One hundred years ago, in 1922, the records of the Irish state going back to the twelfth century were destroyed as a result of the occupation of the Four Courts by anti-Treaty insurgents. The loss of the records still reverberates today as the information they contained would provide scholars with the opportunity to reveal a more complete history of the state and the role it played in people’s lives over six centuries.
However, since 1922, a handful of individuals at different times and in various, uncoordinated ways attempted to fill this enormous loss by locating and making accessible various types of records, many in private hands. Like the Monuments Men, who attempted to preserve Europe’s art and cultural heritage in the closing months of the Second World War, these few individuals, many of them archivists and historians, heroically sought to rebuild Ireland’s destroyed archive. One of these heroes is Dr Anthony Peter William Malcomson.
Born in 1945, Anthony Malcomson was educated at Campbell College, Belfast, and Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He was awarded a PhD in history by Queen’s University, Belfast, for a study on the last speaker of the Irish House of Commons, John Foster, which was subsequently published by Oxford University Press in 1978. At the time, one commentator remarked that it was “potentially one of the most important books on eighteenth-century Ireland to appear in the past fifty years”. That view still holds today, and it remains a classic text for the period. The book was subsequently revised and republished in 2011.
In 1967, Anthony joined the staff of the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland and soon rose to become Assistant Keeper of Records. He entered at a time when the Record Office was beginning the vast task of recovering and locating archival material across Ireland and Britain as a substitute for what had been lost in 1922, and soon Anthony would lead that effort. He travelled around Ireland, moving from one Big House to another, staying in often draughty and damp conditions, locating family papers, some rodent-eaten and slowly decaying but all considered important and worth preserving. This was exceptional for a public servant.
Few – if indeed anybody – were doing this work in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Although employed by the United Kingdom, Anthony Malcomson travelled extensively across the Republic, gathering friends and collaborators wherever he went. He very quickly established a reputation as one of the best archivists in the country, and he was later commissioned by both the National Library of Ireland and the Irish Manuscripts Commission to catalogue and calendar archival collections. His travels around Ireland rescuing vulnerable collections happened at a time when Ireland’s underfunded national archival institutions were unable or unwilling to take on the task. Today, scholars and students of all periods and themes are in his debt for the materials he found and made accessible.
In 1988, Anthony was appointed director of the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland and served in that post for a decade until his retirement in 1998. During his directorship, he continued his work of accumulating thousands of documents and communicating with archives in Britain and the United States of America to obtain copies of original materials, which were then made accessible through microfilm or in hardcopy to anybody visiting the Record Office. As director, he nurtured close relations with archives and libraries in the Republic, particularly the National Library of Ireland, where catalogues and materials were shared.
Significantly, he was a bridge-builder between north and south at a time when relations were poor. As a result of his efforts, so many historians, archivists and others went to Belfast to research at the Public Record Office. Likewise, there is hardly a local studies journal that Anthony has not contributed to over the last five decades, and he can claim to have addressed groups in Cavan, Donegal, Dublin, Leitrim, Limerick, Louth, Monaghan and Tipperary in addition to every county in Northern Ireland.
Notwithstanding his full-time role in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, Anthony Malcomson was able to produce a number of important books and articles. Indeed, his scholarly output has been enormous by any standard. Since 1998, he has published seven monographs, some over 200,000 words long, as well as five edited calendars or catalogues. By any scholarly standard, this is a remarkable achievement. His generosity towards younger scholars must also be acknowledged. He has been and continues to be enormously generous to those starting out on a scholarly path, acting as a mentor to individuals who have since developed academic or archival careers. His residence in Belfast has, for many decades, played host to a range of academic visitors who have wished to consult him and to use the archives. No matter what background, all were welcome.
The University of Limerick has also benefitted from Anthony’s knowledge and expertise. One of the first historic manuscript collections acquired by UL were the papers of the Earls of Dunraven of Adare, County Limerick. The papers had been on deposit at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland since the sale of the Manor in the 1980s. In the late 1990s, Dr Malcomson, just then retired from the Record Office, visited UL and examined the newly instituted Special Collections department of the Library. He advised the Dunraven family that the University was an appropriate place for their papers and recommended that they be transferred from Belfast to Limerick. Since then, at least three UL PhD theses have drawn almost exclusively from these papers, and the collection has attracted many scholars to the University. Anthony also helped negotiate the transfer of the Knight of Glin papers from private family ownership into the University’s custodianship, again highlighting how critical such resources are for scholarly endeavour.
Chancellor, I present to you Anthony Malcomson and ask that you confer upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters.