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GILBERT, Sir JOHN THOMAS (1829–1898), Irish historian and antiquary, was born at 23 Jervis Street, Dublin, on 23 Jan. 1829. His father, John Gilbert (d. 1833), was an English protestant of Devonshire origin, who early in the century had established himself in Dublin in the Spanish wine trade, and for many years held the post of consul at Dublin for Portugal and Algarve; his mother Eleanor, daughter of Henry Costello of Dublin, was an Irish-woman and a Roman catholic. From his father Gilbert derived great powers of industry and accuracy; from his mother, who brought him up in the Roman catholic faith, he inherited the strong Irish feeling and religious devotion which marked him through life. His childhood was spent for the most part at Branackstown, co. Meath, where he acquired an abiding knowledge and love of nature; and his boyhood was divided between Bective College, Dublin, and Prior Park College, Bath.

Gilbert's antiquarian tastes manifested themselves early. In 1851, at the age of twenty-two, he contributed to the 'Irish Quarterly Review' an essay on the 'Historical Literature of Ireland.' But the first-fruits of this early enthusiasm appeared in a series of papers on 'The Streets of Dublin,' published in 1852-5 in the 'Irish Quarterly Review.' This work was expanded into his well-known 'History of the City of Dublin,' published in 1801, a work which at once took rank as the standard authority on the subject, and which won for him the Cunningham gold medal of the Royal Irish Academy in 1862.

In 1855 Gilbert became, in conjunction with James Henthorn Todd [q. v.], hon. secretary to the Irish Celtic and Archæological Society. In the work of this society he was associated with an eminent band of students of Irish antiquities, which included such men as Sir William Wilde [q. v.], Eugene O'Curry [q. v.], John O'Donovan, George Petrie [q. v], Charles Graves [q. v. Suppl.] (afterwards Bishop of Limerick), and Sir Thomas Larcom [q. v.], and 'to the exertions of the two secretaries it was mainly owing that that society was for many years able to continue its publication of various works of the utmost importance in the history of Ireland.'

In 1863 Gilbert published a series of papers, subsequently collected in his 'History, Position, and Treatment of the Public Records of Ireland, by an Irish Archivist,' in which he called attention to the defects in the treatment of Irish historical documents in the 'Calendars of Patent and Close Rolls of Chancery in Ireland,' published under the authority of the treasury. His attacks upon the competence of the editors led to a discussion in the House of Commons on 16 July 1863, in which the accuracy of the calendars was defended by the government; but the legitimacy of Gilbert's criticisms was indirectly admitted in the fullest way by his association shortly afterwards with Sir Thomas Duffus Hardy [q. v.] in organising the new public record office at Dublin. On the constitution of this office in 1867 Gilbert was, with the general approval of the public, appointed secretary, and retained this post until 1875, when it was abolished.

From the date of the publication of his ‘History of Dublin’ to his death, Gilbert's life was devoted to historical and antiquarian research. In 1865 he published his ‘History of the Viceroys of Ireland’ [down to 1500], and from that time quitted the field of original authorship in exchange for that of research, ultimately revealing more of the hidden or forgotten sources of Irish history than had been done before by any single student. Although his work was not free from error, its value has been warmly acknowledged by Mr. Lecky and Mr. Gardiner in their respective histories.

A considerable part of Gilbert's time was given to the affairs of the Royal Irish Academy, of which he became a member in 1855, and was for more than thirty-four years librarian. At his suggestion the council of the academy began the publication, under his editorship, of their collection of ancient Irish manuscripts. He also acted for many years as an inspector under the historical manuscripts commission, reporting on many public and private collections, and editing for that commission a portion of the papers of the Marquis of Ormonde. He likewise edited for the corporation of Dublin the valuable ‘Calendar of Ancient Records of Dublin,’ which had reached the year 1730 at the time of his death.

Gilbert held many honorary offices of public trust, such as the vice-presidency of the Royal Irish Academy. The Royal University conferred on him the honorary degree of LL.D. in 1892. In 1897 he was knighted. Gilbert's life for nearly fifty years was passed at his house, Villa Nova, Blackrock, near Dublin, where he formed an almost unique collection of Irish historical and archæological works; this since his death was acquired by the corporation of Dublin.

Gilbert died on 23 May 1898, through heart failure. He married in 1891 Rosa, second daughter of Joseph Stevenson Mulholland, M.D., of Belfast, who survived him.

Gilbert wrote and edited the following:

  1. ‘Historical Essays on Ireland,’ from the ‘Irish Quarterly Review,’ 1851, 8vo.
  2. ‘Celtic Records and Historical Records of Ireland,’ from the ‘Irish Quarterly Review,’ 1852, 8vo.
  3. ‘History of the City of Dublin,’ 1854–9, 3 vols. 8vo.
  4. ‘Ancient Historical Irish Manuscripts,’ 1861, 8vo.
  5. ‘Public Records of Ireland. Letters by an Irish Archivist,’ 1863–4, 8vo.
  6. ‘History of the Viceroys of Ireland,’ 1865, 8vo.
  7. ‘Leabhar na H-Uidhre,’ R.I.A., 1870, fol.
  8. ‘Historic and Municipal Documents of Ireland,’ 1870, 8vo.
  9. ‘Facsimiles of National Manuscripts of Ireland,’ 1874–84, 5 vols. fol.
  10. ‘Leabhar Breac,’ R.I.A., 1876, fol.
  11. ‘A Contemporary History of Affairs in Ireland from 1641 to 1652,’ 1879–80, 4 vols. 4to.
  12. ‘History of the Irish Confederation and the War in Ireland, 1641–9,’ 1882–91, 7 vols. 4to.
  13. ‘Chartularies of St. Mary's Abbey, Dublin,’ 1884, 2 vols. 8vo.
  14. ‘Account of Facsimiles of National Manuscripts of Ireland,’ 1884, 8vo.
  15. ‘Calendar of the Ancient Records of Dublin in possession of the Municipal Corporation, 1171–1730,’ 1889–98, 7 vols. 8vo.
  16. ‘Register of the Abbey of St. Thomas, Dublin,’ 1889, 8vo.
  17. ‘A Jacobite Narrative of the War in Ireland, 1688–1691,’ 1892, 4to.
  18. ‘Documents relating to Ireland, 1795–1804,’ 1893, 4to.
  19. ‘Narrative of Clementina Maria Stuart, 1719–1735,’ 1894, 4to.
  20. ‘An Account of Parliament House, Dublin,’ 1896, 4to.
  21. ‘Crede Mihi, the most ancient Register of the Archbishops of Dublin before the Reformation, A.D. 1275,’ 1897, 4to.

He also left unfinished ‘Papers connected with the Jacobites of Ireland,’ and wrote numerous articles in the Reports Nos. I. to XV. of the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts, and in the ‘Athenæum,’ ‘Dublin Review,’ ‘Irish Times,’ ‘Freeman's Journal,’ Royal Irish Academy publications, ‘Irish Quarterly Review,’ and other periodicals.

[Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 3rd ser. vol. v. (Minutes), 309–12; information kindly supplied by Lady Gilbert.]

C. L. F.