Memories of McDowell: a Trinity legend departs

A fixture on campus for decades, RB McDowell helped shape the college experience of generations of students. Anne Leonard looks back at the career of the Junior Dean to end them all.

 A fixture on campus for decades, RB McDowell helped shape the college experience of generations of students. Anne Leonard looks back at the career of the Junior Dean to end them all.

For the first time in decades, the iconic figure of Dr RB McDowell is missing from Front Square. Seventy-five years after first entering Trinity, he has left his rooms in the Rubrics and retired to Celbridge where he is continuing to see friends and give interviews, and has started work yet another book.

A verbal lashing from the JD was something you wouldn’t inflict on your worst enemy.

Earlier this year, he published his autobiography, McDowell on McDowell, hard on the heels of not one, but two, books of stories all about him: The Junior Dean:  Encounters with a Legend (2003) and The Magnificent McDowell: Trinity in the Golden Era (2006). Written by graduates, colleagues and fans from all over the world, these books, are, as far as anybody knows, unique, for no other don in academia anywhere has ever received such an accolade. Another ‘first’ for Trinity!

Dr McDowell’s distinguished academic career, his many publications, his multitudinous achievements are all well documented. You can look him up on Wikipedia and you can see him on YouTube. But to have any inkling as to what inspired 300 people or more to reach for pen and paper and write down their memories of him – not to mention the thousands of others who reached for their wallets and actually bought the books – then you need to delve deeper for this man is in a class of his own.

Trinity News recognised his uniqueness back in 1958: “But Dr McDowell the man, the character, that superb artistic creation, where may his equal be found? Not in Oxford or Cambridge, certainly; only, perhaps, in the pages of Lewis Carroll, could he find a worthy peer.”

And, as far as undergraduates were concerned, he was the only man who mattered in Ireland because he was the Junior Dean and thus in sole charge of life in college. I soon found out that this extravagant premise was true. Not only was he in sole charge of accommodation and discipline, he was everywhere. No party was complete without his presence – and none could take place without his sanction. He famously coxed a four for the Boat Club, and won the race. He appeared regularly on television and starred in the programmes. And he spent his weekends socialising in the greatest houses of the land.

RB McDowell was the most successful, and most unforgettable, holder of the office of Junior Dean in the entire history of Trinity. Much of his job entailed controlling people’s sex lives, i.e. keeping them, if they existed in those days, outside the precincts. A hopeless enterprise. Students today would be amazed by the efforts involved: porters entering rooms at 7am to look under the beds, for example. One feature of these efforts involved the ceremony known as Night Roll when, at 10pm, winter or summer, the Junior Dean, preceded by a porter of the night watch bearing a lighted lantern, conducted roll call in the Dining Hall. Its purpose was to check that everyone who should be ‘in’ was in and not out.  (Most people exited over a wall shortly afterwards.)

To be fair, none of this reflected Dr McDowell’s views. He was merely following the rules of the day, observing the strictures laid down by the Board some hundred years previously when, to quote Trinity News again, “like the monastic settlement on Mount Athos, the male citadel of Trinity was kept pure from six o’clock in the evening, when the last woman was ushered through Front Gate.”  

“…where may his equal be found? Not in Oxford or Cambridge, certainly; only, perhaps, in the pages of Lewis Carroll”

In 1962, when I learned that “RB” was “the greatest talker in Ireland”, Trinity News put a spin on it: “It is rumored that he exists on dinners, that is dinners to which he is invited as a speaker, and I have no reason to doubt this rumour. For he is a brilliant after-dinner orator, and is constantly in demand in Dublin for post-prandial entertainment. Sometimes his train of thought is difficult to follow; that’s an understatement, it’s often impossible.  Nevertheless, once accustomed to his various idiosyncrasies of speech one is entranced by the fluent wit and wealth of knowledge. His presence is demanded by smart society hostesses, and although his dress is not always to match he occasion, his verbosity is.”

Forty years on, Dr McDowell is still dazzling audiences. In 2003 he spoke at a dinner in London – a sell-out, with many on a waiting list. The vote of thanks was proposed by Terence Brady, who reported: “Finally he was introduced and he was up on his feet. He was up on his feet, not like any other 90-year-old, but like a greyhound slipped from the traps… the sound was wonderfully lucid, poetic, even, and it floated over the packed dining room the way a flute played exquisitely can be heard for miles even when played pianissimo. He spoke ex tempore and he spoke with such brilliance, wit and understanding that it was, well… simply breathtaking. It was a performance – and, believe you me, performance is absolutely the right word – of such a staggering intellectual and humorous virtuosity, that he more than fully deserved (if that’s possible) the standing ovation that he received, just as he deserved the spontaneous rendition of ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’ that followed instantly.”

After 13 years in office, when it was time to appoint successors, it was realised that no single person could ever undertake all those tasks again. Professor Brendan Kennelly, one of the new appointees, expressed his fear that he couldn’t remember all the rules and regulations. But he was reassured. “After all, Kennelly,” said McDowell, “you’ve broken more or less all of them yourself!”

Another successor, Professor John Gaskin, remembers getting a sharp foretaste of what the job entailed: “I was appointed as one of the first ‘assistants’ to the JD in the last months of his office. It must have been at the end of his last Trinity term as JD. I was reading in my rooms at the top of House 24 in the Rubrics, dimly and reluctantly aware of party noise that was becoming excessive from somewhere within number 38. My sitting room overlooked New Square. I could see McDowell heading for the trouble. The matter was in safer hands than mine. He disappeared from view. A brief pause ensued, then a prolonged crashing, breaking roar of noise; then silence. I ran down the many steps and across to number 38. At the foot of the stone stairwell – still emitting pings, twangs and groans, like a newly commissioned concerto for percussion and random silences – lay the crushed and disintegrating remains of a full-size piano. In such circumstances one immediately looks for the edge of a grey scarf, a scattered trilby hat, a fragment of elderly gown, crumpled lecture notes, or an old shoe protruding from the circumference of the calamity. Then I looked up, in time to see McDowell slowly, bravely, but with awesome determination, climbing the stairs to interview someone at the top.”

Only recently, a famous tycoon, employing several thousand people in the North of Ireland, told how he, and a now-very-distinguished academic, spent the rest of the night hiding on the scaffolding in the freezing cold to avoid getting caught and having to face McDowell. A verbal lashing from the JD was something you wouldn’t inflict on your worst enemy. I had coffee with him in the Arts Building not long ago. The coffee bar was packed and I thought how strange it was for him to be there, incognito – he who had been the centrepiece of college life for so many decades. But suddenly, all changed for he dropped his purse, scattering coins all over the floor. In a flash, every student had jumped up and was rushing around to pick up the coins and – this was the extraordinary thing – then they queued up to hand the coins back to him, personally. It was their way of getting introduced. So they did know who he was! Not so incognito, I realised, after all!

Now that he is no longer resident in Trinity, returning alumni will be disappointed not to see the familiar figure proceeding across the cobbles. “It’s a comfort to see him – time has stood still,’ said one. The writer JX Brennan returned to Trinity after a gap of 30 years. Here he recalls their reunion: “I was privileged to dine with Brendan McDowell at the Quo Vadis and I was delighted to see that he had not changed in essentials. He had aged, of course, but nowhere near as much as we had. His conversation was as lively and as captivating as ever. It was the highlight of my week in Dublin, after several decades’ absence. Now that he is entering his 95th year, I am convinced that he is a permanent landmark, certainly so in all our affections.”

The Lewis Carroll figure identified by Trinity News all those years ago has stamped an everlasting hold on the memories – and the emotions – of Trinity people past and present. I feel confident that there will be no shortage of people making the trek out to Celbridge.

Anne Leonard’s books of anecdotes about RB McDowell, The Junior Dean: Encounters with a Legend and The Magnificent McDowell: Trinity in the Golden Era are available in the Library Shop and at Dr McDowell’s memoir, McDowell on McDowell, published this year, is also available in the Library Shop.