Gerard Lyne obituary: A noted scholar with ‘other-worldly’ personality

National Library keeper of manuscripts had a unique insight into Gaelic aristocracy

Gerard Lyne

Gerard Lyne


Gerard Lyne
Born: May 19th, 1944
Died: June 5th, 2019

Gerard Lyne was keeper of manuscripts at the National Library of Ireland (NLI) and a noted scholar of 19th-century agrarian Ireland. Born in 1944, he was brought up on the Kerry side of the Cork/Kerry border on the Beara peninsula where, near Ardgroom, in the 17th century, his first known direct ancestor, Dr Dermot Lyne, took a lease of lands. In 1698, Dr Lyne extended his holdings to Kerry, a small portion of which remains in Lyne’s family.

From this link derived his interest in Irish social history which lead to contributions to learned journals, notably, the Kerry Archaeological and Historical Society. He was co-founder, with Canon Thomas Looney, of Éigse Sheáin Úi Shúilleabháin (UCD folklorist) and regularly wrote for his parish’s award-winning Tuosist Newsletter . In 2005 he received the annual Kerry Heritage award.

A kinsman also to Daniel O’Connell, his history studies at UCD led him to a master’s on O’Connell and the Catholic Association and an assignment as assistant editor of the Correspondence of Daniel O’Connell.

Much of this work was carried out in the National Library of Ireland, where he became a permanent staff member in 1973 following a period teaching in Dublin, a stay in London and a time as a sub-editor in The Irish Times. He remained in the NLI until his retirement in 2009.

While, occasionally, wistfully saying that he would like to have been a journalist, he developed and retained a deep love for the NLI where he held various positions in Periodicals, the Genealogical Office, becoming surveyor of manuscripts and later keeper of manuscripts.

It was in this role as keeper of manuscripts that he came into his own. Operating, initially, in a period of tight financial restraint where, frequently, bidding on the open market for important items had to be foregone; happily, his tenure of office saw the pendulum swing allowing for many important acquisitions. Inter alia, whether through donation or purchase, papers of James Joyce, Seamus Heaney, Edna O’Brien and IQA (Ireland’s LGBT Society) were acquired.

Attending auctions, he was always cautious with the public purse. His convivial disposition ensured that he was on good terms with booksellers and literary figures; thus, he frequently got “the nod” when items were coming on stream which might, otherwise, have been missed. And his natural rapport with writers and accessibility are attested to in his many acknowledgements in contemporary publications.

During this period of financial largesse he oversaw the cataloguing of neglected estate papers which became the domain of specially employed archival students, thus ensuring a rich vein of native material for future scholars. He had an unerring eye for recruitment and loved seeing staff develop under his tutelage. Scholarly and knowledgeable, his helpfulness befitted his sense of the library’s serving learning and scholarship.

Becoming secretary of the almost defunct NLI Society, he revived its fortunes through his enthusiasm and a programme of stimulating lectures.

His ability with English was first endorsed when, in 1963, while a student at Cistercian College, Roscrea he won first prize in an all-Ireland schools’ essay competition. But despite being advised that it was cramping his imagination, he chose history rather than English for further studies.

His unique insight into the mindset of the dispossessed Gaelic aristocracy and the Catholic middleman within the new social hierarchy of a planted Munster underpin his books: The Lansdowne Estate in Kerry under WS Trench 1849-72 (2001) and Murtaí Óg (2017). The former was awarded the biennial NUI Irish historical research prize inspiring the RTÉ documentary Land is Gold.

The writer Eugene McCabe noted the “other-worldly aura of his personality” and his valuing “of a folk ballad full of awkward rhymes and unscanned lines as much as great lyrics by Yeats.” McCabe wrote of his ability “to spot the nugget of gold where others see only dross and fix it in that phenomenal memory of his.”

Being himself able to hold a note and deliver expressive renditions of folk song and ballad, Lyne’s liked nothing more, whether in Kerry or Dublin, than to visit a hostelry where a sing-song might ensue before evening’s end.

He passed away on June 5th, 2019 and is survived by his brother, Vincent , sister, Annette, sister-in-law, Elizabeth; nephews, Joseph and John; nieces, Anne Marie, Deirdre and Fionnuala. Suaimhneas síoraí dó.