Inspirational university teacher and foremost archaeologist of Irish towns

John Bradley: January 11th, 1954 - November 7th, 2014

The passing of John Bradley at the early age of 60 is an irreparable loss to Irish archaeology, medieval and urban studies and to Kilkenny in particular.

John was our foremost town archaeologist, his scholarly authority earning him an international reputation.

He was a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London. He produced books, an atlas and over 100 quality papers which ranged over different aspects of his chosen field and sometimes outside it. Above all, he was a generous lecturer and host who both enthused and entertained students and colleagues, especially at Maynooth’s history department, where he had happily worked since 1996 and where his students will miss his inspiration and humanity.

The only child of Daniel and Statia, John Bradley grew up in his beloved Kilkenny, influenced by the built surroundings and grounded by visits to his maternal grandfather in rural Castlebanny.


Schooled at Kilkenny CBS and mentored by the then stalwarts of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, John came to UCD in 1971, where he read archaeology and history. A shy, soft-spoken and mild-mannered student, he was inspired by a golden generation of scholars, especially George Eogan, on whose Knowth excavations he worked for years. He remained close to George and his family to the end.

Wood Quay

His postgraduate study centred on the archaeology of the Irish town, a subject he was to make his own and, in due course, one he was to pioneer in NUI archaeology courses.

He pursued his urban interests in the multidisciplinary Dublin Historic Settlement Group, while at the same time assisting FX Martin’s Wood Quay campaign. He was secretary of the Friends of Medieval Dublin 1978-84.

He edited Viking Dublin Exposed, a book on the archaeology and controversy at Wood Quay, a few years after the conclusion of the excavations. He subsequently edited a Festschrift for his hero FX Martin. He was later to co-edit Festschriften for George Eogan, Barry Raftery and Howard Clarke.

John undertook a de luxe urban survey of Irish towns for the National Monuments service from 1982 to 1990. A sheaf of studies on different aspects of towns flowed from his prolific pen, all delivered in clear, persuasive prose.

He studied Drogheda, Ennis and Tralee, looking at topographical development in older towns and arguing for urban characteristics in monastic towns. He also produced a non-stop flow of essays and encyclopaedia entries on subjects like sarcophagi, town walls and the hinterland of Dublin, alongside more general studies. His published legacy is enormous.

Kilkenny, with its great medieval character, was to be a recurring focus, the culmination of which is John’s comprehensive fascicle in the Irish Historic Towns Atlas series as well as his large format Treasures book with its presentation of the town’s historical documents.

It was a personal heartbreak for him that despite all his research and publication on the unique quality of Kilkenny’s heritage, the city fathers chose to ignore his wisdom when it came to the town walls and the Central Access Scheme. His burial in Foulkstown, at a slight distance from the city, is perhaps an unintended spatial metaphor for this disappointment.

He will also be remembered for his excavation of the multi-period crannog in Moynagh lough in north Meath. He produced at least a dozen interim reports and other papers on the results from this remarkable site.

John lectured at UCD until 1996 and gave courses at UCG, where he is remembered as “an extraordinary educator”. He then moved to Maynooth’s history department, into which he fitted so comfortably and so happily.

Love of travel

He loved travelling to lecture in Britain and Germany but it was to the US that he was mostly attracted. Chicago was a favourite city and he religiously attended the annual conference at Kalamazoo before going south to East Carolina University, for which he had the deepest regard.

He loved popularising his subject, as his input both at Ferrycarrig, Co Wexford and Geraldine Tralee show.

An important side of John Bradley was his involvement with chess. A member of Kilkenny Chess Club since 1972, he was proud to have been on the team that won the Armstrong Cup in 2011 and represented Ireland at two European finals.

The club welcomed Boris Spassky to Kilkenny in 1991, when John took him on a tour of the city, later discussing Thucydides in Tynan’s bar. In July last in a blindfold simultaneous match “the Brad” (as archaeologists affectionately knew him) played “a lovely combination” to hold a grandmaster to a draw.

John Bradley was a generous, witty Renaissance man, an optimist, widely read and deeply informed about subjects including old movies, Elizabethan literature, and music, especially opera: he regularly attended Wexford.

All fortunate enough to have known this lover of good company and hearty conversation celebrate their great good luck in having encountered such a brilliant character.