Leading Northern Ireland humanist Brian McClinton was ‘a true liberal who loved respectful debate’

Family, friends and ideological opponents have paid tribute to leading humanist Brian McClinton, who has been described as a liberal “in the truest sense of the word” and someone who “loved listening to others and exploring differences through honest and respectful debate”.

By Philip Bradfield
Monday, 13th June 2022, 5:22 pm
Updated Monday, 13th June 2022, 6:26 pm

Mr McClinton died in his Lisburn home on 3 June, aged 77. A family notice said he was “the beloved brother” of Terence and Peter and “dear uncle of Terri Dawn”. 

Brian was Director of the Humanist Society of Northern Ireland and a former Teacher of Economics and History at Friends School Lisburn.

Born in 1945 and growing up off the Shankill Road, he was educated at the Boy’s Model School, Royal Belfast Academical Institution and Trinity College Dublin, before going on to teach history and economics at Friends School Lisburn from 1968-2005.

Humanist Brian McClinton at his Lisburn home in 2014. Photo: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

Brian penned countless articles on humanism and authored at least two books; ‘The Humanist Handbook, Ulster’s third Way – The Humanist Alternative Beyond Orange and Green’ and also The Shakespeare Conspiracies, in which he argued that the bard was not the true author of the works penned in his name.

One person who paid tribute was Northern Ireland Director of the Evangelical Alliance, David Smyth.

“I first met Brian over twenty years ago when I was a pupil in his A-level economics class,” David told the News Letter. “We had as many debates about faith and morality as we did about inflation or any theory of diminishing returns. After I joined the Evangelical Alliance, it was a privilege to pick up where we left off when he invited me to take part in a humanist society debate or to discuss current affairs with him on the radio.

“We disagreed on many things but Brian was a liberal in the best and truest sense of the word, he loved listening to others and exploring differences through honest and respectful debate. He will surely be missed.”

Brian’s brother Terry McClinton recalled with affection how from an early age his brother enjoyed to debate.

“He was one of those people who if you had said a wall was white, he would have replied, ‘no it is like a creamy colour’,” he laughed. “He was very challenging.”

Anyone he spoke to in the humanist society had the same assessment, but at the same time found this quality “an endearment”.

“He was always like that even in childhood. You just didn’t argue with him anymore, you just agreed with him,” he laughed.

Terry said his brother suffered a heart attack in early May and was quickly given stents, but did not make a full recovery and passed away at home after a second heart attack.

“For years he devoted much of his time to humanism, printed and edited the society’s magazine and also arranged conferences for them at Carlingford Lough.”

There were no avowed humanists in his family, who were not church goers, he said.

“Before he went to university I think he was in the process of evaluating everything and just came to this conclusion that there is no God.” He went on to adopt humanism while at Trinity College,

“He was very private. He seemed to be happy living on his own; he was happy with his books and his classical music - which he loved - and his dogs. Throughout his life he had four or five dogs and every time one died it was like a person dying for him. They were great company for him.”

His former pupils are now in all walks of life, he added.

“The woman who issued his death certificate was a former pupil, and her son, and her niece - it goes on and on, he was there so long.”

Brian spent his entire career at Friends and retired in his mid fifties, he said.

“He enjoyed his subjects. He taught history and economics and always believed more Irish history should be taught in Northern Ireland.”

Ciara Lowe, a teacher at Friends and a former pupil of Brian’s, also paid tribute.

“He is fondly remembered as a true educationalist,” she said, “wanting to educate the pupils beyond the exam specification, in skills such as critical thinking, the importance of oracy and being passionate about your beliefs. Brian’s love of education and the school he taught in did not stop when he retired; he continued to enquire about the school and topics we were teaching.”

Fellow humanist and QUB Professor John Barry told the News Letter that Brian “was fearless and could be ascerbic” but was also “very funny and a decent human being”.

He added: “He was a great flag bearer for humanism and questioning religious dogmatism. He was a very accomplished writer - editing the [humanist] journalist for many years and also a regular on Sunday Sequence. I had him at the university speaking at various events over the years.

“I always appreciated his erudition - he was a very learned man, a teacher. He was not a one-trick pony - he was quite interested in Dickens and Shakespeare - he was a renaissance man. I used to call him ‘The old Irish hedge school professor’; He didn’t have the academic qualifications but he had the erudition and he wore it very well. He will be sadly missed.”

Another former pupil, Stephen Henry, said that he too had “the privilege” of being taught by Brian. “He was a fantastic teacher and a great man,” he said online. “I remember him fondly and am sorry to hear this sad news.”

Ewing and Pat Browne put their tribute online also.

“From postgraduate days, through bachelor pad sharing and as colleagues and friends, we knew Brian as someone who was passionate in his beliefs, an empathetic human being and a great friend,” they said. “We will miss the great nights of craic and lengthy phone calls over fifty plus years of his company, often shared with his doggy companions Kim, Mollie and Harsha.”

:: Brian’s funeral is in Ronnie Thompson’s Funeral Church, 20 Ballinderry Road, Lisburn, BT28 1UF on Tuesday 14 June at 3.30pm, followed by committal at Roselawn Crematorium at 4.40pm.