A prolific if mercurial historian
One of the patriarchs of modern Irish historical studies, Robert Brendan McDowell was born in south Belfast just before the outbreak of the first world war.
McDowell was schooled at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution at the same time as JC Beckett and TW Moody, and with these two men became instrumental in the modernisation of the study of history in Ireland.
McDowell’s path took him to Trinity College, Dublin, where he was to remain for his entire working career. Hailing from a unionist background, McDowell was plunged into the world of ex-unionists in post partition Ireland who gave their allegiance to the British crown, but remained living and working in the new state.
Trinity was the unofficial headquarters of ex-unionists as they adapted or ignored their new political and cultural circumstances. In this traditional yet unstable environment, McDowell flourished and became a prolific if mercurial historian.
His greatest work, Irish Public Opinion 1750–1800 (1944), was influential in creating a market for Irish history among British publishers.
His abiding interest, however, was the fate of unionism in Ireland, and at the grand age of 84, McDowell published Crisis and Decline (1997), a personal and touching account of the end of the union in southern Ireland.
In this remarkably candid book, McDowell provides a snapshot of Belfast from the vantage point of genteel unionism now almost lost.