R. A. S. Macalister – A Life

A painted portrait of RAS Macalister.

By Katherine Forsyth, OG(H)AM’s UK Principal Investigator

Hurrah! It’s International Day of Ogham!

In celebrating Ogham’s special day, we also mark the 153rd anniversary of the birth of the founding father of modern ogham studies, R. A. S. Macalister—born on 8 July 1870. In this month’s blog we take a look at Macalister’s life. For more on his contribution to ogham studies specifically, see our blog for July 2022.

Early Life: Dublin and Cambridge

Macalister was born into a Dublin family of Presbyterian Scots heritage (his paternal grandfather was from Perthshire, as was his mother, by whose maiden name ‘Stewart’ he was known). The family left Ireland in 1883, when Macalister was 13, in order for his father Alexander to take up the chair of Anatomy at the University of Cambridge (he had previously been professor at TCD). Stewart Macalister read Mathematics at his father’s college (St John’s), before going on to study geology, from which he developed an interest in archaeology. While researching at the geological museum in Cambridge he taught the University’s first courses in prehistoric archaeology. His first archaeological publications appeared in 1895, by which time he’d returned to Ireland. His first publication on ogham (about the newly discovered stone from Killeen Cormac) appeared the following year, when Macalister was 26. From then on, for over half a century, scarcely a year went by without at least one, sometimes several publications by Macalister on some aspect of ogham, a total of over forty in all.


The first phase of Macalister’s career, however, was spent much further from home. Between 1900-1909 he directed the Palestine Exploration Fund’s excavations at Gezer (and again 1923-4 in Jerusalem). He published more than 60 works on near Eastern archaeology and culture, including History of Civilization in Palestine; The Philistines: their History and Civilization; the 3 volume The Excavation of Gezer and A Grammar of the Nuri Language.  Throughout this period, Macalister continued regularly to publish work on ogham, including the 3 volumes of his Studies in Irish Epigraphy (1897-1907) based on extensive personal fieldwork when back home.

Return to Ireland

In 1909, at the age of 39, he was appointed professor of Celtic archaeology at University College Dublin, a post he continued to hold until his retirement in 1943 at the age of 73. In addition to his teaching, he was a well-regarded public lecturer and wrote not only academic works, but also pieces intended for a wider public audience (including school children, and guidebooks to key sites). His writings were hugely influential at the time: his survey A Textbook of European Archaeology (1921), based on his UCD teaching, was the standard University textbook in the English-speaking world until superseded by V G Childe, just as Ireland in Pre-Celtic Times (1921) and Archaeology of Ireland (1928) were standard works for many years.


It is true that these ambitious, readable works of broad-bush, synthesis have not always aged well, and his excavation techniques have received harsh criticism. His Near Eastern Archaeology, in particular, has not stood the test of time (Wolff). However, it is easy to lose sight of how foundational his work was, inspiring and laying the groundwork for successors to return to the same topics with more scientific methods. As Richardson notes, Macalister was a ‘renaissance scholar of a now vanished style, his academic interests were far wider and more eclectic than those of today’s more specialized archaeologists.’ In addition to archaeology, Macalister also edited several early Irish texts, including a 3-volume edition of Leabhar Gabhála Érenn, and the Latin and Irish Lives of St Ciaran, and prepared the facsimile volume of the Book of Uí Maine. This breadth of perspective had many benefits, but it is true that he lacked the linguistic training to do justice to some of the tasks he set himself. McManus has justly criticised Macalister’s failure to make more use of the work of his contemporary philologists and thereby save himself from the linguistic errors or misconceptions which sometimes weaken his analysis. His shortcomings, however, are to be set against what are very considerable intellectual achievements.

In addition to his scholarly contributions, Macalister’s practical service warrants his label as the ‘founder of professional archaeology in the Irish Free State’ (Richardson). He was President of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland (1924-8), editor of its journal (1910-1918), president of the Royal Irish Academy (1926-31) and also served on the Irish Manuscripts Commission. He was the first chairman of the ancient monuments advisory board of the Free State and was instrumental in establishing the 1930 legislation to protect ancient monuments, including oghams. For that alone, ogham fans owe him a considerable debt.

Macalister, the Man

Generous in his academic work, Macalister was ‘noted for his old-world courtesy’ (Richardson). He had a wide circle of friends, including major figures in the Gaelic Revival, including Eamon de Valera, Douglas Hyde and Eoin MacNeill. He was a man of practical action, and when the latter was imprisoned for a spell, the bachelor Macalister gave up part of his salary to support MacNeill’s wife and children. A gifted musician, organist and choirmaster of Adelaide Road church in Dublin, he published a suite for piano and violin, and won Feis Ceoil prizes for setting Irish verse to music.

Final years

After his retirement, and in declining health, Macalister spent the final years of his life in the home of his two younger sisters, one of whom, Edith, was the widow of their relative, Sir Donald Macalister, another medic and fellow of St John’s College. Of humble origin, the polymathic Donald Macalister—who spoke 19 languages, including his native Gaelic and English—rose to be president of the General Medical Council for 27 years, and was one of the great principals of Glasgow University (from whom Stewart Macalister received one of his four honorary degrees, the others being from Cambridge, Dublin and the University of Wales). This family medical milieu (Macalister’s younger brother George also went on to become a doctor – as a Professor of Clinical Medicine in Singapore) is nicely reflected in one detail of Macalister’s ogham scholarship. In devising a way of describing individual ogham letters, Macalister borrowed the anatomical terminology of ‘distal’ and ‘proximal’ to refer to the different ends of ogham strokes relative to the stemline.

Stewart Macalister died, unmarried, on 26 April 1950 at the age of 79, and is buried in the family plot in the Parish of the Ascension burial ground in Cambridge.

Sources and further Reading

Brennan, Mary Lou (1973) ‘Robert Alexander Stewart Macalister 1871-1950: A bibliography of his published works’, The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 103 (1973), pp. 167-176. (omits 67 works on archaeology of the Near East, and Macalister 1940 on Pictish inscriptions)

Fagan, Brian (2004) ‘Macalister, Robert Alexander Stewart (1870–1950)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford UP). https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/57475

Macalister, R. A. S. (1940) ‘The inscriptions and language of the Picts’, in Féil-sgríbhinn Eóin Mhic Néill: Essays and studies presented to professor Eoin MacNeill on the occasion of his seventieth birthday, May 15th 1938, (ed.) John Ryan, (Dublin: Three Candles), pp. 184–226.

Macalister, R. A. S. (1945) Corpus inscriptionum insularum Celticarum (volume 1), Dublin

McManus, Damian (1996) ‘Preface’ to 1996 reprint of Corpus inscriptionum insularum Celticarum (Dublin, Four Courts), pages e-h.

O’Sullivan, Muiris (2012) ‘R. A. S. Macalister’, in Pathfinders to the past: the antiquarian road to Irish historical writing, 1640–1960 (eds) Próinséas Ní Chatháin & Siobhán Fitzpatrick with Howard Clarke, (Dublin: Four Courts), pp. 161–171.

Richardson, Hilary (2009) ‘Macalister, Robert Alexander Stewart’, in The Dictionary of Irish Biography: from the earliest times to the year 2002 (Cambridge UP). https://www.dib.ie/biography/macalister-robert-alexander-stewart-a5093

Wolff, Samuel R. (2019) Villain or Visionary? R. A. S. Macalister and the Archaeology of Palestine, Routledge.

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