Old Man of the Sea

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Features, Issue 4 (Winter 1997), Volume 5

DS:    How do you come to have such an interesting name as de Courcy Ireland?

JDCI:    I don’t actually know the full story. The de Courcys were, of course, a historic crowd who came here in 1172 from a place in Normandy called Courcy. The name Courcy is very common in Normandy, and now in Brittany, but it has no aristocratic connotations. My own family came to County Kildare in the early eighteenth century, either building or occupying Robertstown House. Where the Ireland came in, well, there are various explanations. My grandmother told me that the de Courcys in Ireland and France had always kept in touch and that the name ‘Ireland’ had been stuck on to differentiate the branch of the family which had settled here. I was delighted to discover that the de Courcys who settled in Brittany were a seafaring family and that the last vessel in the French navy to fly the royalist ensign in battle after the Revolution was a frigate captained by a Captain de Courcy.

DS:    How did you come to be born in Lucknow, in India?

JDCI:    My father, who was a brilliant linguist, was born in Ireland and went to school here. He then went off to university at Heidleberg where he got top honours in French and German. He was so alarmed by the militaristic fervour he had witnessed in Germany (this was shortly before the First World War) that he decided to join the British army. As soon as he turned up at the War Office, they said, ‘Ah, linguist, send him off to India’! Thus I was born in Lucknow. He was part of an Anglo-Japanese expeditionary force sent to China to oust the Germans from Tsingtao and other ports. Whilst based in Beijing, assisting with the preparations for the assault on Tsingtao, he caught typhoid fever and died. My mother returned to India but could not get back to Europe because all the liners were being used as troopships. In India, she met and married a Dutchman, who was a good sinologist but a most unsuitable stepfather.

DS:    In what circumstances were you once known solely by the number 613?

JDCI:    When the war ended my family returned to Europe to live in Rome. My stepfather, with whom I did not get on, decided to send me to school in England. I overheard him tell my mother that he was doing this so that I would learn Greek and Latin so as to enter the civil service of the British Empire, hopefully attain a high position, and gain a pension for life. So I was thus packed off to Marlborough College, an awful English public school, where I was known as number 613.

DS:    Wasn’t the Ulster poet Louis MacNiece a pupil there at the same time?

JDCI:    Yes, he was. He and I and a nice young fellow named Scott from the North of Ireland were the only Irish boys in the school at the time. MacNiece was senior to me and, though we never actually spoke, I looked up to him. This was partly because he was Irish and partly because he was an individualist. He and a group of others, including Anthony Blunt, whose father was a poet and who went on to become the Queen’s Surveyor of Paintings and a Soviet spy, were said to be ‘aesthetes’ because they were interested in poetry and other such things and, like myself, were resistant to the prevailing school ethos, which was exemplified by rugby, the officers training corps, and graduation to service in His Majesty’s forces! I remember MacNiece’s group being attacked by the rugby and OTC group and MacNiece himself being thrown into the school swimming pool.

DS:    How did you first come to go to sea?

JDCI:    I always wanted to go to sea ever since I was a small child. I dreamed of going to sea and it seemed the most natural thing in the world. Some of my relations on both sides of my family had gone to sea. However, my stepfather wouldn’t hear of it. At one of the soirées he gave in Rome for the social elite, I had a most engaging conversation with the commander-in-chief of the Italian navy. Afterwards, my stepfather took me aside and said to me: ‘In future you will not talk to Admiral Thaon di Revel if he ever comes again to one of my parties. You are not going to sea.’ However, I was as determined as ever and when I had just turned seventeen I ran away from school and got a job as a steward aboard a Dutch cargo vessel.

DS:    What kind of experience was that?

JDCI:    It was marvellous. Life aboard a Dutch cargo ship was far more civilised than an English public school in the 1920s. I love the sea and the moods of the sea and the extraordinary way in which, to quote Thomas Aquinas, it binds and unites peoples. I felt that then as a young man and, though it is a very romantic perspective, I still feel that way about the sea today. In any event, I spent a year at sea, seeing the world and learning to speak Spanish and Portuguese. In terms of opening my eyes to the contemporary world, it was a complete revelation. I had studied the past in books and at school but I knew nothing of the enormous poverty in the world that there then was, and still is.

DS:    How did you come to go to university at Oxford?

JDCI:    I always had an interest in history which was greatly encouraged by my grandmother who was very nationalist-minded and who gave me books on Irish history to read. At school, I was only able to take history up to the equivalent of Inter Cert but thereafter was obliged to study only Greek and Latin in accordance with my stepfather’s wishes. However, having run away from school, but before heading off to sea, I decided to sit for a history entrance scholarship offered by New College, Oxford. I was supported in this endeavour by my grandmother, and to my surprise and delight I got the scholarship. The decision to go for the scholarship was one of those rare moments of common sense in my life.

DS:    What was Oxford like?

JDCI:    I was astounded by Oxford. The professors seemed so out of touch with reality. I had been to sea for a year and had experienced something of life and had seen things, some of them shocking, which bore no relation to university life in Oxford, which was all very academic and artificial. The two good things about that experience were: first, I met my wife Betty, who ran an Irish café I frequented; and second, I studied Spanish for a year under the writer and diplomat, Salvador de Madariaga. He was a man of great genius, extraordinarily humane and really learned, and his learning was not abstract but connected with reality. He loved the Irish and was passionately fond of the League of Nations, of which he had been the first Secretary General.

DS:    When did you decide to settle in Ireland?

JDCI:    Betty and I were very keen to go back to Ireland. Through a chance meeting at a peace conference in Brussels in 1936 I secured a contract from Penguin to write a book on partition and the border. I had been a member of the anti-partition movement in Manchester after I left Oxford and I held strong nationalist views in those days. Thus, in 1937, we came to Donegal and settled in Muff, right on the border, which seemed an ideal location to write my book. Alas, when the war broke out in 1939, the contract was revoked.

DS:    What did you do then?

JDCI:    I joined the Local Defence Force. We patrolled up an down the Inishowen peninsula keeping a look-out for U-boats and such like. I remember one patrol when our unit reached the border late at night. Suddenly, we heard aeroplanes overhead. My second-in-command remarked that they sounded very different from those which we were accustomed to hear. He had hardly said it when bombs started falling on Derry. Four of our unit vamoosed, I have to admit, leaving just the two of us. There weren’t many bombs, but they did make an awful clatter. Within half an hour, half the population of Derry—or so it seemed—poured across the border! Then we had to go and knock up the parish priest, the rector, the doctor and everybody else in the neighbourhood, to put them up. The refugees from Derry were terrified.

DS:    How did you obtain your first teaching post?

JDCI:    When the American naval base in Derry was being constructed in 1942, I got a job in charge of the stores. The contract had been given to a firm called Kirk and Kirk of London, and the whole thing was totally crooked. The working conditions were wretched. Together with the shop stewards, I approached the management to ask that the working day end at 6pm rather than 6.30 so as to allow the men, most of whom were from Donegal and had to cross the border each day to get to work, to catch the last bus to Derry. We were told we were subversives and when I next went to collect my wages I was given my notice! Penniless, I walked the streets of Derry in the run up to Christmas 1942, sniffing the cooking of other people’s dinners. The day before Christmas Eve, a group of workers from the naval base came to our house with an enormous box full of money which they had collected. I was greatly moved by the gesture. I bought food for the family and a copy of the Irish Times for 2d which contained an ad headed ‘Teacher wanted’. I successfully applied for the post at St Patrick’s Cathedral Grammar School in Dublin.

DS:    You taught in a number of schools over a forty year period. What was your approach to the teaching of history?

JDCI: I suppose my approach was based on my involvement in a range of issues which were just becoming history, so to speak. I am thinking of my activity as a Larkinite in Dublin and my association with old Jim Larkin, whom I knew very well. I was also influenced by the places I had been to around the world and the experiences that I had had. I found in teaching history that, whereas you were supposed to rigidly follow a set textbook, whether it was accurate or not, it never caught the real spirit of events and personalities of history. I believe that much of the teaching of history all over the world has been like that and it is one of the reasons why the teaching of history has not had the impact that it should have had. I believe that you should draw on all that is constructive and humane in the past, because I believe in what Madariaga said—that sooner or later we either join together across the world and sink our differences, or at least keep them to amicable discussion, otherwise we are going to destroy ourselves. That was always in my mind when I was teaching and I tried to encourage students to think of what was going on in their own day, and to think of aspects of life which I knew, in general, they were not being taught, such as the importance of the sea not only to Ireland but to the world.

DS:    Your great life’s work has been to raise consciousness among Irish people about our previously forgotten maritime history and traditions. What was the inspiration for this undertaking?

JDCI:     Back in the 1930s, I was greatly inspired by the example of the government of newly independent Poland. They had just fifty kilometres of coast and yet they saw that a maritime economy was essential for them. They knew they had a maritime history, which had never been taught prior to independence, and they recognised that in order to gain popular support for public investment in a maritime economy, they needed to remind the Polish people of their maritime past and suggest to them that if maritime endeavour was part of their past it should be part of their future. I felt then that we in Ireland should be following this example. In 1937, the year we returned to live in Ireland, the annual catch from sea fisheries was a mere 10,000 tons—far less than we caught under British rule. Today, the take is in the region of between 250,000 and 300,000 tons. I believed that if we wanted a developed maritime economy, with our own merchant marine and navy, then our public policy had to be a reflection of our great maritime past. So it was in that context that I embarked upon research in foreign archives to rediscover this forgotten maritime past.

DS:    How frustrating was it then to hear Irish historians decry us as a nation of land lubbers?

JDCI:    It was very frustrating. F.S.L. Lyons once wrote a very nice review of a life of Francis Drake and incidentally remarked that it was a pity that we in Ireland had never produced any great seamen. And G.A. Hayes McCoy, wrote that it was extraordinary that Galway had no maritime tradition. Yet, in my researches I discovered  that, for example, the finest minister for the marine in nineteenth century France was a man called Mackau, who was actually McCoy of Galway extraction. He introduced humane reforms, brought the French navy into the age of steam and used visit this country frequently. In Argentina, I discovered that the people there had a great devotion to Admiral William Browne, who founded their navy and who was a native of Foxford, County Mayo. I could go on an on. All this was totally forgotten. All we heard about were the Penal Laws, which are important, but which must always be seen in the context of Ireland always being in touch by sea with the rest of the world. It was the experience of finding out about all these Irish people who had contributed so much to world maritime history that made me realise that in the latter period of British rule we had been totally cut off from our maritime past.

DS:    Do you think maritime affairs have a greater standing today than when you first started campaigning in the 1930s?

JDCI:      Yes, I think they have. It is difficult to be too optimistic when we still carry only 10 per cent of our trade in our own ships, and there seems to be no return to a deep-sea fleet, for all the marvellous things the Arklow Shipping Company does. We have a long way to go. However, I am greatly encouraged by the establishment of the Department of the Marine, and the Marine Institute, and I am greatly inspired by the battle by the Institute to develop a National Maritime Museum of Ireland. The Maritime Institute offers possibly the greatest pointer to the future. It is doing pioneering work to explore the seas around us, its depths and its currents, its critical elements, and the enormous possibilities that may be there.

DS:    Retirement seems not to have dented your workload or dampened your enthusiasm.

JDCI:    I have been very lucky in my life. I have had all sorts of wonderful experiences as a teacher and at sea. I have been all around the coasts of Ireland and beyond and worked with wonderful lifeboat crews, who are gems of human beings. I feel it would be wrong, so long as I am capable of doing it, not to go preaching: ‘Watch the sea, know the sea, use the sea; pay tribute to our great maritime forebears, and look to the future of the sea and our future with it’.

David Sheehy is President of the Maritime Institute of Ireland.


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