History of the Royal Society of Antiquaries
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: the Rev James Graves, 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 Protestant 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: it became the Historical and Archaeological Society of Ireland in 1868, 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.
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 Society’s journal. Works to consolidate endangered structures were funded through members’ subscriptions and pioneering conservation works were carried out at Clonmacnoise, County Offaly, Jerpoint, County Kilkenny, and Glendalough, County 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 and members were encouraged to donate objects of historical importance. 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, a significant part of this collection was transferred to the Dublin Museum of Art and Industry (now the National Museum). The Library and Archives at Society House continue to house important and unique collections of books, journals, drawings and photographs.
For a comprehensive history of the formative years of the RSAI, please refer to:
Aideen Ireland, ‘The Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 1849–1900’, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 112 (1982), pp 72–92.