Michael Herity (1929 - 2016)

Obituary printed in The Irish Times, 13 February 2016

Michael Herity, professor emeritus of archaeology at University College, Dublin, who has died aged 86, was a scholar of great breadth, sharp intellect and indefatigable energy. Born in Ballintra, Co Donegal, to Michael and Mai Herity, he spent his childhood in Tyrellspass, Co Westmeath, where his father, a Garda sergeant, was posted.

He went to school at St Finian's College, Mullingar and then trained as a teacher in St. Patrick's College, Drumcondra, in Dublin. In the later 1950s he studied archaeology as an evening student at UCD, and was a newsreader on Radio Éireann.

In 1961, after eleven years as a national teacher, he joined the academic staff of the department of archaeology at UCD. In the same year he started news reading with RTÉ, but he phased that out as his academic career took off.

Herity was a natural teacher. Indeed, long before it was fashionable in the university environment to speak of "teaching and learning", he described himself as a teacher rather than a lecturer. The students who derived most benefit from his classes were those who chose to look up and listen - and be challenged - rather than look down and scribble notes.

Michael Herity (1929 - 2016)
Michael Herity (1929 - 2016) | Photo from The Irish Times 13 February 2016

He was promoted to a professorship in 1982. He was also elected dean of UCD's faculty of Celtic studies for two terms, from 1984 to 1990 inclusive. It was an honour of which he was especially proud: always aware of the vulnerability of so specialised a field in an age when market forces were being allowed shape the third-level agenda, his tireless promotion of Celtic studies in the university included a readiness to name-check in influential company the great UCD Celticists who had contributed so much to public and cultural life in Ireland.

He served on UCD's governing body for many years. He was still in the university when he served as president of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland; he also edited its journal for more than quarter of a century. Two years after his retirement in 1994 he was elected president of the Royal Irish Academy, and the following year, closing the circle of his life as an educationalist, he was appointed chair of the governing body of St Patrick's College, Drumcondra.

Passage Graves

Michael's original area of research was earlier prehistoric Ireland. In 1974 he published Irish Passage Graves, and in 1977 he and George Eogan, his colleague in UCD, published Ireland in Prehistory. That same year, in a volume of the 'Irish University Review' dedicated to the poet Richard Murphy, who had a house in western Connemara, he wrote an article on the small monastery on High Island, Co. Galway.

It planted a seed that grew in the 1980s and 1990s into a substantial body of research on the early medieval church and its art.

In the early 1980s he also developed an interest in the so-called Celtic royal sites, and was ahead of the posse in making surveys of key monuments. Archaeologists of the future will recognise his interpretation of Rathcroghan / Carnfree in north Roscommon as one of the foundation stones of so much current thinking on the ritual monuments and associated landscapes of the dawn of Irish history.

Late in his life he returned to an area that had long interested him: antiquarianism. The work that he produced in his long Indian summer of research will be marvelled at for generations to come.

Detective Work

Among other things, he meticulously transcribed the letters of Ordnance Survey fieldworkers under the direction of John O'Donovan, and by the time of his death he had published no less than 18 volumes of these, each with an introduction that showed off both his capacity for detective work and his elegant writing style.

He was fascinated by O'Donovan, and had ambitions to write what would have been the definitive biography. The week after his death his research on George Petrie and the naming of the monuments on the Hill of Tara was published.

Michael Herity held strong views on archaeology, its organisation and practices, and he thought very deeply about interpretative methods and outcomes.

Principled, courageous and a leader by example, he was never afraid to stand his ground and argue his position. He could be a formidable adversary in the debating arena, but in private he was always charm personified, a friend who was generous with his time and his wisdom and a wonderful raconteur.

Close friends - and he had them in all walks of life and in every corner of Ireland - will treasure their memories of time spent in his company.

Books by Michael Heirty

Irish Passage Graves Irish Passage Graves: Neolithic tomb-builders in Ireland and Britain 2500 B.C. by Michael Herity. Published in 1974 by Irish University Press, Dublin, Ireland. The book presents a description of the tombs, art, burials and grave-goods, and then attempts a reconstruction of the everyday life of their builders: subsistence, habitations, technology, even the industries of this remarkable people, the remains of whose civilization we call the Boyne Culture. Purchase at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk

Ireland in PrehistoryIreland in Prehistory by Michael Herity and George Eogan, published in 1977. Herity's work is related mainly to the Neolithic, and he has written chapters 1-4 and 11, Eogan's work centres upon the later Bronze Age, and he has written chapters 5-10. The material presented in a book of this kind is inevitably only a selection, it is hoped that the compilation will at least have indicated Ireland's wealth of prehistoric material and raised new questions about pre-Christian Ireland. Purchase at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk

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