Ireland, John Evan de Courcy (1911–2006), socialist, activist, teacher, and maritime historian, was born 19 October 1911 in Lucknow, India, only child of De Courcy Ireland (1873–1915), a British army major of Irish ancestry, and his English-born wife Gabrielle (née Byron).
Family background The Irelands were an ancient and knightly English landed gentry family, long associated (by some accounts, from the time of the Norman conquest) with Hale manor, Lancashire; the family surname may have derived from a fourteenth-century figure born and reared in Ireland, or may have an earlier provenance. The latter-day Irish branch of the family descended from William Ireland (d. 1689?), who acquired lands in counties Kildare and Laois in the reign of Charles II and married into the Anglo-Norman family of de Courcy, who held the barony of Kingsale. Thereafter the name 'De Courcy' appeared frequently in the Ireland family either as a forename or (as in John's case) as part of a double surname. In the early nineteenth century, the family's principal seat was Robertstown House, Co. Kildare (which eventually passed through marriage and inheritance to William Ireland de Courcy Wheeler (qv) (1844–99).
John Ireland's paternal grandfather, William De Courcy Ireland (1835–1902), a TCD graduate, pursued an unorthodox career as an uncovenanted civil servant in colonial British Burma, where he published works on Anglo-Indian and traditional Burmese law, and rose to the rank of commissioner. John Ireland's father, probably born in Burma, and educated in Ireland and Germany, became an officer in the 36th Sikhs, Indian Army; a facile linguist, he mastered several of the local languages, briefly played first-class cricket, and married Ireland's mother while on home leave in Devon. On the outbreak of the first world war, he accompanied his regiment as part of an Anglo–Japanese expeditionary force that besieged the German-controlled Chinese port of Tsingtao (Qingdao); contracting typhoid fever, he died in Beijing (January 1915), reputedly declaring on his death bed: 'Don't let that child join the British army.'
Childhood and youth By this time John was being reared, variously in Ireland and in Devon, by his paternal grandmother (née Algie); from a Connacht family of Huguenot ancestry, she was a liberal protestant and ardent Irish nationalist, who instilled in John a strong sense of Irish identity. John's mother remained for the duration of the war in India, where she married secondly a Dutch national of Jansenist religious outlook; on their moving to England (c.1919), John joined them in their London flat in Portman Square.
His pre-university education was largely unhappy. After attending a Church of Ireland preparatory school in London (about which he remembered a regime of Dickensian cruelty), he transferred to a preparatory school in East Anglia. He then attended Marlborough College, a public school in Wiltshire, which he found pervaded by the British class system, and where he developed 'a real hatred of the British establishment' (Irish Times, 24 August 1991). School holidays were divided between stays in Ireland with his grandmother (whom John remembered as 'the light of my childhood' (Seafaring Irish, CD)), who insisted that he learn the rudiments of the Irish language, and with his mother and stepfather in Rome. (A catholic and Italophile, from the early 1920s his mother lived permanently in Italy, eventually in a monastery.) His stepfather, whom John intensely disliked ('I had this dreadful stepfather, and I ran away from everything he suggested' (Irish Times, 9 August 1983)), drafted an education that would prepare the boy for a pensionable career in the British civil service. Owing to the distinct belief systems of his principal adult relatives, in what Ireland remembered as 'the battle of my future' (Seafaring Irish, CD), his stepfather desired that he be educated protestant, his mother catholic, and his grandmother 'Irish'.
Fascinated by the sea from early childhood, and entertaining boyhood dreams of becoming a seaman ('to the horror of the lot of them' (Seafaring Irish, CD)), at age 17 Ireland abruptly left Marlborough and travelled to Rotterdam where he signed as a steward on a Dutch cargo ship bound for Buenos Aires. Finding life aboard a Dutch merchantman 'far more civilised than an English public school' (Sheehy, 13), he spent the next year on voyages between Europe and South America, and seized the opportunity to teach himself Spanish and Portuguese. His experiences and observations (especially of the contrasts between opulent wealth and wretched poverty in Latin America) awakened his social conscience. The year at sea thereby engendered the three dominant themes of his life: the sea, social justice, and internationalism.
Oxford; Manchester; Donegal Having privately sat, prior to his departure, an entrance examination and won a scholarship, on returning to England he read history at New College, Oxford (c.1930–34), as the college's first ever scholarship student. University holidays were spent at merchant seafaring or canoeing on British rivers and canals. Active in the university's Irish society, he also joined the Liberal club (attracted to the political party most closely associated historically with Irish home rule), before gravitating toward more leftist politics. He married (1932) Beatrice 'Bet' Haigh (qv) (1911–99), an English woman of half-Irish ancestry who worked in a family enterprise, the so-called 'Irish café', a haunt of Oxford leftists. Enjoying a remarkably warm, mutually supportive, and cooperative marriage, which produced one son and two daughters, John often stated that he was one half of a team, and described his sixty-seven years of married life as 'a time of constant joy and interest, and frequently of excitement and positive emotion' (Seafaring Irish, CD liner notes).
On his university graduation, the couple moved to Manchester, where John taught at Bury grammar school (1934–7), wrote freelance journalism, and became involved in political activism. Joining the British Labour party, he was sympathetic to the Socialist League of Stafford Cripps, which advocated a united front of the British left. He was active in the Gaelic League, and became organiser for northwest England and Ireland of a China relief society, that assisted refugees displaced by the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, and campaigned for a boycott of Japanese goods; both commitments occasioned frequent visits to Dublin and Belfast. Having met the younger James Larkin (qv) in Manchester in 1934, John and Bet were guests in Dublin for three weeks in summer 1935 of the elder James Larkin (qv). This proved a formative experience for John Ireland, confirming his socialism while imparting a socialist version of Irish nationalism. Later in life Ireland described his political philosophy from the mid 1930s as 'Larkinite', an outlook he characterised as 'libertarian socialist'. Larkin's influence, however, was not in every respect immediate. Ireland was unsettled by Larkin's disillusionment with Russian communism, based on the repressive and cynical aspects of the Stalinist system. Besotted as Ireland was, like so many leftists of his generation, by the model of the Bolshevik revolution, reinforced by the USSR's contributions to the struggle against fascism, Larkin's perspective simmered unspoken in his thinking for many years, till confirmed by his own political observation and reflection. Not till his denunciation of the Soviet-led invasion of Hungary in 1956 did Ireland publicly criticise the USSR.
Commissioned by Penguin to write a book on partition and the border (1938), Ireland spent several months on the Aran islands improving his Irish, then located to the border area, at Muff, Co. Donegal. Though the book project would soon be obviated by the outbreak of the second world war and the commission cancelled, he would reside in Ireland for the rest of his life. From his Donegal home, Ireland contributed journalism to Dublin socialist publications, and was active in a prisoners' aid campaign on behalf of republican internees in both Northern Ireland and the twenty-six counties. He joined the Derry branch of the Northern Ireland Labour Party and served on the party executive; advocating an anti-partitionist policy, he was expelled in 1940 for helping to frame a draft party constitution that proposed a federation between northern and southern Ireland. Joining the Local Security Force (established by the Éire government during the wartime Emergency), he engaged in border and coastal patrols on the Inishowen peninsula. During 1941 he worked on construction of the US naval base in Lough Foyle. Involved in trade-union organisation on the site, he was sacked for participating in a delegation seeking improvements in working conditions. Answering an employment advertisement in the Irish Times, a copy of which he bought out of the proceeds of a whip-around among the Foyle workforce (delivered as he and Bet were sitting down to a Christmas dinner consisting entirely of potatoes), and interviewing for the post in a borrowed suit, he was employed as history teacher at St Patrick's (Church of Ireland) cathedral grammar school, Dublin (1942–9).
Labour politics in Dublin Joining the Irish Labour Party, Ireland was an important figure in the party's dramatic upsurge in Dublin city in the early 1940s, characterised by expansion of membership and of party branches, by increased electoral support (the party won a majority on Dublin Corporation in the August 1942 municipal elections), and by ideological radicalism and practical militancy. Ireland contributed regularly to the Torch, the radically socialist organ of the party's Dublin constituencies council, and became secretary (1942–3) of the recently formed Dublin Central branch, a diverse front of Labour leftists, Larkinites, communist entryists, and others, cooperating together in the heady atmosphere of domestic and international crisis. When Labour's administrative council, alarmed by the sudden torrent of unruly and ungovernable militancy, reorganised the Dublin branches (Central branch being among the casualties), and replaced the Dublin constituencies council with a new Dublin executive, the militants retained the advantage by securing a majority on the new executive and winning all its offices (February 1943). Ireland was elected the executive's secretary (1943–4), under Young Jim Larkin as chairman.
As a protégé of the two Larkins (who only recently and controversially had been readmitted to the Labour party), Ireland became embroiled in the latest round of the bitter decades-old feud between them and William O'Brien (qv), general secretary of the ITGWU. Ireland managed Big Jim Larkin's successful campaign in the June 1943 general election, which saw him elected TD for Dublin North East. The administrative council's failure over ensuing months to expel Young Jim Larkin and John Ireland for their parts in engineering the Dublin executive's selection of Big Jim as an election candidate after his rejection by a selection conference (packed by ITGWU delegates), precipitated a schism: the ITGWU disaffiliated from the Labour party, and five ITGWU-sponsored TDs seceded from the parliamentary Labour party to form a new National Labour Party. When the O'Brienites accused official Labour of having failed to control communist infiltration of its ranks, the party launched an internal inquiry. In April 1944 Ireland was one of four individuals cited as having demonstrated communist sympathies by their attendance at the annual conference of the Communist Party of Northern Ireland in October 1943; the four were subsequently expelled by Labour's annual party conference. The expulsions were a major salvo in the general offensive by party leader William Norton (qv) against the militants. By John Ireland's account, within several days his expulsion was annulled by the party conference on appeal, but head office delayed four years before formally notifying him of the annulment, rendering him effectively expelled for the duration. During this period, he was intermittently editor (with Sean Nolan (qv)) of the leftist publication Review, published by a small Dublin-based communist group. Resuming his Labour party membership in 1948, during the 1940s and 1950s Ireland frequently pressed Young Jim Larkin – whom he called his closest political and personal friend – to challenge for the party leadership as a leftist alternative to Norton.
Teaching career Ireland obtained an H.Dip.Ed. (TCD, 1945), and was awarded a Ph.D. (TCD, 1950) for a thesis on the sea in education. He taught at Church of Ireland grammar schools in Drogheda, Co. Louth (1949–51), and Bandon, Co. Cork (1951–3); at Kingstown grammar school, Dún Laoghaire, Co. Dublin (1953–68); and, after amalgamations, at Avoca and Kingstown school (1968–73) and Newpark comprehensive school, Blackrock, Co. Dublin (1973–87), retiring from the latter as senior master. His subjects were history, geography, and languages. He remarked upon the incongruity of his teaching at protestant schools that combined 'out-dated political loyalties' with 'progressive educational ideas', as being both 'an education in how complicated people can be', and an example of 'what an extraordinary country this is' (Sunday Tribune, 24 March 1985). Though concerns about his political opinions and activities were sometimes raised by parents and commentators, most pupils remembered him as a remarkably humane and inspirational teacher, readily employing unorthodox but imaginative methods, who refrained from imposing his own ideas, but encouraged independent thought, and welcomed any well researched and argued opinion. A member of the Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland (ASTI), from 1949 he served on local VECs in his places of residence, including Dún Laoghaire borough VEC (1953–74).
Maritime interests From early in his career Ireland strenuously advocated the necessity of a more vigorous development of Irish marine resources. In the late 1930s he warned presciently of the difficulties the country would face in time of war in maintaining a steady supply of vital imports when lacking a merchant marine. He was inspired by the model of the newly independent state of Poland, which rapidly developed a thriving maritime economy on its short Baltic coast. Complementing this interest in 'the maritime potential of Ireland', he had an abiding interest in 'maritime history and actualities' (ITWW, 161). He undertook pioneering research in Irish maritime history, and became recognised internationally as a maritime historian of distinction. Identifying the subject as a largely neglected area of Irish historiography, he wrote or edited nearly a dozen books in the field, and published numerous scholarly papers. He researched widely in maritime archives in Ireland, Britain, Europe, north Africa, and the Americas – usually travelling to such far-flung locations on school holidays – and lectured on marine history and affairs in some twenty countries. He estimated that he possessed the largest private library in Ireland on maritime subjects.
His scholarship was a species of revisionist history, addressing a subject ignored by both nationalist and unionist narratives of the Irish past, both of which from different perspectives had emphasised the landed economy and the link with Britain. Ireland's research revealed a history of prosperous polyglot catholic merchants based in bustling ports and fully integrated into the European system of trade, and of Irish officers and able seamen not only in the British naval and merchant services, but also in those of other countries on several continents. Ireland approached the subject not only for its intrinsic scholarly interest, but also as the potential basis for a reinvigoration of the Irish maritime economy, by revealing a seafaring tradition that already existed. The subject was also close to his internationalist political outlook: 'the sea unites, while land divides' was a constant theme.
Ireland's first book, The sea and the Easter rising (1966), was commissioned by the Maritime Institute of Ireland as its contribution to the scholarly research coinciding with the fiftieth anniversary of the event. While his chief subjects are the voyages of the Libau (aka the Aud), the disguised German vessel that carried arms intended for the Irish Volunteers, and of the U-19, the German submarine conveying Roger Casement (qv), Ireland's text also addressed the German naval demonstration against East Anglia of 25 April 1916, and the role of HMS Helga, the British gunboat that shelled rebel positions in Dublin city centre. Ireland argued that a keener grasp of navigation – especially of the difficulties to be surmounted in northern waters in time of war – would have rendered the insurrectionaries less sanguine regarding the precision of arrangements for the time and place of an arms landing. Among Ireland's other books, Ireland's sea fisheries: a history (1981) treats the subject from the middle ages through the 1970s. Wreck and rescue on the east coast of Ireland (1983), based on primary research in the minutes and records of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), deals with the historical development of warning and rescue services, and includes lighthouses, lifeboat stations, and methods of rescue, besides recounting notable incidents.
Ireland's foremost piece of scholarship was Ireland and the Irish in maritime history (1986), a comprehensive survey embracing not only the marine heritage of the island of Ireland, but also the activities of Irish people in the merchant and naval services of other countries. He revisited the same material in Ireland's maritime heritage (1992), a handsomely illustrated, concise monograph. The admiral from Mayo: a life of Almirante William Brown of Foxford, father of the Argentine navy (1995), the first full-length biography in English of the subject, was written at the behest of the Irish-Argentine Society. History of Dún Laoghaire harbour (2001) traces the rapid development of the asylum harbour constructed in the 1820s on the southern shore of Dublin Bay, intended for the sheltering of ships during easterly gales, into the foremost port in Ireland for the carriage of mail and passengers, and once the largest man-made anchorage in the world. Ireland co-edited two collections of scholarly papers: he was English language editor (with Eoghan Ó hAnluain as Irish language editor) of Ireland and the sea (1983), comprising papers presented at the 1982 Merriman Summer School, Lahinch, Co. Clare; and he was co-editor, with David C. Sheehy, of Atlantic visions (1989), comprising papers from the first international conference of the Society of St Brendan (1985).
A member of the Maritime Institute of Ireland from 1943, he was a long-serving council member and honorary research officer. He was the driving force behind the establishment, under the institute's auspices, of the National Maritime Museum of Ireland (1959), housed from 1978 in the former mariners' church, Haigh Terrace, Dún Laoghaire, to which he donated his own vast collection of nautical artefacts and documents (including some 600 scrapbooks of newspaper cuttings). Active from 1953 in the RNLI, he saved Dún Laoghaire lifeboat station from closure by volunteering to operate the service. Becoming the station's honorary secretary (1956–83), he was responsible for taking distress calls, mustering the crew, and launching the boat; after retiring, he continued as the station's chairman (1983–5) and president (1985–2006). The RNLI decorated him with a gold badge (1983; he aroused controversy by refraining from bowing when presented with the award by the duke of Kent), bar to gold badge (1991), and installation as an honorary life governor, the institution's highest honour (1995). He was a founding member of the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland (1954), and of the Military History Society of Ireland (1949), serving for a period as editor of the latter's journal, Irish Sword.
An avid traveller, whenever possible he journeyed by ship, and made repeated visits to countries in which he had a special political or scholarly interest. His first visits to Yugoslavia were occasioned by travelling to visit his mother in Italy on Yugoslav freighters via Dalmatian ports. Attracted by Tito's version of communism, in the 1960s he returned often to research the history of Irish seafarers in the old Austro-Hungarian navy. Regarding the contribution of the Arabs as another neglected aspect of maritime history, he was commissioned to research the maritime history of Algeria (a country he regarded as the Ireland of Africa), and lectured regularly (alongside the noted French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau) at the country's nautical college (1966–79). An enthusiastic Francophile, he stated that he felt terrible if he failed to visit Paris every six months. His travels and scholarship were facilitated by his gift for languages; he made a point of learning the languages of countries that interested him. Fluent in Irish and in all the major languages of western Europe, he also had varying proficiencies in the Scandinavian languages, Polish, Serbo-Croat, Arabic, and Chinese. He once remarked that he learned languages so as to be able to converse with beautiful women in foreign ports.
Later political activism Ireland remained active in the Labour party into the early 1980s, campaigning vigorously in the early 1970s against Ireland entering the EEC. He was a regular contributor to the British leftist periodical Tribune, often reporting and commenting upon Irish affairs. Disillusioned by Labour's record in coalition governments with Fine Gael, and by what he saw as the party's equivocal position regarding the Republic of Ireland's constitutional claim to sovereignty over Northern Ireland, he joined Socialists Against Nationalism (1980), supported the call by the independent TD Jim Kemmy (qv) for a repeal of articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution, and in March 1982 helped Kemmy launch the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP), with an ideology described as 'socialist, secular, and post-national' (Gallagher, 119). (In journalism of the 1940s Ireland had challenged nationalist verities with Marxist analyses of the seventeenth-century Williamite war: he argued the politically and economically progressive character of the Williamite revolution in opposing the feudal monarchical absolutism of Louis XIV's France, defeating the semi-feudal Gaelic and Anglo-Norman landowning classes in Ireland, and hastening the development of merchant capitalism and primitive capitalist industry.) He actively opposed adoption of the eighth amendment to the Irish constitution (which acknowledged and vindicated the right to life of the 'unborn'). For the DSP he unsuccessfully contested the November 1982 general election in Dún Laoghaire, and the 1984 European election in the Dublin constituency (losing his deposit on both occasions). Continuing to promote socialist politics to the left of the Labour party, he opposed the DSP's merger with Labour in May 1990, and supported Democratic Left till its merger with Labour in December 1998, whereupon he joined the Socialist Workers' Party. He held that the socialist tradition recognises the limitations of representative parliamentary democracy: democracy being in its essence rule by the people, socialists seek mechanisms to involve the people as deeply as possible in the processes of decision-making and governance, and accordingly recognise the essential role of such extra-parliamentary vehicles as trade unions, pressure groups, and direct action.
An inveterate campaigner, public speaker, and polemicist, Ireland was active in numerous organisations and campaigns on issues relating to peace, social justice, and civil and human rights. A founding member (1958) and sometime president of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, he was active in Teachers for Peace, the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, Irish Voice on Vietnam, and the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement. He was a member of the Irish Arab Society, the principal body within Ireland in the 1970s–80s supporting establishment of a Palestinian state. Taking a particular interest in China as the country of his father's death, he was a founding member of the Irish–Chinese Cultural Society (1975), and argued that criticism of human rights abuses in China, while valid, should be balanced by acknowledgement of the dramatic achievements in economic development and social equality of the Chinese communist revolution. From the mid 1990s till his last illness he was active in the Irish Anti-War Movement, which opposed the USA-led wars in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and the use of Shannon airport by the US military.
As chairman of Dún Laoghaire Harbour Watch (late 1980s to early 1990s) and a founding member of Save Our Seafront (early 2000s), Ireland campaigned against successive proposals for the private development of Dún Laoghaire harbour and the adjoining seafront, warning against likely restrictions on the long-established public use of seafront amenities. When at a critical juncture in 1988 debate on the issue turned especially acrimonious, Ireland's tactful diplomacy persuaded Taoiseach Charles J. Haughey (1925–2006) to order suspension of the project and consultation with local interests; Haughey remarked that the measured tone and reasoned logic of Ireland's intervention proved that there were 'still gentlemen about' (Irish Times, 12 May 1988). (During the 1980s Ireland commended Fianna Fáil's maritime policy and Haughey's genuine interest in marine issues.)
Honours A member of the marine academies of France and Portugal, Ireland was decorated by the governments of France, Portugal, Spain, Yugoslavia, and Argentina. He received a People of the Year Award (1979) for his advocacy of the development of marine resources and his efforts against marine pollution. Awarded an honorary doctorate of laws by the NUI (1982) for his work on the laws of the sea, he returned the award in protest against the granting of a similar doctorate to US President Ronald Reagan (1984), citing especially the Reagan administration's refusal to abide by the ruling of the International Court of Justice that the US desist from mining the waters of Nicaragua. Ireland was the first Irish recipient of the Caird medal awarded by the British National Maritime Museum (1996).
The man In his written and spoken polemics, Ireland often brought historical perspectives to contemporary debates. Insatiably curious, he had a teacher's hunger for learning and imparting facts. He was a prolific contributor to the letters' pages of newspapers, especially the Irish Times. A passionate, eloquent, and informed public speaker on the manifold spheres of his interest, he could speak extemporaneously at a moment's notice, and deliver detailed, hour-long lectures on maritime matters without reference to notes. In his 90s he continued to travel by public transport to fulfil speaking engagements and attend political demonstrations. A gentle, kind, innately courteous man, he was an attentive and respectful listener as well as an enthusiastic and outspoken talker. Reared in the Church of Ireland, from 1953 he was a member of the unitarian church, St Stephen's Green, Dublin. After living from 1953 at several addresses in Dublin and Dún Laoghaire, he settled in 1960 at 'Caprera' (named after Garibaldi's island, renamed from the previous owner's 'Pacelli', the family name of Pope Pius XII), Grosvenor Terrace, Sorrento Road, Dalkey, Co. Dublin.
Ireland died 4 April 2006 in Clonskeagh hospital, Dublin, after a long illness. His body was donated to the RCSI. A memorial service was held 3 June 2006 in Monkstown parish church (Church of Ireland), Co. Dublin (the Dublin unitarian church being too small to accommodate the mourners). A plaque placed by Irish CND in People's Park, Dún Laoghaire (2002), honours the contributions of John Ireland and his wife Bet as peace activists, and John Ireland is memorialised by a binocular scope erected at Colliemore harbour, Dalkey (2008).