Soldier, dairy farmer, shorthorn cattle breeder, diplomat, historian and churchman, Col Sidney John Watson died recently after a short illness.
A native of Clonmel, Co Tipperary, Sidney was educated in Sunningdale, Eton and Oxford. His career at these establishments was both varied and distinguished. Cricket was his passion at Sunningdale. Boxing absorbed him at Eton; on vacation he took part in boxing contests in Clonmel and until recently kept in touch with many of his old opponents.
Academically he inclined towards the classics at Eton and as a young student he translated The Pilgrim's Progress into Greek. Later at Oxford he read history and the nine books he subsequently wrote bear ample testimony to the skill, scholarship, and meticulous study he brought to this craft. His first book - on Irish railways - was published when he was 18. He became well known to drivers and firemen and on one occasion he was allowed to singlehandedly stoke the engine all the way from Cork to Dublin!
On leaving Oxford he joined the Royal Engineers as a private and was posted to the Middle East. There he was able to put his knowledge of railways to the advantage of both civil and military authorities and he performed a central role in the design and construction of many miles of track. Promotion was rapid and he was mentioned in dispatches during the Allied advance through Italy. He used his classical education to locate an ancient ford which enabled the army to move forward without delay. Even in the heat of battle he showed himself a conservationist by saving the Ponte Vecchio in Florence from destruction, persuading his superiors that its cultural value far outweighed its military importance. Later, in Korea, he was severely wounded when his jeep went over a land mine. This, together with captivity in Korea ,left him with permanent disabilities.
Following Korea, his career took him firstly to Army Staff College in the United States and then to the British Foreign Office. In the latter he performed many top-level assignments, his final posting being that of Military Attache to Teheran. One of his last jobs was to supervise the relief work following a major earthquake. For his services as Military Attache he was awarded the MBE.
Forced by his disabilities to retire, he returned to his beloved Ballingarrane and applied his meticulous mind to farming. He took over the existing herd of pedigree milking shorthorns and, by attention to breeding, feeding and general management, the cows averaged more than 1,000 gallons of milk at a time when the national average yield was less than 500 gallons. Side by side with high productivity and profitability, Ballingarrane cattle took supreme honours at all major shows.
Col Watson took a deep interest in the pedigree side of cattle production. He contributed significantly at breed society level and he became in turn chairman of the Irish Shorthorn Breeders Association, president of the Shorthorn Society of the United Kingdom and president of the World Council of Shorthorn Societies. In all of these capacities he made a lasting contribution but undoubtedly his greatest achievements were towards the firm foundations on which the UK and Ireland Shorthorn Society rests today.
Sidney immersed himself in the life of the local community. He became active in Clonmel Show, An Taisce, Rotary (of which he was an honorary member) and inevitably the Historical Society. He also found time to write eight other books. Between the Flags is a history of Irish steeplechasing while Three Full Days is a record of Irish eventing up to the early 1980s. He had a curious attitude to horses which even he could not explain. Though writing authoritatively on the subject, he never attended a race meeting. But he took justifiable, though quiet pride in the triumphs of his son John who represented Ireland at the Olympics and was runner-up for the World Three Day Eventing Championship at Kentucky in 1978, riding his great horse Cambridge Blue.
Other works included co-authorship of a biography of Charles Bianconi, the pioneer of regular coach transport, and of a historical guide to Clonmel. His monumental work on the Wills family (of tobacco fame) earned him the LLD degree from the university of their home town, Bristol. Possibly his most admired work was A Dinner of Herbs - the history of Old St Mary's, his church in Clonmel. It is in fact much more, being a scholarly contribution to the history of Christianity in Ireland. A confirmed ecumenist long before it became popular, Sidney and his wife Diana invited Catholic friends and neighbours to the Harvest Thanksgiving Service in St Mary's. The invitation at first received a cautious welcome. Now, however, visitors far outnumber parishioners. Besides St Mary's, Sidney rendered sterling service to the Church of Ireland and at one time or another filled every office open to a lay person.
For almost 50 years, Diana was at Sidney's side as wife, companion and collaborator in his rounded life and in the many good works he performed. Thankfully his contribution continues through Diana, his daughter Sandra and his son John. One of the activities which gave Sidney particular satisfaction was the dedicated work of his daughter-in-law Julia in organising riding for the disabled.
The sympathy of packed congregations in St Mary's was extended to Diana, Sandra, John and their extended families. The readings and hymns had been chosen by Sidney himself and, as might be expected, reflected the deeply held convictions and ecumenism of the man. Prominent was the great prayer of St Ignatius Loyola "to give and not to count the cost". Bishop Noel Willoughby, who gave the address, ended with a quotation from one of Sidney's last letter to him: "What matters are the two great universals of the Gospels - the love of God and the love of neighbour." As his Lordship concluded "by these he lived". A.M.