RB a life well lived
In terms of encountering a legend, it was a little underwhelming. I had just left school for Trinity and saw a scruffy old man with holes in his overcoat on Dublin’s Grafton Street. Nothing particularly ominous and unusual there, he could have been a busker. But I noticed that he was wearing a raggedy scarf from my school. Concerned that a pensioner from the same part of the world as me had fallen on hard times, with the naivety of youth I offered him a chocolate bar. He politely declined but asked me my name. His name was RB McDowell and little did I realise then, that I was starting a unique friendship.
When I met RB McDowell he was in his early nineties, and was still working every day in Trinity’s library on his academic work. For well over half a century, he had lectured history in the university and retirement couldn’t stop his zest for knowledge, it just gave him more time to study obscure topics he found fascinating. At school or university, memories are often shaped by special characters. RB McDowell could claim to be one of those. He has two books written about him by hundreds of contributors basking in their memories of the man. For many, years after leaving university he became a symbol of the best days of their lives.
RB was born in Belfast in 1913, he attended Inst and was proud to have done so. He wore his school scarf most days and still had the school crest displayed at a jaunty angle in his ramshackle rooms in Trinity. Ironically for a man who lived until his late nineties, he told me his school years he was considered too frail and sickly to do sport, although he made up for it by burying himself in libraries and developing his life long passion for history that was shaped at school.
After school, he made the short journey to Dublin which was to become his home for most of his adult life. Despite his self proclaimed horrendous hand writing and ability to digress at every opportunity, he gained a first class degree in Trinity, before proceeding to a PhD. He became a lecturer in Trinity in 1945, after a brief, and rather unhappy period teaching in an English public school.
For those who didn’t go to Trinity, it’s hard to convey the esteem in which the man was held. With his distinctive Anglo-Ulster brogue and eccentric dress, he was loved by students and respected immensely in his field of study. He devoted his life to academia. In my friendship with him that lasted throughout my student years, he would excitedly tell me about the latest papers he was working on and could be found in the library most mornings with a diligence that would be alien to most of us slovenly students.
He had lived the best part of his life in Trinity in his own rooms, but in later years he had resided in a nursing home in rural County Kildare. I went to visit him there only once, shortly before leaving Dublin two years ago. In a nursing room filled with sleeping and docile pensioners, RB was propped up with three pillows writing furiously while balancing three heavy academic tomes on his lap. He spoke as rapidly as his fountain pen: “Ah Drennan, delighted to see you, just have to get through these foot notes and then we can talk properly.” The fact that he was 95 at the time, sums up RB McDowell’s life. He spent his years doing something he adored, and Trinity and RBAI should be justly proud to count him amongst their number.