McDowell on McDowell: a memoir

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, General, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2008), Reviews, Volume 16

McDowell on McDowell: a memoir
R. B. McDowell
(The Lilliput Press, €20)
ISBN 9781843511335

The wonderful French lady who owns Terroirs wine merchants in Dublin once described a wine to me as ‘like an old man getting out of bed in the morning’. Though sceptical of this (and slightly repelled), having drunk the wine I was forced to agree with her, as it slowly revealed the complexity of its depth and character over several glasses. I was reminded of this before reading R. B. McDowell’s memoir, and pretentiously hoped to dazzle with the analogy. Alas, the 95-year-old does indeed get out of bed for us but he only rarely reveals his undoubted richness and complexity of character, settling instead for sitting on the bed surrounded by an opaque curtain of anecdote and opinion. The book is a short, basically chronological, narrative describing his journey from Belfast tea-merchant’s son to lecturer, professor and ultimately eminent historian, based for all his illustrious academic career at Trinity College, Dublin.
Perhaps he is at his most interesting when dealing with the subject of his Irishness. A Conservative, he regards himself as an ex-patriot living in the Republic. He describes his outlook and background as ‘English or, better, British, but I felt Irish as one might feel Lancastrian or Devonian’. ‘Satisfied’ by the cultural tradition to which he belongs, when an opportunity presented itself in the past he gloried in singing the national anthem (i.e. God save the King or Queen) ‘con amore’. Though I am sure this will grate with some, I warmed to his honesty, it being no different from the attitude of the nationalist Irish in Boston or Cricklewood. His contribution to Irish life and historical studies means that he doesn’t owe Ireland anything for his years of living here, albeit a cosseted and privileged existence within TCD.
McDowell is enjoyable on the lessons of history, stating firmly that ‘sound history enables mankind to gain experience cheaply’. But he laments that some lessons of history are harsh, for instance ‘the futility of much human thinking’, action and ideas, and the unpredictability of action. He has a neat phrase: ‘it is not only in Ireland that the inevitable never happens and the unexpected always occurs’. He is quite at his most revealing towards the end of the book, acknowledging that his dim view of the twenty-first century is inevitably coloured by his age and inherent conservatism. He reflects with an obscure, donnish humour on how he would have viewed events a hundred years ago—if he had been born in 1813 instead of 1913. He would have embraced rail travel, welcomed advances in medicine and hygiene, supported the Reform Act of 1832, ‘reluctantly’ accepted the 1867 Reform Act, and (alarmingly) opposed the 1884 Reform Act. All in all, he would have been disturbed by the advance of democracy and so would have deplored the Irish land legislation of the previous 30 years as destroying the influence of the gentry in Irish affairs. He is amusing all right, but the reader has to work at it. Consider the description of his religious faith: he describes it as ‘vague but compelling, compounded of Anglicanism and agnosticism’—a wry comment, perhaps, on what must be a common view of religion if you substitute any Christian denomination for Anglicanism.
As a historian he is a master of original sources, but here he can be vague, non-specific and curiously unable to analyse—as he might if it was ‘real history’—some of the events in and during his own life. Take his recall of student radicalism in TCD in the late ’60s and early ’70s. He incorrectly gives the impression that the radical Maoist student group known as the Internationalists enjoyed little student support, yet fails to mention that one of their number, David Vipond, was elected head of the student body. Though small in number, they loomed large in TCD student politics at that time, bringing a real sense of radicalism and politicising many young people for the first time. As far as Northern Irish politics go, he regrets that northern Unionists did not strive to win Catholic support and feels that if the Unionist Party had put up a Catholic parliamentary candidate they might have done so! This is a remarkably simplistic view of Northern politics and perhaps shows that academics should never be trusted in any policy matter later than 1900. Overall, I think this book is worth reading, if only for its clear, poised prose style. The reader will be annoyed with the author’s unnecessary self-deprecating comments and disappointed at the lack of real dirt!

Nick Maxwell is a publisher and a former student at Trinity College, Dublin.

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