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Sunday 4 September 2011

RB McDowell

Ruth Dudley Edwards remembers a much-loved and charismatic academic who shone as a lecturer in history

Robert Brendan McDowell (widely known as RB, but Brendan to his friends), who died last Sunday at 97, was a much-loved work of performance art. In even the hottest weather, he presented himself to the public in a crumpled suit, waistcoat, sweater or cardigan, overcoat, long woolly scarf and battered hat. If he was travelling, he might augment the ensemble with a raincoat and an extra sweater. Giving lectures, his pyjama legs might peep out from under his trousers.

RB had the reputation of being a hypochondriac. My mother did a good impression of the stark terror he displayed in Grafton Street when she answered his kind enquiry about the children by saying we had flu. This excessively courteous man jabbered, 'Goodbye, Mrs Edwards', as he took to his heels.

What we didn't realise was that he had almost died in the 1918 flu pandemic, which left him for several years so susceptible to colds and bronchitis that he was educated at home by a governess. And in 1940, when he tried to join the British army, he was judged medically unfit to serve. So the fear of contagion was well-founded and, besides, he felt the cold keenly.

The elder of two sons of a Presbyterian from Belfast who prospered in the tea business and an Anglican from Derry whose father was a wine merchant, RB had a happy Belfast home. As a frail, determinedly non-athletic, bookish child with bad eyesight, he might have been a likely victim when, at 11, he eventually went to school, but his mother had taught him excellent manners based on the principle of commonsense and consideration for others, and the 'Inst' (The Royal Belfast Academical Institution) was civilised.

Asked by a master what he proposed to do rather than play cricket, he replied, 'Read Macaulay, Sir.' 'Macaulay,' he retorted, 'pure journalism, read Gibbon, boy.'

"I did so with delight."

As he would all his life, RB had a happy time alone, yet loved socialising. By himself he read voraciously in history and literature, and he adored detective stories. I was amazed as well as greatly flattered when he told me a few years ago that he had read all my crime novels. He made friends with great ease not least because -- as he put it in his entertaining memoir, McDowell on McDowell -- he had "a quick and not over-charitable tongue". But despite his exceptional articulacy ("a critic would say excessively fluent") and his writing ability, he suffered academically because he worked hard only on what interested him. When at Trinity he had to employ a coach to teach him how to shine in exams.

Although happy in Belfast and London, RB would spend almost all his life in the enclave that was Trinity, which suited him politically, intellectually and socially. RB's father had been a keen Redmondite but 1916 and what followed turned him into a unionist. RB would remain a unionist all his life. He considered himself Irish: on St Patrick's Day he wore shamrock and was shouted at as a Fenian. But culturally he felt British and when he read John Mitchel, Patrick Pearse and other nationalist writers he found them 'intense, strident and narrow'. He disliked intensely the shrill antagonism to British values that dominated Irish political life, and found the prevailing nationalism limited and embittered -- "England being associated with imperialism, materialism, oppression and immorality". His brother was killed in the war: when he wore a poppy in Dublin, he was booed.

In Trinity McDowell had no shortage of the like-minded among dons and students and he quickly displayed the genius for friendship that would dominate his personal life. Although he had many women friends, he never married because, he concluded in old age, having all necessary creature comforts and a full social life, he didn't really need matrimony. "Indeed one woman to whom I proposed expressed the opinion that my way of life and intense concentration on my own interests would make me a self-absorbed and difficult partner." With a superb memory for names and faces, and a constant joy in the society and 'raw vitality' of the young, he made and kept thousands of friends. He travelled with some and stayed with many. Having no interest in possessions, he 'enjoyed without envy' his friends' houses, gardens, pictures and cars. In the last seven years, hundreds of them contributed to two books in his honour, The Junior Dean: Encounters with a Legend and The Magnificent McDowell: Trinity in the Golden Era.

He was rightly described by Anne Leonard, who edited both, as "the most charismatic personality to have crossed Front Square during the greater part of the 20th century". He shone as a lecturer, as a witty and erudite conversationalist -- who though extremely loquacious was never boring -- and as a speaker, who amazed his listeners with his high-pitched, machine-gun delivery. To general amazement, as Junior Dean from 1956-69, he turned out to be an excellent administrator and a disciplinarian with authority and excellent judgement.

Although he never felt at home in the Irish Republic, RB had many friends among the Anglo-Irish and loved what he described as 'the clarity and balance' of Georgian Dublin. Locals were amused by his dishevelled appearance and his habit of making speeches to himself: he was often called 'the White Rabbit'. His academic passion was for the 18th century: "He relishes the sense of intimacy, the gossip and high life, the close aristocratic flavour of those times," remarked Trinity News.

RB wrote of Britain and Ireland over four centuries, including political, ecclesiastical and intellectual history. He commended his own work for its versatility and range, but -- always objective about himself -- saw it as "technically competent, readable on a rather pedestrian level and perceptive enough, if not outstandingly so". But his triumph was to enhance the lives of those he taught and those he befriended. They celebrated his 80th and 90th birthdays and will be distraught that he failed to hang on for his 100th.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards