Medieval history expert and dedicated socialist


ALF O'BRIEN:ALF O’BRIEN, who has died aged 72, was a lecturer in the department of medieval history in University College Cork, a dedicated socialist and a leading authority on the life and times of medieval Ireland.

He had a particular interest in the growth of commercial relations between Ireland and the rest of Europe between the 11th and mid-16th centuries, a period when the “merchant prince” families of busy ports like Cork, Galway, Waterford, Dublin and other maritime cities burgeoned as trade flourished with European countries like Britain, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain and Portugal.

For many years, he had been working towards publication of a major book charting medieval Ireland’s strong commercial links with Europe between the years 1000 and 1540.

In time, Irish ports became staging depots for the onward transit of wine, grain, cloth, cattle, horses, timber, wool, fish, hides and salt to Britain and other countries.

Regrettably, O’Brien’s lifelong project was often disrupted by poor health and it did not come to fruition.

Born in Dublin, he was educated by the Christian Brothers and attended University College Dublin.

He joined the Department of Foreign Affairs, but left after two years and went to England to pursue further studies before taking up a post in UCC as a lecturer.

While meticulous and professional in his work, like many an academic he left more mundane matters to be attended to by his loving wife, Frances.

Blessed with a bubbling sense of humour, his idiosyncratic style of lecturing appealed to students and many of them kept in touch with him long after university.

O’Brien was most at home when delving through dusty parchments or documenting the development of trade on Ireland’s busy shipping routes.

Following the course of a vast fleet of sailing ships, whose captains and manifests he knew intimately, he travelled widely in Europe, including a spell in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

With the help of a grant from the East German regime, he studied the growth of trade between Ireland and Germany in medieval times, spending six months there.

He also lectured on the subject of medieval trade for two months in Florida in 1999.

O’Brien’s research underlines that Ireland was a very significant importer of wine, with shiploads coming from Gasgony through Bordeaux and from the Iberian peninsula, destined either for transhipment or to grace the cellars of both Gaelic Ireland and the English colony.

A lover of classical music, he was a regular visitor to the annual festival of chamber music at Bantry House.

However, politics was his first interest and he was a committed socialist and a long-term member of the Labour Party, serving as secretary of the party in Ballincollig, a dormitory town on Cork’s western fringes.

Just before he died, he contributed his papers and research documents, all neatly written in longhand, to Cork City Library.

He is survived by his wife Frances, brother Charles, sister Brenda and cousin Eamonn Keating.

Alf O’Brien: born February 9th, 1938; died August 7th, 2010