Professor Kevin B. Nowlan – Obituary

It was with great sadness that the O’Neill Country Historical Society learned of the death of Professor Kevin B. Nowlan on 4th February, 2013.

Kevin B. (as he was known to one and all) first became involved with local history in Tyrone when he agreed to look over draft chapters of The Book of Eglish – Where the Oona Flows, which was in preparation in 2010/11.  He gave invaluable advice but, best of all, he posed questions about some aspects that intrigued him.  For example ‘When had the ancient church site been returned to Catholic hands?’ and ‘What was the story of land ownership from Plantation times?’.  I referred these questions to Brendan McAnallen and relayed the answers back.  The church and graveyard site had never been taken over by the established church (this, Kevin said, was unusual anywhere in Ireland and especially in Ulster) and much of the land had been farmed continually by the same families since the time of the O Neills, even during periods of turmoil.  He was very encouraging and supportive of the book as a whole , which gave the committee confidence as we came to publication.  His favourite of all the items it contains was a poem or song , I’m Living in America, from the collection of Leo Kelly, Mossmore, originally published in The Annals of Aughnacloy and the Parish of Carnteel .  The poem tells the story of a young girl who ‘lived between Dungannon and the town of Aughnacloy’ who fell in love with her ‘father’s servant boy’.

  My parents wished to have me wed unto a gentleman,
And in the church we were to meet, to join in holy wedlock’s band;
The night before I stole from them unto a village nigh,
O where I did meet my own true love, my father’s servant boy.

The young couple were forced to emigrate.

With pleasure and contentment, I never will deny,
I’m living in America, with my father’s servant boy.

Kevin was delighted with this as he said it exemplified his thesis that the gap between different denominations in the 18th and 19th Centuries was much less than the gulf that existed between the large farmer and his working-class servants.  Not alone did he help with the preparation of the book, Kevin accepted Eglish Historical Society’s invitation to launch it in December, 2012. Eglish Parochial Hall was packed for the occasion and the audience was entranced by the diminutive professor and his address.  He hailed the book as ‘an exemplar of a local history book’ and said that ‘if one doesn’t understand the interaction of local communities, it is difficult to understand the development of the overall scene’.  He joined wholeheartedly in the reception following the launch and was particularly delighted to meet Wolsley Knox and Perry Reid.  Before leaving he promised to return to give a lecture and this he did on 20th September, 2012 when he spoke on Daniel O’Connell  and Human Rights. Daniel O’Connell was Kevin’s favourite historical figure – a man who shared many of his values of inclusiveness and love of humanity.  He was asked to launch the 20th edition of Dúiche Néill on 18th January, 2013 but unfortunately, due to a bad snow forecast, the launch had to be postponed until 23rd February.  Kevin did not make his much-anticipated trip to Dungannon, as he passed away, aged 91, on 4th February after having suffered a stroke a week earlier.

Kevin Barry Nowlan was born on 2nd November, 1921 and educated at Belvedere College, Dublin.  On entering University College Dublin he thought to study archaeology but found he could not take an undergraduate degree in the subject and accordingly opted for history.  He graduated with First Class Honours in 1943 in Modern History and Political Economy and was awarded a postgraduate scholarship.  In 1945 he was called to the Irish Bar, in 1948 was appointed to the History Staff in UCD, awarded an M.A. in 1950 and went to Peterhouse College, Cambridge on a postgraduate scholarship to study Anglo-Irish relations 1841-50.  The year 1953-54 was spent at the University of Marburg in Germany and in 1955 he was awarded a Ph.D. by Cambridge University.  In 1966 he was appointed Associate Professor of Modern Irish History in UCD and in 1974 first Chairman of the Combined Departments of History in the College.  He was President of An Taisce and the Dublin Civic Trust, Chairman of the Castletown Foundation, President of the Maurice Kennedy Research Centre, UCD, and a director of the Alfred Beit Foundation, which looks after Russborough House.  He was also associated with The Royal Irish Academy, the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland, The Irish Society of Archives, the School of Irish Studies and the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society. For many years he was Director of the Yeats International Summer School .

Kevin’s great passion was the built environment and he spearheaded campaigns connected with Hume Street, Wood Quay and Castletown House.  In recent  years he joined battle to protect the green park in front of his home at Dartmouth Square and must have smiled from above when in September, 2013, the Lord Mayor of Dublin presided at a ceremony to celebrate its taking in hand by the Corporation and to dedicate a bench to his memory.  He authored, co-authored and edited at least 10 books. The list of honours awarded to him does not do justice to the man that Kevin  B. was.  Up to the last he retained amazing energy,  unbounded enthusiasm and a love of all living creatures.  His family were entranced last year when, during their Christmas get-together, Kevin succeeded in beating the younger members at an XBox game of badminton.  He attributed his long and active life to eating lots of fish and salads, particularly pickles (for which he had developed a penchant during his time in Germany) and to the fact that he walked long distances, never having owned a car.

Everything in Kevin’s life was done in high good humour (unless it was fighting a campaign, when his more steely side was displayed).  He had an amazing repertoire of stories, jokes and songs.  His favourite of all was The Rocks of Bawn and each new project was announced with the exhortation “O rise up gallant Sweeney and give your horse some hay”.

Those who were privileged to know Kevin learned much from him and he will be sadly missed.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dίlis

Rose Mary Logue