DB McNeill (1911 - 2010):
DB McNeill was an academic, a businessman, a writer and local historian; in the latter capacity he built up over his long life an impressive collection of materials of all kinds relating to the history of transport in Ulster.
Donald Burgess McNeill, who was known far and wide as “DB”, was born in Belfast and educated at Portora Royal School, Enniskillen, County Fermanagh. He was a boarder there, and had a dormitory prefect called Samuel Beckett, who apparently administered corporal punishment, on at least one occasion to DB himself. From 1931-1938 he was at Queen’s University, Belfast, where he read physics to PhD level and was both a member of the Officer Training Corps as well as a keen member of the University Rowing Club, whereupon he was appointed lecturer in physics at the University of Southampton. With the Second World War about to break out, on 25 August 1939 he was called up to the Royal Corps of Signals, having postings to Northern Ireland, North Africa and Italy, attaining the rank of major. He remained in the Territorial Army until 1954.
After the war, though, he returned to Southampton where he spent the remainder of his career, as senior lecturer, as well as assistant dean and secretary of the science faculty. He published several physics textbooks with HG Jerrard: their Dictionary of Scientific Units ran to six editions (1962-92) and was translated into several languages.
He retired in 1971 and returned to Ulster where the family engineering and construction firm was still in operation, run by his brother Sean; on the latter’s death in 1974 DB succeeded him as chairman (he had for years been a non-executive director).
DB McNeill had always been very and especially interested in trains and railways, recalling as a five-year-old being taken to local train stations. Already in December 1930 he published an article in Railway Magazine; he also travelled on trains whenever he could, over many years and in many countries. His transport interests, research and publication focussed on Ireland, especially Ulster. DB (he was also known as “Mac”) read and research prolifically and published frequently; as merely sample titles were: Ulster Tramways and Light Railways; Irish passenger steamship services (volume 1, north of Ireland); Coastal passenger steamers and inland navigations in the north of Ireland (this had a companion volume on the south of Ireland by the same author); and Early Bus Services in Ulster which he co-authored with Mark Kennedy.
In the 1970s DB McNeill became a Trustee of the Ulster Museum and was latterly Chairman of Trustees (1978-1983), which earned him the honour of having his portrait painted. The artist, Rita Duffy, depicted him alongside steam locomotive No.93 of the Great Northern Railway. The picture is now in the Art collection of the Ulster Museum. DB donated his enormous collection of materials to the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum at Cultra, County Down, who combined them with Frank Green’s similar donation to form their McNeill-Green Collection.
Obituary, Frances Green, The Guardian 10.11.2010; websites of the National Museums of Northern Ireland (www.nmni.com) and Queen’s University, Belfast (www.qub.ac.uk)
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