Obituary: Robert Welch

Writer and critic best known for ‘Oxford Companion to Irish Literature’

Sat, Mar 16, 2013, 06:00

Robert Anthony Welch, who has died aged 65, was an academic, writer and critic. He produced a wide range of publications – poems, plays and novels, as well as critical works and essays – and is probably best known for the Oxford Companion to Irish Literature (1996), which he edited. The book is generally acknowledged as the standard reference work in the field, and is noteworthy for its focus on writers in Irish, such as Leon Ó Broin, Dáibhí Ó Bruadair and Máirtín Ó Cadhain.

Alan Titley, professor of modern Irish at UCC, paid tribute to his lifelong friend: “He was one of those rare scholars in modern scholarship to combine a passionate interest [in] and dedication to the literature of the country whether in Irish or in English. He was tough as a critic, generous as a person and dedicated as a scholar.”

University of Leeds graduate Tom Long recalled Welch’s “erudition, humour and friendliness”, which made his lectures “a joy to attend”.

Born in Cork in 1947 and educated by the Christian Brothers, he studied English, Irish and music at UCC. After taking his masters with Seán Lucy, he went to Leeds for a PhD under the supervision of the renowned Yeats scholar, A N (Derry) Jeffares.

Following a stint at the University of Ife, Nigeria, in the early 1970s he returned to Leeds, where he spent 10 years teaching English before being appointed professor of English and head of the school of English, media and theatre studies at the University of Ulster in 1984.

In 2000 he was appointed dean of the faculty of humanities, which became the faculty of arts under his leadership. In 2008 he stepped down as dean. He took early retirement in 2009 but continued as emeritus and latterly research professor until his death.

Early works on Moore, Yeats, translations of 19th-century Irish poetry and modern Irish writing all broke new ground. His history of the Abbey Theatre (1999) was a seminal work that marked the centenary of Ireland ’s national theatre. The five-volume Oxford History of the Irish Book was conceived by Welch, together with Brian Walker of Queen’s University Belfast, and is the most significant study to date of the history of the Irish book.

Though living in Coleraine, Co Derry, since 1984, he remained forever true to his Cork roots, not least in his creative writing. The poetry collection Muskerry (1991) was the first of five published volumes of poetry, the last of which appeared in 2010.

The Cork connection was reflected in his 1994 novel

The Kilcolman Notebook . A dark novel in Irish, Tearmann , followed in 1997, and his novel in English groundwork was listed by the New York Times Book Review as one of the notable books of 1998.

In 2004 his play Protestants toured Ireland and also travelled to London and Edinburgh. It was described by British Theatre Guide as a “stunning piece of theatre”.

His book Kicking the Black Mamba: Life, Alcohol and Death (2012) is an account of his son’s Egan’s life and untimely death in 2007, after a long struggle with alcoholism. It also is a deeply personal and self-critical examination of his own contribution, as a father, to his making his son the man he became.

A history of Irish literature, The Cold of May Day Monday , is forthcoming.

His wife Angela, daughter Rachel and sons Killian and Tiernan survive him.