Professor of archaeology and renowned scholar drawn to a range of subjects
ETIENNE RYNNE:ETIENNE RYNNE, who has died aged 79, was emeritus professor of archaeology at NUI Galway. He was a renowned scholar and while his speciality was early Irish art, he was drawn to a range of subjects. So much so that his colleague John Waddell said that, “like Thomas Carlyle’s creation he might well have been known as the original professor of things in general.”
Born in 1932, he was one of six children of Dr Michael Rynne, a veteran of the War of Independence who served as Irish ambassador to Spain; his mother was Nathalie Fournier, from France.
He was educated at Terenure College and Clongowes Wood College, and also attended Coláiste na Rinne and École des Roches, Normandy. He studied archaeology and French at University College Dublin, where he was auditor of the archaeological society. He graduated with a BA in 1953, and followed this with an MA in archaeology in 1955.
He spent a year abroad on an NUI travel studentship, and joined the staff of the National Museum in 1957. One of his first assignments was to participate in the Hill of Tara excavations. An authority on the Ardagh Chalice, he accompanied it to London when it was being restored.
He became a lecturer in archaeology at what was then University College Galway in 1967; appointed professor in 1978, he held the position until he retired in 1998.
Ever forthright, during the Wood Quay controversy in the 1970s he argued that provision should be made for archaeologists to excavate sites prior to building. He claimed that such provision was being put at risk by “lay pretenders” telling “experienced and fully trained archaeologists” how to do their job. This was akin to quacks taking over medicine.
The real value of the Wood Quay site, he said, arose from its “expert excavation”. In 1985 he went to Armagh as part of a protest to prevent a quarry works encroaching upon the historic Navan Fort. “We have heard a lot about saving this monument for the people of Ulster today,” he told a crowd of 250 archaeologists and antiquaries. “But I say to hell with Ulster, to hell with Munster and to hell with Connacht! Let’s save this monument for the Irish people.” In 1990 he found himself at odds with the National Museum over the decision to display the Derrynaflan Chalice at the final summit of the Irish presidency of the EC in Malahide Castle.
Soon afterward, however, he defended the museum’s decision not to display its collection of Sheela-na-Gigs. People usually wanted to see the carvings to get “some sort of erotic thrill”, he said, but were bound to be disappointed. Those genuinely into Sheelas, he suggested, should see them in situ.
He was widely published, and contributed numerous articles to learned journals. The author of a number of books, he also edited North Munster Studies (1967), in memory of Monsignor Michael Moloney, and Figures from the Past (1987), honouring Helen M Roe. He was editor of the North Munster Antiquarian Journal for more than 30 years.
The driving force behind the establishment of Galway City Museum, he was a former president of the Cambrian Archaeological Society.
His broad range of interests was reflected in letters to this newspaper, and included articles 2 and 3, handball, Parson’s bookshop, the first cuckoo of 1983, as well as the M3 motorway through Tara.
He lived in Athenry, which he described as “the classic Irish medieval town”.
Predeceased by his son Killian, who died in infancy, he is survived by his wife Aideen (née Lucas), sons Andrew, John, Declan and Stephen and daughter Caitriona.
Prof Etienne Rynne, MRIA, FSA: born September 11th, 1932; died June 22nd, 2012