John de Courcy Ireland
Born in India in 1911 and became one of Europe’s leading maritime historians and a man of many interests in the field of politics. Although decorated by many governments and institutions- in France, Spain, Portugal, Yugoslavia and Britain, to name but a few- he was never offered a Seanad seat as Taoiseach’s nominee though represented at his funeral both by him and the President.
John De Courcy Ireland was born in Lucknow, India, the only child of a British army major who died of typhoid after he was sent to China in 1914. His mother later told her son that his father’s last words to her were “ Don’t let that boy join the British army”. While John’s mother remained in India he was cared for in Ireland by his paternal grandmother, from Galway, who imbued a sense of Irishness in her young grandson even when they moved to Devon. When his mother returned with a second husband from the Netherlands John was schooled in Marlborough College from whence he won a history scholarship to New College, Oxford. However he was too young to register and decided to pass the intervening time as a steward on a cargo vessel bound for Argentina. His various experiences during that voyage were to have a lasting impact as he was deeply distressed by the poverty he witnessed in Brazil . In an interview he recalled a conversation with a docker who lived within yards of a magnificent cathedral in the port but whose living conditions were appalling with no water or electricity and with a floor of beaten earth. When he returned to Oxford he mingled with socialists, including Michael Foot and GDH Cole. It was there he met his wife, Beatrice Haigh, from Dun Laoghaire, who was at the time working at a café.
They married when she was 21, although neither of them was in steady employment and they moved to Manchester. There they developed their political interests joining the Labour Party. On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Betty volunteered to go to Barcelona with a medical team in support of the International Brigade. In 1938 they decided to return to Ireland where their first home was in Muff, near Derry, where John served briefly with the local defence forces and worked on construction of a naval base before being dismissed over his attempts to form a trade union. He was also expelled from the Northern Ireland Labour Party for his part in drawing up a constitution that suggested a federation between North and South. When near penury, and only supported by a surprise donation from his former work colleagues, he was enabled to buy a copy of The Irish Times where he saw an advertisement for his first of many teaching jobs. That post was at St. Patrick’s Cathedral School, where he worked from 1942 to 1949 and inspired many of his pupils amongst whom were Kenneth Blackmore, former headmaster of Wesley College,Prof Rex Cathcart of Queen’s University and Arthur Reynolds, who became founding editor of the Irish Skipper magazine. John’s next teaching post was at Drogheda Grammar school from 1949 to 1951 during which he received a PhD from Dublin University for his thesis on the sea in education. He finally taught in Kingstown Grammar School, which, when amalgamated with Avoca School, Blackrock, became Newpark Comprehensive.
During these years he collected artefacts and historical information for the founding of the National Maritime Museum in Dun Laoghaire that is now being given a new lease of life through increased government funding. John was also involved in the late 1940s as honorary research officer in the Maritime Institute of Ireland and served as voluntary secretary of the Dun Laoghaire lifeboat station for over 25 years and for this dedication he was awarded the RNLI gold medal and bar. He was also founder of the Military History Society and Inland Waterways Association.
With all this work for seafaring it is hard to imagine that he had much time for an active involvement in politics. He was however for some time a member of the southern branch of the Labour Party at a time when Jim Larkin was nominated president in 1943 After a witch hunt and following the expulsion of Owen Sheehy Skeffington he was expelled as a communist and supporter of the Soviet Union though he later spoke out strongly against it during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Other political interests included Irish CND, membership of the Irish Anti-Apartheid movement and the Bertrand Russell foundation. He contested the 1982 general election as a member of Jim Kemmy’s Democratic Socialist Party. He once questioned Kemmy on his views of the sea. “I’m a Limerick man,” Kemmy said. “I like terra firma-the more firma, the less the terra” This was in great contrast to John’s mantra “the sea unites while land divides” Subsequently he supported Democratic Left and latterly the Socialist Workers Party.
He produced many publications include The Sea and the Easter Rising in 1966, Ireland’s Sea Fisheries: A History (1981), Ireland and the Irish in Maritime History (1986), Ireland’s Marine Heritage (1992) and The Admiral from Mayo-a life of William Brown of Foxford, founder of the Argentine Navy (1995). In 2000, at the age of 89, he published a history of his beloved Dun Laoghaire and was commissioned by former marine minister, Dr Michael Woods, to write another work. On his 90th birthday he travelled, as always, by ship to research national archives in North Africa and was working on his memoirs before he died on 4th April 2006.
The memorial service was to be held at the Unitarian Church, St. Stephen’s Green, as John had a long connection with the church in the time of Rev.Savell Hicks and the early part of Rev.Kenneth Wright’s ministry. It was however felt that this venue might not have held all those who wanted to attend and celebrate a long and wonderfully filled life during which he always made time for his beloved wife and family. Appropriately Rev. Bill Darlison , Minister of St,Stephen’s Green was asked to play a significant part in the beautiful service held on 3rd June in Monkstown Parish Church which was a most appropriate tribute to a really great man.