite an Irish following. He trained as a soldier in Sandhurst before serving in India. He spent a year in Persia learning Farsi -- he was called "Mullah Magan" there because he did not drink. Coming home on leave in 1938 to stay with his father in Hill of the Down, he was master of the South Westmeath hunt for a season.
Equipped with Farsi, he was drafted into military intelligence and spent the war neutralising German agents who were trying to open the way through Persia and Afghanistan to India. He saw much in these countries with their tribal societies that sharpened his understanding of the end of the old Gaelic order in Ireland.
After the war, Magan served in Palestine, where he was mentioned in dispatches and made a brigadier. Subsequently, he was involved in counter-insurgency operations for MI5 in various British possessions. He retired in 1968. He ran a fruit farm in Kent for a while and then assisted his talented English wife Maxine in building up a successful cottage industry making fabrics of her own design. In his nineties, encouraged by the success of his Irish books, he wrote further books covering his early military life in India and his wartime intelligence career.
William Magan was predeceased by two of his four sons. To his joy, his elder surviving son, George, a highly successful and enterprising London banker, re-established the family's Irish connection by buying and restoring Castletown Cox, a great Georgian mansion in south Kilkenny. George was deputy governor of the Bank of Ireland but resigned at the onset of the banking crisis last year.