Conan, Walter (1860–1936), inventor and tailor, was born at the family house, Roseneath, Sandymount Avenue, Dublin, one of four sons and six daughters of Joseph Conan, a wealthy merchant tailor, of Dawson St., Dublin, and his wife Agnes, daughter of a Scottish clockmaker, David Crighton, who had settled in Ringsend, Dublin. (Conan is a family name of Breton origin, in more modern times spelled ‘Coonan’ in Ireland. The writer Arthur Conan Doyle was a cousin of Joseph Conan). After education in the French School (later Blackrock College), Walter trained as a tailor and took over his father's business in partnership with his older brother Alexander. Sometime in the 1890s the brothers split the business into two; Walter set up his own firm under his own name, and moved to Kildare St. c.1900. This firm became ‘Robemakers to the University’, the university in question being firstly the Royal University of Ireland and subsequently the NUI. The firm specialised in hiring out academic gowns and regalia to students for conferrings and similar functions. An inveterate amateur inventor, Conan invented and patented many devices, including the ‘keyless lock’ (a type of combination lock), devices for preserving meat and for preventing airlocks in pipes, and a system of ‘incandescent gas lamps’.
In addition to his tailoring concerns, he became a director of many other businesses, one such being the De Selby Quarry Co., which operated large quarries in the Tallaght area of Co. Dublin. He was chairman of this company and appears thus to have become interested in methods of setting off explosives, and particularly underwater explosives. In 1913 he invented and patented the device known as the Conan fuse (the engineer who manufactured the prototype Conan fuse was the artist John Bedell Macilwaine (qv), RHA). The device, also known as the Conan submarine fuse, can be set to explode at any preselected depth of water, relying on the variation in water pressure at different depths. After testing by the British admiralty at Woolwich and Lydd in 1913, this fuse later became central to the depth charge used by the British navy in anti-submarine warfare; Sir John Ross (qv) credited it with ‘saving this country from absolute destruction’. Later, during the first world war, Conan was involved in the manufacture of ferro-tungsten in England, this being used in the armaments industry. He returned to Ireland in the 1920s, became president of Killiney Golf Club, and died in Dublin in 1936. He is buried in Deans Grange cemetery.
While living in Dalkey, Co. Dublin, Walter Conan had tested his explosive devices at the Vico swimming hole known as ‘the men's bathing place’, a location developed by his family, who were property owners nearby. Stories of these goings-on, allied to the name of his De Selby quarry company, led him to be fictionalised in a later generation. He thus became the inspiration for ‘De Selby’, the eccentric Dalkey inventor and sage of the books of Flann O'Brien (Brian O'Nolan, qv).
Walter Conan married (1889) Florence Banks, an Englishwoman of some means; they had three sons.