Conservationist with a passion for Dublin
Prof Kevin B Nowlan at home ahead of his 90th birthday, when he said: "As long as you're in good health and keep your mind active, you can't ask for much more"
Kevin B Nowlan, who has died after a short illness aged 91, led a life full of “fights and fun”, in the words of architectural historian John Cornforth. A veteran conservationist, he took part in the many battles to save the cultural inheritance of Dublin and remained an indefatigable champion of the city throughout his life.
Even as a 15-year-old schoolboy at Belvedere College, he was a member of the Old Dublin Society – only to be expelled for his controversial views on Dublin’s antiquity. He went on to become professor of history at UCD, joining a colourful group of colleagues, of which Robin Dudley Edwards was the most eccentric.
As Dr Edward McParland, a close friend of nearly 50 years, noted at his funeral Mass in Rathmines church on Wednesday, Kevin B – as everyone called him – first did law at UCD, qualifying as a barrister in 1945, before going to Peterhouse College in Cambridge (where he got his PhD in history) and the University of Marburg.
“He was the most loved person that I know . . . the UCD man with the Peterhouse tie, the daily reader of the Algemeine Zeitung, the Hercules of the architectural conservation movement, the proud ‘Royal Academician Nowlan’.” After joining the history department in UCD, he became a member and later vice-president of the Royal Irish Academy.
Kevin addressing thousands
His brilliance as a raconteur and love of the company of women made him “a great favourite with Dublin hostesses”, as Maureen Cairnduff wrote in her Who’s Who in Ireland (1984). He once joined Desmond Williams and RB McDowell in making a programme for a TV series The Professors, involving a critique of bog oak shilleaghs.
“We loved him, too, because of the passion which he brought to his campaigns – Kevin on the back of a lorry protesting at the destruction of Hume Street; Kevin addressing thousands of Wood Quay protesters,” Edward McParland recalled in his tribute. He was a great orator and never once resorted to notes; he knew his stuff.
A true devotee of Dublin, he became increasingly concerned about the fate of its Georgian heritage as it came under threat in the 1960s and was the first chairman of the Dublin Civic Group – bringing to it “his own lawyer’s discretion . . . directing the enthusiasm of others into effective channels”, he said.
Nowlan was also involved in the Irish Georgian Society, serving as its vice-president for many years. Later, he became chairman of the Castletown Foundation, set up to secure the future of Ireland’s largest Palladian mansion, and a director of the Alfred Beit Foundation, which looks after Russborough House.
His other interests included the Irish Historic Properties Committee, An Taisce (of which he was president), the Dublin Civic Trust (ditto), the Irish Society for Archives, the School of Irish Studies, the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society, the St Stephen’s Green Club and the Upper Leeson Street Residents Association.
What he brought to them all, as Edward McParland said, was “the caution of the lawyer, the learning of the historian, the wiles of the politician, the wit of the practical joker and the passion of the conservationist . . . and above all his love of the city of Dublin.”
He was made an honorary member of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland for his enormous contribution to architectural conservation and was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1980, six years before he retired from UCD, living alone in a house on Dartmouth Square.
His encyclopaedic knowledge of European history enriched tours with friends.
‘At 90, made you feel young’
“In Rome, in front of the Raphaels, he was happiest consulting his German-language guide book. In Dublin, Cork, Cambridge, Marburg, Montreal, Sicily, Latvia, Estonia, the man’s energy, perception, humour and personal knowledge were fathomless.”
He would often “stay up half the night before sending people home with his piercing, hilarious, brilliant, naughty rendering of the Rocks of Bawn,” as McParland said. “Paddy Shaffrey captured exactly the effect of Kevin’s energy when he said that Kevin, at 90, made you feel young.” Everyone expected him to live forever.
Kevin B Nowlan kept a detailed diary, which will make fascinating reading. In an interview with The Irish Times to mark his 90th birthday in November 2011, he said: “As long as you’re in good health and keep your mind active, you can’t ask for much more.”
His wish was that more young people would get involved in conservation, “saving what’s important about the past for the future”.