Dr Desmond McCourt (OBE) – Memorial Tribute by E. Estyn Evans
Desmond McCourt (Des, or Dizzy as I always called him) was one of the most interesting of the hundreds of students who passed through the Department of Geography at The Queen’s University of Belfast when I was its head; and I am delighted to contribute this foreword to the Festschrift which he so richly deserves.
He came to me from ‘Inst.’ in 1942 with a reputation as a rugby wing-forward: during his time at Queen’s he was playing regularly up to international standard and was often conspicuous in the lecture-room, thanks to the injuries he bore as a result.
He graduated in 1946 with honours at the top of the first division of the second class. The external examiner was my revered teacher Professor H.J .Fleure, who told me that he found in Desmond’s scripts hints of a rare quality which could not be fully tested in a written examination. They were written in a crisp and lucid style which was uncommon among undergraduates.
On the strength of his dissertation he was awarded a research scholarship and his MA thesis on archaic forms of rural settlement in Ireland, presented in 1947, led to the award of a fellowship and to a
PhD degree in 1950. At the same time I was able to give him some part-time teaching, and he also did relief teaching at Campbell College, Belfast. Old pupils remember him as a most stimulating and humane teacher.
After taking his PhD he was invited to take up a research fellowship at the University of Reading, but chose instead to accept an invitation to go to Magee College, Londonderry, to establish a department of geography. Beginning in 1952 with two students, by 1966 it was the largest department in the College, with 120 students, and he served on many college committees. His promotion to a chair was frustrated by the uncertainty over the location of the New University of Ulster.
In 1957-58 he was given leave of absence to go to Yale University as Visiting Professor under the Rockefeller Foundation, and would have stayed there, but his interests at home were broadening and he felt a commitment to his growing department.
By 1960 the movement for a new university in Ulster was gaining ground and Desmond and the students joined with John Hume in arguing for the up-grading of Magee to university status. This was supported by the citizens of Derry of all classes and creeds and one wonders how much bitterness and discord might have been avoided if they had not been over-ruled. In 1964 he was joint author with Professor Lelievre of Magee’s submission to the Lockwood Committee.
It is ironic that while several of their proposals were adopted, it was decided to locate the new university at Coleraine. The estimates in the Magee submission of the number of students expected in the new university were more modest and much more accurate than those of Lockwood.
Desmond’s lively interest in subjects related to geography led him to join the Folk Life Society, and he served on its council from 1968 to 1971. He was also active in the Ulster Folklife Society and became editor of its Journal. The Society’s strong support for the proposed Ulster Folk Museum helped to persuade the government to pass its Folk Museum Act of 1958, and in 1973 he became one of its trustees. In 1968 he became a member of the government’s Ancient Monuments Advisory Committee and subsequently of the Historic Monuments Council, and he is its present chairman. He has also served on the Countryside Committee and is a member of the Fair Employment
Agency for Northern Ireland.
He was my companion in several visits to various parts of ‘Atlantic Europe’ in search of cultural parallels with, for example, vernacular roof-styles, which became as the appended list of publications will confirm- one of his main interests, and in these field trips he showed all the zest and vigour he had shown on the rugby field, so that it was difficult to keep up with him.
Above all, his warmth and friendliness made him an outstanding companion and colleague.
E. Estyn Evans