Nowlan, Kevin Barry (1921–2013), historian and champion of Dublin’s architectural heritage, was born on 2 November 1921, the only son of John Joseph Nowlan, a heating engineer, and his wife Barbara Nowlan (née O’Neill), of 40 Crannagh Road, Rathfarnham, Co. Dublin. He was educated at Belvedere College and UCD, graduating in 1943 with a first in history and political economy. He was called to the Irish bar in 1945 (the highlight of his legal career was acting as junior counsel for one of the two groups of fishermen involved in the Foyle fisheries case 1947–8). In 1948 he was awarded a French government scholarship to examine material in the Paris archives connected with the events of 1848, which was the beginning of a career of European travel that persisted to the end of his long life. In the same year he joined the full-time staff of UCD, having previously lectured part-time and in 1950 was awarded an MA in modern Irish history with first class honours.
He was granted leave of absence for 1950–2 to undertake research for a Ph.D. at Peterhouse, Cambridge, which he expeditiously completed, receiving his Ph.D. in 1955. He spent 1953–4 at the University of Marburg, supported by a German Federal government research scholarship, studying relations between agrarian unrest and nationalist movements in nineteenth-century Europe. (He kept up the fluent German he acquired at Marburg by his daily reading of the Allgemeine Zeitung and by his many contacts with the German community in Dublin, particularly with the Goethe-Institut and the German embassy.)
In 1956 he was promoted to a college lectureship in history. In 1963 he was a guest lecturer at the University of Giessen, taking as his theme agrarian reform in Ireland and east central Europe; in 1966 he was invited to lecture at the universities of Stockholm, Uppsala and Lund on ‘Irish nationalism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries’ and on ‘Agrarian agitation as a factor in the development of nationalism in Ireland and the Baltic Lands’.
Meanwhile he was publishing steadily. His first article, on Thomas Davis’s (qv) writings, appeared in Irish Historical Studies (Mar. 1947). Articles on ‘Communications’ appeared in Ulster since 1800 (eds T. W. Moody (qv) and J. C. Beckett (qv)), on relations between church and state in Proceedings of the Irish Catholic Historical Committee 1960, on repeal in Historical Studies IV (ed. G. A. Hayes-McCoy (qv)) and on ‘Dáil Éireann and the army’ in The Irish Struggle 1916–26 (ed. T. D. Williams (qv)). In 1963 he published Charles Gavan Duffy and the repeal movement. His interest in agrarian unrest produced an article in the University Review (ii, no. 6, 7–16). He also contributed a chapter to Ireland and the Italian Risorgimento (ed. R. D. Edwards (qv), 1960). In the late 1940s he had written a long chapter, ‘The political background’, for The Great Famine (eds R. D. Edwards and T. D. Williams), which eventually appeared 1956; he also wrote the foreword, which appeared over the editors’ initials. His chef d’oeuvre, The politics of repeal (1965), was the tenth in the series ‘Studies in Irish History’. One reviewer said Nowlan was a historian ‘who felt the need to elaborate and enlarge, to draw on newer sources and newer ideas, and to revise earlier opinions … His great virtue is to emphasise the place of Irish politics as an integrated part of the whole politics of the United Kingdom.’ (Norman, IHS, Mar. 1968)
In 1966, when he was made an associate professor in UCD, he had a number of works on hand: he was editing a volume of essays on the 1916 rising and had two books in preparation, Ireland past and present for the Oxford University Press ‘Home University Series’ and Ireland and Britain under the union for Allen & Unwin, which was to be a selection of documents with a commentary on Anglo-Irish relations 1800–1922. In addition he had several articles ‘in course of preparation’, including ‘The agrarian factor in European nationalism in the nineteenth century’ for the Institut für continentale Agrar-und- Wirtschaftsforschung at Giessen. The essays on 1916 duly appeared in 1969 as The making of 1916: studies in the history of the rising but the two other books did not appear, nor did the potentially fascinating article on the agrarian factor.
In 1966 he was well placed to develop his scholarship. He could have gone into twentieth-century Irish history, on which he had made a start with his book on 1916 and with his experience as historical adviser for Insurrection, RTÉ’s dramatised documentary on the rising. He could have developed his potentially very interesting work on agrarian and nationalist movements, which might have included a comparison of Irish landlords with their Continental counterparts, such as the Junkers or the Baltic barons. But his course changed, and for the rest of his life much of his time and enthusiasm went into campaigning for Dublin’s architectural heritage. His interest in the study of history persisted; he continued to appear on RTÉ programmes related to history, for example on The Treaty debates on 5 October 1971 and on Wednesday report on 27 March 1991 when he dismissed RTÉ’s Insurrection as ‘Cowboy and Indian’. He edited several collections of essays: Ireland in the war years and after 1939–51 (with T. D. Williams, 1969), Travel and transport in Ireland (1973), Daniel O’Connell: portrait of a radical (with Maurice R. O’Connell (qv), 1984), and Karl Marx, the materialist messiah (1984). His interests remained wide: in 1979 there was a Thomas Davis Lecture on Michael Davitt (qv) and in 1998 an article ‘Past wars avoided. Any lessons for the future?’ in Security Dialogue, 29(2), 249–50. His interest in European history, and his interest in Germany in particular, persisted. In the 1980s he was an active participant in the European Science Foundation’s study of non-dominant ethnic minorities in Europe, where his fluent and humorous command of German won him the admiration of his German colleagues. The politics of repeal, nevertheless, was to be his only piece of sustained historical research.
His change of course was not unpredictable. He was a Dubliner, with a fine house at 62 Dartmouth Square; as a boy at Belvedere he had been interested in the archaeology of Dublin and had been expelled from the Old Dublin Society when he disagreed with the redoubtable Alderman Tom Kelly (qv) over the antiquity of Dublin. He was a great walker, never keeping a car; he had a penchant for the media, which was a useful attribute in conservation debates. (Since the beginning of his academic career he wrote for the newspapers and appeared on Radio Éireann’s Round table on world affairs and frequently contributed to the Thomas Davis Lectures; he made his television debut on Telefís Éireann’s egregiously pioneering programme The professors.) He was an ebullient public speaker, never needing notes, his strong voice going well with his diminutive stature. There was also his admiration for Mariga Guinness (qv); the princess of Württemberg trumped the Baltic barons. His contribution to the Whicker’s world episode (Yorkshire Television, 1970) devoted to Desmond and Mariga Guinness was nicely balanced and was described ‘as some straight talking about the whole business’ by Ken Gray in the Irish Times (16 Feb. 1970).
Having played a leading part in the campaign to save the Tailor’s Hall, he and a group of friends set up the Dublin Civic Group in 1966, of which he became the first and only chairman. The Dublin Civic Group had no constitution, no rules, no formal membership, and no money except what the members contributed themselves – but it did have a chairman, Kevin B. Nowlan, and a good address, 38 Grafton Street. The Civic Group was prominent in all the conservation battles from 1966 on, Hume Street, Wood Quay, the new Central Bank building, but the group’s strength was its persistence with less spectacular problems. The threatened erection of a petrol station at Mountpleasant Square or the disappearance of Peter Turnerelli’s monument of Thomas Betagh SJ (qv) from the church of SS Michael and John attracted their attention. The ‘members’ met nearly every week and undertook the tedious task of inspecting lists of planning applications, making representations to the Dublin Corporation and lodging appeals with the minister for local government. Occasionally the routine was enlivened, not only by the great battles but by skirmishes when Nowlan wrote vigorous, well-argued letters to the newspapers from No. 38 Grafton Street or made speeches at threatened sites (his speech on 23 October 1978 at Wood Quay was the only one that could be heard by most of the crowd).
His commitment to UCD remained strong. In the 1950s and 1960s he had introduced a tutorial system for history students and he was the first chairman of the combined departments of history when that office was established in 1974. He was a member of the governing body (1973–9), to which he was twice elected as a representative of the academic council; he also served on the buildings committee. In 1979 he unsuccessfully applied for the chair of Irish history just vacated by R. D. Edwards. His failure was remarkable given the amount and quality of his published work, his vigorous lecturing style, his service to the college, and his public standing in Dublin. He acted as head of the department of modern history (1983–6) after the retirement of T. D. Williams.
He brought to the Dublin struggle certain qualities: his legal training, his caution, his ability to speak the language of conservation and town planning and to write it clearly (and frequently). He also added historical flourishes to his conservation arguments; in 1982 when 15 Parnell Square was threatened, for example, he pointed out that in October 1890 Parnell was brought to the house from Westland Row Station, ‘through cheering crowds, in a carriage drawn by his supporters. On arriving at No. 15, Parnell stood at the front door and addressed the gathering.’ There was occasionally a sharper edge than mere allusion to past events; in 2011 on the eve of his ninetieth birthday, he recalled that in the 1960s ‘Dublin was being destroyed in the cause of a debased nationalism that saw its Georgian houses as the relics of British rule in Ireland.’ In 1986 on the fortieth anniversary of An Taisce’s foundation, he described its work as ‘true patriotism’. He brought a voice to the movement that was indigenous; not demotic certainly, more forceful Dublin 4; the UCD man with the Peterhouse tie could not be dismissed as a belted earl or a left-wing intellectual (his grand uncle James Nowlan (qv) was the longest serving president of the GAA (1901–21) and a member of the IRB; Nowlan Park in Kilkenny is named after him). His ubiquity and persistence led Edward McParland at Nowlan’s ninetieth birthday to dub him ‘the Hercules of the conservation movement in Ireland’.
He was a great pluralist. At various times he was president of An Taisce, president of the Maurice Kennedy Research Centre (UCD), vice president of the Irish Georgian Society, vice president of the RIA, chairman of the Castletown Foundation, chairman of Mountjoy Estates, vice chairman of the board of management of the Children’s Hospital, Temple Street, member of the committee of management of the Alfred Beit Foundation, director of the Yeats International Summer School, and patron of the campaign to restore Drimnagh Castle. Consuelo O’Connor very properly included him in her The view from the chair. The art of chairing meetings (97–9). He also held office in or was involved with: the Tailors’ Hall Fund Ltd, the Irish Historic Properties Committee, the Dublin Civic Trust, the Irish Society for Archives, the School of Irish Studies, the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society, Leeson Street Residents’ Association, and the editorial and management committees of Irish Historical Studies. He was chairman of the Irish Committee of Historical Sciences (1974–9) and led Irish delegations to the International Congress of Historical Sciences at San Francisco in 1975 and at Bucharest in 1980. He was also a member of the Stephen’s Green Club, an ornament of the Friendly Brothers of St Patrick and a regular, if occasionally unpunctual, member of the Saturday Lunch Club.
His awards reflected his interests. In 1941 he was awarded the Thomas Arkins medal in first arts in UCD. The Italian government awarded him a medal for his lecture on ‘Ireland and the Risorgimento’ (1948); The politics of repeal was awarded the Irish Historical Research Prize of the NUI (1968) ; he was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (1980); he was made an honorary member of the RIAI (1985); he received one of the Millennium awards (1988) for his part in the Wood Quay struggle from the lord mayor, Carmencita Hederman, who described him as ‘the doyen of the conservation movement in Ireland’ (Ir. Times, 1 Mar. 1988). The other recipients were F. X. Martin (qv) and Michael and Ena Casey.
Nowlan died on 4 February 2013 in Dublin aged ninety-one. In his will he left £9,000 to UCD to establish a prize to encourage postgraduate research in modern Irish and European history and £6,000 to the Irish Architectural Archive; he left forty-five per cent of the residue of his estate to the Castletown Foundation and thirty-five percent to the RIA. He also left his royalties, copyrights and papers to the RIA. His papers relate to all aspects of his career as a historian, lecturer and conservationist. They include diaries that he kept assiduously for many years; even after a long day’s walking through Rome, or Paris, or Vienna, he would settle down at night with his Dictaphone to record the day’s events. According to the RIA’s website ‘this series has been closed in its entirety due to its sensitive nature’.
Even if he had not been articulate, courageous, legally acute, he would have been welcome in any gathering; he brightened any meeting he attended; he was tirelessly convivial, an indefatigable raconteur, whose stories gained in hilarious anticipation what they lost in novelty. No gathering of historians or conservationists was properly concluded until he had emitted his outrageous rendering of ‘The rocks of Bawn’ (his singing career had begun in the Gaiety Theatre with a walk-on part in ‘Gianni Schicchi’). Maureen Cairnduff in the 1984 edition of her Who’s who in Ireland said he was a great favourite with Dublin hostesses. In one respect Mrs Cairnduff resembled the Queen of Sheba: not the half of it had been told to her.