Sheila Morrison of Howth, who has died aged 92, had a natural talent for sailing. But in her many years, she demonstrated that her greatest gift was as a supportive and loving wife, mother, grandmother, great grandmother and friend who brought out the best in a remarkable extended family for whom boats and sailing – both on the sea and on the inland waterways - were a natural part of their way of life.
She was a Maguire, a daughter of Cecil Maguire who was originally from the inland waterways town of Enniskillen, but in the golden years just before World War I had found the best outlet for his engineering and mechanical talents in Dublin, where he was a pioneer in the rapidly-expanding motor trade.
This meant that his primary interest afloat was in developing motor-boats. But as the family home from the 1930s was beside the north shore of Dublin Bay where Kibarrack is veering into Sutton, his four children - Neville, Sheila, David and Romaine - were able to learn their sometimes self-taught sailing in dinghies in the sheltered inner waters of Sutton Creek inside Bull Island with the nascent Kilbarrack SC.
However, as Cecil’s own sailing base was Howth, where he’d the 26ft 1894-built gaff cutter Marie and then after 1945 the comfortable 40ft Thorneycroft motor-cruiser Cirrus (which he bought at Lucan on the Royal Canal), he was keen that Howth Motor Yacht Club should share in this encouragement of young dinghy sailors, and seventy-seven years ago Sheila became the first of his children to join the club.
She was able to do so because she was at school in Dublin while her older brother Neville was away at school in Cork. He joined a few weeks later when he came home for the summer holidays, but it remained a matter of quietly amused satisfaction to Sheila for the rest of her life that she was senior to her renowned older brother Neville – subsequently a multiple champion - in terms of Howth sailing membership.
She was further drawn into the Howth scene with marriage in 1950 to Jim Higginbotham, whose wider family were involved with both HMYC and Howth Sailing Club, and they soon had two daughters – Gaye and Judy – while their sailing developed with Jim going into partnership in the Howth 17 Mimosa with a Dublin-based airline pilot from Cork, Paddy Kirwan, who later was to be President of the Irish Yachting Association.
Meanwhile, in Howth the major dredging of the harbour in the mid-1960s provided an opportunity to amalgamate the two clubs, an epic story in which Jim and Sheila found themselves playing a key role, as Jim became the Commodore of Howth SC (only the third one since its foundation in 1895) only on condition that HSC and HMYC continued with active negotiations to become one as Howth Yacht Club.
This was duly achieved in 1967-68. It may all seem a straightforward amalgamation in retrospect, but conservative feelings ran deep in the old guard in HSC, a notably purist organization, and Sheila’s kindness and charm as the Commodore’s wife - combined with her own family links to HMYC where both her daughters were in the Junior Training Programme – quietly played a key role in achieving a successful outcome.
Family life afloat and ashore continued with the notably fit Sheila keeping trim as a regular swimmer and badminton player in addition to sailing, and in time she and Jim had two sons-in-law with the inevitable connection to boats developing, airline captain Derek Bothwell who married Gaye and lived in Howth, and architect Stuart Hamilton, married to Judy, whose main interest was in the inland waterways – he was one of those who developed the private marina at Gortmore on Lough Derg.
In 1975 Jim and son-in-law Derek went into partnership with the Folkboat Mistral, and contributed greatly to the growth of this then-very-active class in Howth, which at its peak was pushing towards two dozen actively raced and cruised boats. But it was a sadly short-lived arrangement, as Jim Higginbotham died in 1979. It was a personal tragedy which left the extended family bereft, yet in time was to show Sheila’s remarkable powers of resilience while reinforcing her lively and mutually entertaining interest in her growing extended family.
The vitality of the family was such that by the time of her death, Sheila had seven grandchildren and fourteen great-grandchildren, with all of whom she maintained a busy and informative relationship. She kept herself well up to speed with the latest communication technology not because she felt it was the right thing to do, but because she was a Maguire and the interested and intelligent use of technology was in her DNA.
She cherished personal independence and continued driving herself to the end, while in her eighties, during a visit to family in Australia, she did an extensive self-drive tour of South Australia with a hired camper-van.
Meanwhile, her sailing had moved into another area with a second marriage in 1985 to the widowed Ian Morrison of Howth, a former offshore racing and cruising veteran with whom Jim Higginbotham had sailed, and whose sea-going interests were now taken up with the Mediterranean-based Halberg Rassy 42 ketch Safari of Howth aboard which they cruised extensively before Ian’s death in 2004.
That was a cruel year for Sheila as her younger sister Romaine Cagney – like all the Maguires a hyper-keen sailor and parent of sailors - also died, but in due course the Sheila Morrison resilience reasserted itself, and life went on afloat and ashore.
By this stage she was a lead figure in a very large family sailing scene, with son Derek Bothwell serving as Howth YC Commodore from 2002-2004, a role also filled by her nephew Roger Cagney, while another nephew was, of course, international sailing superstar Gordon Maguire, Neville’s son.
Yet for Sheila Morrison, all relatives were of equal interest, while her own direct and now-large family were her sustaining passion in an extraordinary global mutual-support system of constant communication and encouraging and loving interest.
Her funeral in Howth was an inspiring mixture of sadness and celebration, a true expression of the place and the people who are in it and sail from it. As for Sheila Morrison, she may have been 92, but it would entirely miss the point to describe her as being 92 years old. Sheila Morrison was never old.