The Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland was established in 1849 as the Kilkenny Archaeological Society. Its inception was thanks to a small group of enthusiastic Kilkenny men: Revd James Graves (1815-86) a Church of Ireland rector and an enthusiastic amateur antiquarian artist; his cousin, John G.A. Prim, editor of the Kilkenny Moderator, and collector with an interest in medieval antiquities; Robert Cane, later Lord Mayor of Kilkenny and an active Young Irelander; Philip More, a Catholic priest and friend of Prims, and Dean Vignoles, a Protest clergyman of Clonmacnoise.
The aim of the society was to ‘preserve, examine all ancient monuments and memorials of the arts, manners and customs of the past, as connected with the antiquities language, literature and history of Ireland’. Its ethos was non-sectarian and non-political, and its modest membership subscription was intended to be socially inclusive.
Expansion in the Society’s membership was rapid, and in 1854 it was decided to change the Society’s name to reflect this, becoming the Kilkenny and South East of Ireland Archaeological Society. Further growth and name changes ensued – to the Historical and Archaeological Society of Ireland (1868-69), then the Royal Historical and Archaeological Society of Ireland, and finally, coinciding with the move of its headquarters to Dublin in 1890, the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland.
Preservation and conservation
Established in the days before monuments enjoyed statutory protection, from the outset the Society was actively engaged in the recording of sites and monuments and in the practical repair and conservation of historic buildings. Accurate drawings and sections of monuments were undertaken and surveys of local interest were published in the Journal. Works to consolidate endangered structures were funded through members’ subscriptions. Pioneering conservation works were carried out at Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly, Jerpoint, Co. Kilkenny, St Francis Abbey, Kilkenny and Glendalough, Co. Wicklow. When legislation was adopted to provide state care for monuments in the 1870s and 80s, it was the unobtrusive approach taken by the Society that formed the basis for best practice in state sponsored conservation projects.
At the second meeting of the Society it was decided to establish a museum. Members were encouraged to donate objects of historical importance both for their protection, and so they might viewed for comparison. So successful was the initiative that the museum was forced to move from its original location in the Tholsel at Kilkenny to larger premises at William Street, then Butler house, and finally Rothe house. In 1910, the collection was transferred to Dublin Museum of Art and Industry (now the National Museum).
The necessity to engage in conservation and collecting activities has now been covered by the state. However, the Society continues many of the activities that were initiated over 160 years ago. These include regular lectures and excursions, the publication of its journal and the provision of a rich resource of research materials, both printed and manuscript, available to its members and external readers
‘A Sketch of the Life and Labours of the Late Rev. James Graves, in the Cause of Irish History and Archæology’, Journal of the Royal Historical and Archaeological Association of Ireland, Fourth Series 7 (67) (July, 1886), 467–469.
Keith Emerick, ‘Whitby and Clonmacnoise’, in Heather King (ed.), Clonmacnoise Studies II. Seminar Papers 1998 (Dublin, 2003), pp. 209-221.
John Waddell, Foundation Myths: The beginnings of Irish archaeology (Bray: Wordwell, 2005)
Linda Doran, ‘The Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland’ , History Ireland, March/April, 2007, pp. 12-12.
Christiaan Corlett,’The Kilikenny Museum’, Irish Arts Review Vol. 25, No. 2 (Summer, 2008), pp. 116-119
Aideen M. Ireland, ‘Glendalough: The RSAI’s Contribution to its Preservation, Examination and Illustration’, Charles Doherty, Linda Doran and Mary Kelly, Glendalough, City of God (Dublin, 2011), 332-348.