maritime historian, sailor, teacher, peace
activist, humanist and linguist, was born on 19 October 1911
in Lucknow (Lakhnau), the capital city of the province of Uttar
Pradesh in northern India. He was born to an Irish Catholic
mother and an Irish Anglican father from County Kildare, who was
serving the British Army. His father died of typhoid in China on
the eve of the First World War, just three years after John was
born. De Courcy Ireland was educated at Marlborough High School
in London, but spent much of his childhood with his grandparents
in Galway, Ireland, developing a lasting attachment to the
Despite receiving a history
scholarship to New College, Oxford, shortly before his
seventeenth birthday, he decided to travel to Brittany, France,
to work on a Dutch merchant ship. De Courcy Ireland’s travels
and travails on this ship bound for Argentina also took him to
Spain, Brazil and Uruguay, among other destinations, instilling
in him a lifelong interest in maritime affairs. The young man
was said to have been ‘deeply distressed’ by the poverty and
inequalities of wealth that he witnessed in Brazil (Dr John
de Courcy Ireland, Obituaries, The Irish Times, 8
April 2006, p. 14).
On his return from the high seas, de
Courcy Ireland did finally attend university in Oxford, where he
met his wife, Beatrice Haigh from Dún Laoghaire in Dublin. The
couple married and moved to Manchester, where they both joined
the Labour Party. One year prior to the outbreak of the Second
World War, de Courcy Ireland and his wife left England and moved
to Ireland. Together with Betty, he spent time on the Aran
Islands, off the west coast of Ireland, and in Donegal in the
Northwest of the country, learning the Irish language, which he
added to his repertoire of European languages. In 1942, he
accepted a teaching post at St. Patrick’s Cathedral School in
Dublin and a year later joined the Maritime Institute of
Ireland, an organisation of which he was Honorary Research
Officer when he passed away.
In the late forties, de Courcy
Ireland became involved in the Vocational Education Committee
and it was during the years 1949 to 1950 that he considered
emigrating to Argentina and teaching in South America. These
plans never came to fruition and in 1950 Trinity College Dublin
awarded him a PhD for his research on Irish maritime history. In
1959, he was one of the founders of the National Maritime Museum
in Dún Laoghaire and in 1966, he published the first of many
historical works, entitled The Sea and the Easter Rising.
From 1968 to 1986 de Courcy Ireland
worked as a teacher at Newpark Comprehensive School in Blackrock,
Dublin, and in 1984 he ran in the elections for the European
Parliament as a Democratic Socialist, winning 5,350 votes. He
served as voluntary secretary of the Dún Laoghaire lifeboat
station for over twenty-five years, was a founding member of the
Campaign against Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in Ireland and a
member of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement. The historian’s
attachment to China, stemming from his father’s death and his
mother’s brief residence in Beijing, led him to foster links
between Ireland and the Asian country. In recognition of this
work, the Chinese government appointed de Courcy Ireland
honorary ambassador to China.
According to Desmond Branigan, the
President of the Maritime Institute, de Courcy Ireland ‘worked
tirelessly to spread at home and abroad the story of the huge
contribution made by Irish men and women down the years to
international maritime affairs' (Branigan,
Desmond. ‘Message from the President’ in Iris na Mara -
Journal of the Sea. Journal of the Maritime Institute of Ireland. 1:1, Winter 2002, p. 3). One
of these stories was that of William Brown from Foxford, County
Mayo. In 1995, de Courcy Ireland published a biography of Brown,
the founder of the Argentine navy, entitled The Admiral from
Mayo. Thereafter, the historian was appointed a member of
the Instituto Browniano in Buenos Aires. His major contributions
to historical research centred around Irish people serving in
foreign navies and merchant lines. His 1986 publication,
Ireland and the Irish in Maritime History, chronicles the
exploits of, among others, Irish
seamen in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and
Venezuela and includes an account of the life of Admiral
Patricio Lynch of Chile.
John de Courcy Ireland was a
tirelessly enthusiastic man, travelling the world throughout the
ninety-four years of his life, always making a point of arriving
by ship. He was a family and community man, active in many local
organisations in south Dublin, as well as in national and
international ones. He dedicated his life in Ireland to, in his
own words, making successive Irish governments ‘realise that
they lived on an island and needed the sea.’ In the area of
links between Ireland and Latin America, the maritime
historian’s many works of research contributed to the
recognition of widespread Irish involvement in independence
movements in nineteenth-century South America.
His wife Betty died in late 1999 and
John de Courcy Ireland died just over six years later in
Clonskeagh Hospital in Dublin, on 4 April 2006, after a long
illness. He is survived by his three children, seven
grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Branigan, Desmond, ‘Message from the President’
in Iris na Mara - Journal of the Sea, Journal of the
Maritime Institute of Ireland, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Winter 2002), 3.
- De Courcy Ireland, John, The Admiral from
Mayo (Dublin: Edmund Burker Publishers, 1995).
- De Courcy Ireland,
John, ‘Admiral William Brown’ in The Irish
Sword, Vol. 6, No. 23 (Winter 1962), 119-121.
- De Courcy Ireland,
Ireland and the Irish in Maritime History
(Dublin: Glendale Press, 1986).
- De Courcy Ireland,
John, ‘Irish Soldiers and Seamen in Latin America’ in The
Irish Sword, Vol. 1, No. 4 (1952-53), 296-303.
- De Courcy Ireland, John, ‘Thomas Charles
Wright: Soldier of Bolivar; Founder of the Ecuadorian Navy’ in
The Irish Sword, Vol. 6, No. 25 (Winter
- ‘Dr John de Courcy Ireland,’ Obituaries, The
Irish Times, 8 April 2006, p14.
- James, Ann. ‘Report on “The Sea,” talk given by
John de Courcy Ireland to the Irish Humanists’ (1 December
2002). Also available online (www.irish-humanists.org/Spkrs/drireland.html),
accessed 15 April 2006.
- McCabe, Aiden. ‘A Tribute to Dr. John de Courcy
Ireland (1911-2006)’ (2006) available online (http://www.irishships.com/john_de_courcy_ireland.htm),
accessed 15 April 2006.