Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Reeves, William (1815-1892)

REEVES, WILLIAM, D.D. (1815–1892), Irish antiquary, and bishop of Down, Connor, and Dromore, was the eldest child of Boles D'Arcy Reeves, an attorney, and his wife Mary, fourth daughter of Captain Jonathan Bruce Roberts, who fought at the battle of Bunker's Hill, and was afterwards land agent to the Earl of Cork. He was born at Charleville, co. Cork, 16 March 1815, in the house of his maternal grandfather. He was sent in 1823 to the school of John Browne in Leeson Street, Dublin, and afterwards to that of the Rev. Edward Geoghegan. He entered Trinity College, Dublin, in October 1830, and obtained a Hebrew prize immediately after entrance. He became a scholar in his third year, and graduated A.B. in the spring term 1835. He then proceeded to study medicine, won the Berkeley medal, and graduated M.B. in 1837. His object was to be able to practise among the poor of his parish when ordained. He was ordained deacon at Hillsborough, co. Down, 18 March 1838, and became curate of Lisburn, co. Antrim. He was ordained priest at Derry, 2 June 1839, and in 1841 became perpetual curate of Kilconriola, co. Antrim.

Reeves's first publication, printed at Belfast in 1845, was ‘A Description of Nendrum, commonly called Mahee Island.’ On 14 Dec. 1846 he was elected a member of the Royal Irish Academy. In 1847 he published in Dublin ‘Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Down, Connor, and Dromore,’ which has ever since continued the chief work of reference with regard to the ecclesiastical history and topography of that part of Ireland. In 1849 he was made master of the diocesan school at Ballymena, and its stipend was a welcome addition to the 110l. a year which had been his sole income before. When his father died in 1852 he inherited his landed estate in Cork, but generously divided it with his brothers and sisters. In 1850 the Irish Archæological Society published his ‘Acts of Archbishop Colton,’ a volume which does for the diocese of Derry what his former book had accomplished for his own diocese. In both, mediæval records are illuminated by a minute knowledge of the modern local topography, and of all that had been written or was traditional about the districts mentioned. Sixteen papers of varying importance, but all showing original work, followed, chiefly in the ‘Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy’ and in the ‘Ulster Journal of Archæology;’ and in 1857 he published in Dublin his most famous work, ‘The Life of St. Columba, Founder of Hy, written by Adamnan, ninth Abbot of that Monastery, to which are added copious Notes and Dissertations.’ This large volume remains the most learned and the fullest collection of knowledge of ancient Irish ecclesiastical affairs published since the time of John Colgan [q. v.]; Reeves is only less than Colgan, inasmuch as he was not acquainted with the Irish language. The text of the life (every page of which is carefully annotated) is taken from a manuscript of the eighth century. The preparation of this book solaced his grief for the loss of his first wife, his cousin Emma, daughter of Thomas Reeves of Carlisle, whom he had married on 3 Jan. 1838, and who died on 12 Oct. 1855, leaving nine children.

The ‘Life of St. Columba’ was approved by the learned throughout Europe, and Reeves was elected an honorary member of the Societies of Antiquaries of Scotland and of Zurich, but in his own university he failed to obtain the professorship of ecclesiastical history, for which he applied. Dr. James Henthorn Todd [q. v.], a fellow student in Irish ecclesiastical history, thereupon presented him to the vicarage of Lusk, co. Dublin, worth 170l. a year, and he went into residence there 30 Dec. 1857. On 19 Dec. 1861, Lord J. G. Beresford, then archbishop of Armagh, nominated him librarian of Armagh, a post of greater emolument than his vicarage, and tenable with it. He went to reside in the librarian's house at Armagh, and was allowed by Archbishop Whately to keep a curate at Lusk, where he continued to preach on Sundays. In November 1865 he was presented to the rectory of Tynan, near Armagh, and resigned Lusk, but remained librarian of Armagh. In 1869 he was a candidate for the librarianship of Trinity College, Dublin, but was not elected. In 1871 the university conferred on him the honorary degree of LL.D. He was already D.D., but never proceeded beyond the degree of bachelor of medicine. The King's and Queen's College of Physicians in Dublin elected him a fellow in 1864. In 1875 he was made dean of Armagh, and on 18 March 1886 was elected by the clergy and laity of the diocese bishop of Armagh and Clogher. The archbishop of Armagh, under the regulations made after the disestablishment, was to be elected by the bishops, and the bishop of Armagh and Clogher, if not appointed archbishop, was to succeed immediately to the diocese made vacant by the appointment. The bishops in June 1886 elected Dr. Knox to the primacy of all Ireland, and on 29 June 1886 Reeves was consecrated bishop of Down, Connor, and Dromore. He left with regret the library at Armagh, where many volumes of records copied by his hand remain. He went to live at Conway House, Dunmurry, in the south of Antrim, and administered his diocese with energy. He was in 1891 elected president of the Royal Irish Academy, to whose publications, and in other places, he contributed more than fifty original papers after his publication of his ‘Life of Columba,’ besides editing part of the works of James Ussher [q. v.], and writing many indexes and notes to the works of others. He had also made large preparations for editing the ‘Book of Armagh,’ a manuscript written there early in the ninth century, which he purchased for 300l. at a time when his means were small [see MacMoyer, Florence], and which Primate Beresford afterwards bought from him and gave to the library of Trinity College, Dublin, with a sum of money to defray the cost of an edition. It is in its original leather sack with straps, and Reeves used to carry it about suspended from his neck and under his waistcoat. On 26 Dec. 1891 he married, in Dublin, as his second wife, his cousin, Charlotte Townley. He was attacked, on 6 Jan. 1892, while still in Dublin, by pneumonia, died on 12 Jan., and was buried on 15 Jan. at Armagh.

Reeves was a tall man with an aquiline nose, well-formed head, and bright expressive eyes. His conversation was always interesting, full of learning, and enlivened by a ready wit. He knew a thousand pleasing stories, and told them admirably. He was the friend of John O'Donovan, of Todd, and of all in Ireland who cared for historical learning; while in the districts in which his life was spent he was liked and admired by people in every rank of society and of every shade of opinion (cf. Prothero, Life of Bradshaw, p. 302). A portrait is prefixed to his life by Lady Ferguson, and at the end of the same book is a complete bibliography of his works by John Ribton Garstin, B.D.

[Lady Ferguson's Life of Reeves, Dublin, 1893; Works; personal knowledge.]

N. M.