Brought major collection of Armada artefacts to Belfast


Laurence Flanagan, who died on April 9th aged 68, was one of the most distinguished archaeologists in Ireland and, in his later years, a prolific writer. In a society so negatively pre-occupied with the past, his interest in it was entirely positive and he made a lasting contribution to our understanding of the life and times of our earliest ancestors.

He was also an unconventional, colourful, flamboyant, bohemian character: a pints and poetry man, who enjoyed life to the full. He was at his best in the company of his own well-read, literary and artistic circle, who ate and drank in a number of hostelries in and around the Queen's University area of Belfast, close by the Ulster Museum, which was his power base for nearly 40 years.

The coup of his professional life was to secure and develop, for the Ulster Museum, an unrivalled collection of artefacts recovered by divers from the wrecks of the Spanish Armada vessels which foundered in stormy weather around the Irish coast in 1588 while fleeing after an unsuccessful attempt to invade England.

Most of the treasures recovered from the wrecks, especially from the Girona, are now on display in Belfast. And, thanks to his enthusiasm for the project, the Irish Government also donated material to the collection. .

Laurence Flanagan was born in Dublin in March 1933. His father a Protestant, and his mother, a Catholic, later moved to Belfast, where he was sent to Methodist College. From there he went to Balliol College, Oxford to read classics.

After leaving university with a degree in the greats, he applied to the Museum, Library and Arts Committee of the Belfast Corporation for a job at the city's, later Ulster, museum.

In the days when the right religion was as important as a suitable qualification to gain employment, the councillors were unable to glean his background from the information he supplied and the answers he gave them. Eventually they were forced to ask if he was a regular church attender. His continued ambiguity was such that they gave him the job anyway and he started working in the museum as an assistant in 1955.

He became keeper of antiquities in 1958 and remained there until 1988, when he took early retirement.

During his time at the museum, he emerged as an expert and enthusiastic archaeologist, participating in many digs, interpreting the findings and artefacts with skill and intellect and writing up the results in a lengthy catalogue of scholarly contributions to learned journals.

After his retirement he turned to writing and published a number of books, mainly of Irish interest, including Ancient Ireland, Life before the Celts; Irish Wrecks and the Spanish Armada; Favourite Irish Names for Children and the Chronicle of Irish Saints. His Directory of Irish Archaeology is a comprehensive, standard and widely consulted authoritative source on the subject.

Drawing on the work of his first wife, Deirdre (nee Morton), herself a distinguished lecturer at Queen's, who pre-deceased him, he also compiled a Dictionary of Irish Names, which was published in their joint names.

He later married Eileen (nee O'Kane), who came from a Tyrone farming family but when she too predeceased him much of the sparkle went out of his life and the once gregarious man about town became withdrawn and reclusive.

He is survived by three grown-up daughters from his first marriage: Grainne, Dunla and Laoise.

Laurence Flanagan: born 1933, died, April 2001