Professor Dr Johnny De Meulemeester, Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, as you know died earlier this year. He was one of the original ’Fathers‘ of the organization in its earliest days, then as our first Secretary and finally our President. To all of us who knew him, he was very much a larger than life figure, who energised all those around him, so it is difficult really to properly encompass his life just by the spoken word as I am attempting to do today.
The reason I wish to speak, is on behalf of all my Irish colleagues who have worked and learnt so much from this incredible man, especially as Dr Niall Brady, the Irish Representative on the ’Ruralia‘ Committee, Dr Kieran O‘Conor of National University of Ireland, Galway, or myself, were able to attend his funeral.
My first connection with Johnny came about with the first Ruralia Conference all those years ago now, in Prague in 1995, and the Committee meetings that preceded it. I had first met him at the Chateau Gaillard conference in Luxembourg in 1992, at which he was also an active participant. It was natural for Johnny to become the Secretary of Ruralia because of his incredible linguistic skills, a real asset to the new organization. At Prague, Johnny and Jean-Michel Poisson, who is also with us here today, asked whether I would like to get involved in the now famous excavation of an impressive motte and bailey castle at Albon in the Rhone Valley south of Vienne? This led to many years of fruitful collaboration between us, and many many generations of students from my University, Trinity College Dublin often getting their first experience of digging in Continental Europe. The first student was Dr Roland Budd, who is now a very successful barrister in Dublin, and many more Trinity students have followed him since. At Albon I first met Johnny‘s daughter, Ann and her husband-to-be. There were also many memorable field trips to other sites and regions around Albon on Sundays, the only day free from excavating.
It was also at Albon that I encountered another of Johnny‘s other loves and skills: he was an incredibly talented cook. He and Jean-Michel would buy the food for the sizeable archaeological crew of French, Belgian, Irish, Polish and Spanish students, and then Johnny would supervise the cooking of the evening meal. I remember one year he had to do three separate menus as there were also vegetarians and even two Vegans (both from Trinity) among the students. It had been especially tough for Johnny growing up in immediate post-war Belgium, as my wife was to find out one year at Albon when he ate raw liver! This had been the only kind of meat his family could secure in those difficult years. So, as a result, he had developed a liking for it: a challenge to someone who did not like cooking offal of any kind!
The other long-term excavation that proved to be an amazing training school for my students was the medieval Cistercian nunnery at Clairefontaine in southern Belgium, which continued right up till 2007, despite Johnny‘s illness. It is hard to convey in words the beauty of this site, and again my students benefited greatly from this experience. Indeed in one year, there were more Irish students, than Belgians on the site, including several from Galway sent by my good friend and colleague Dr Kieran O‘Conor. I was also lucky enough also to be involved in several ’digs‘ on the Iberian Peninsula with Johnny: the first was with Dr Magdalena Valor of the University of Seville, at a fascinating site of Cote several kilometers to the south of the city. This was a multi-period upland settlement site, from where one had breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside. In order to maximize the time we could excavate in the searing temperatures of the region, we had to start ascending the hill with a mule train carrying our equipment just as the sun was rising early in the relative cool of the morning. Smaller numbers of TCD students were involved here, principally because of the cost of getting to these sites, but the ones that made it there were fascinated not only by the richness of the archaeology of Southern Spain, but also by the culture of Andalusia.
My students were also able to take part in an excavation on a massive Late Roman and medieval site at Ammaia in Eastern Portugal, right up against the Spanish border. And finally, again due to Johnny, they were able to return to Spain in 2005 to Blanca Castle in the Ricote Valley here in Murcia, directed by Jorge A. Eiroa Rodríguez, the organizer of our very successful conference.
Some of these students have gone into a career in archaeology, such as Helen Butler who supervised at Clairefontaine after Roland. All of them remember their time on those excavations with much fondness and excitement. I think that as their careers progress they will realize more and more what a special time in their careers this was.
Johnny also became actively involved in Ireland, initially helping Kieran with his excavation of a nucleated settlement beside the impressive earthwork castle of Granard motte in Co. Longford, and then at the multi-period Gaelic-Irish fortification at Tulsk in County Roscommon, directed by Dr Niall Brady who is with us today. He knew so much about earth and timber castles as he had studied, visited and excavated many of them in his beloved Belgium. Again, I count myself so lucky to have been taken round some of these important sites with Johnny when I visited Clairefontaine one year.
He published in collaboration with Kieran O‘Conor an important study on Irish mottes in a Festschrift for David Sweetman, the ex-Chief Archaeologist of Ireland, another friend of Johnny‘s. He also published a paper with me on international cooperation in medieval archaeology at Albon for the European Society for the Teachers of Medieval Archaeology in Sevilla. Finally, he and Kieran published a groundbreaking study of fortifications in Europe in the first volume of the Archaeology of Medieval Europe. I was also glad to be of help with Alan Aberg in securing for Johnny a FSA in London in 2001, an international recognition of his archaeological stature.
My students always saw Johnny as the embodiment of ’Indiana Jones‘, especially when he wore his leather hat, but he took his archaeology and his academic teaching of the subject in the University of Gent very seriously, and they respected him for that. The first thing that people said about Johnny was the ’generosity‘ with which he gave his advice, time and support. This was the word that kept on coming up when I asked colleagues about him after his untimely death. For instance, Kieran O‘Conor remembers Johnny gently ticking him off at Granard when he had to take a day off from the site to do other tasks. The next day, Johnny said ’you have to be always at the service of your students‘. And he practiced what he preached, being an archaeologist 24/7, as we now say in English. He also seemed to be always on the move, travelling south to his beloved Jordan as the winter came to us in Northern Europe.
How will I remember him? Well, the archaeology of course and his tremendous energy. But, in the end, I think it has to be here in Southern Spain, where three vignettes hopefully sum up the man. The first is Johnny as the founder member of the informal club known as the ’October Boys‘. This ’exclusive‘ organization comprised Johnny, Professor Jan Klapste, our Editor, and myself who were all born in that same month. The three of us spent an incredible day examining many unknown castle sites in Andalusia at the end of September a few years ago. The second was eating delicious seafood that same evening in Sevilla, with Johnny showing us all the varieties of delicious crustaceans we could eat. Then, finally, with him in that magical 17th century naval port of Cadiz looking across the azure sea to Cape Trafalgar in the distance in the heat haze of a beautiful early October day.
Johnny, you may have gone from us, but your memory will always remain both in our hearts, and in the hearts of countless students whose archaeological careers you shaped. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts, true friend of Ireland.
Trinity College Dublin