Appreciation: Alf MacLochlainn

Former director of National Library of Ireland and writer of stories and novellas

Alf MacLochlainn, the quintessential scholar-librarian, could truly be described as fear ioldánach. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Alf MacLochlainn, who died on December 8th, 2018 in Galway, aged 92, was a former director of the National Library of Ireland and University Librarian at NUI Galway. He wrote fiction and poetry and published widely, in Irish and English, on history, film, music, typography, and even papermaking.

Born in Dublin, on July 30th, 2018, he graduated from University College Dublin in 1947 with a BA in French and Irish and an MA in Irish the following year. In 1949 he became a librarian at the National Library and in 1976 he was appointed its director. In 1982 he became university librarian at NUI Galway, serving until 1991 when he retired. He held several prestigious positions, including a Library of Congress Fellowship, and he was the inaugural holder of the visiting chair of Irish studies at Burns Library, Boston College. He was a trustee of the Chester Beatty Library and chair of the James Joyce Institute of Ireland.


MacLochlainn, the quintessential scholar-librarian, could truly be described as fear ioldánach. He had a distinguished career as a professional librarian, who also published in that field and in related areas such as bibliography. He wrote many academic articles and book chapters on a wide range of topics relating to Irish history. He co-edited The Emigrant Experience and Letters of an Irish Patriot: William Paul Dowling in Tasmania, a work of history which is also an exploration of his own family background. His writings in literary and film criticism are substantial and are scattered over many journals and periodicals.

As a writer of stories and novellas his reputation is at present confined to a relatively small coterie of admirers, but this is expanding. He published three volumes of fiction: Out of Focus, The Corpus in the Library, and Past Habitual. He fits into a rich Irish surreal tradition of Sterne (insofar as he was Irish), Fr Prout, Joyce, Beckett, Flann O’Brien, and perhaps the venerable lexicographer Fr Dinneen, for what one might call his Dinneenseanchas. Indeed, one might consider as part of this tradition the Brehon Laws, which include a stunningly comprehensive legal meditation on, of all things, dogs’ excrement. The objects MacLochlainn focuses on in his fiction are frequently the small change of everyday life. He presents a wondrous postmodern pot-pourri of, for instance, the effects of second World War on Rathmines (up to now, ignored), and the tyranny of the decimal system.


His final book, Past Habitual, has a heroically meticulous description of mending a puncture. In these stories past habitual is also past imperfect. Claims to truth are hard to sustain, “knowledge” is always in inverted commas, always more-or-less accidental and haphazard, randomly assembled from an odd volume of an encyclopaedia, even from that most unlikely source of enlightenment, the shredder. In the author’s quirky angle of vision objects and events are “out of focus”. There are very few right angles in his way of looking at things but many acute and, in its strictly geometrical sense, obtuse ones.

Mastery of styles

MacLochlainn’s fiction showcases his impressive word-hoard and mastery of several styles and registers; he comically exploits various technical and vocational lingos, such as heraldic language, but also marshals the comic mode for serious purposes, as in The Minstrel Boy, which is about the Artane Boys’ Band and sexual predation. John Banville once observed that he “writes a very fine prose . . . the finest style I have encountered in any Irish writer in recent years”.

He was a witty and engaging conversationalist, stimulating and indeed challenging, and often delightfully cross-grained. He was a socialist who was involved in many progressive causes. In 2007 he was given a long-service award by the Labour Party. He was a close friend of President Michael D Higgins who, at his funeral, delivered a beautifully pitched tribute.

He is survived by his wife, Fionnuala, and their children, Colm, Kate, Nuala, Ian, Gile, and by his sister Charlotte Groarke. His son Fred predeceased him.