Dr. Goddard Orpen
Irish Antiquary and Historian
The death of Dr. Goddard Orpen, announced on another page, removes one of the few living original investigators in the field of Irish history. To the public he will be remembered as the man of one book, “Ireland under the Normans,” in four volumes, which appeared in two sections in 1911 and 1920; but this work was the result of many years of conscientious study of archaeological and literary problems which underlie the history of that period.
Goddard Henry Orpen, the fourth son of John Richard Orpen, barrister, and a second cousin of the late Sir William Orpen, R.A., was born on 8 May 1852, in Dublin, and was educated at Tipperary Grammar School and Trinity College, Dublin. After taking his degree he was called to the English Bar by the Middle Temple in 1877. For many years he formed one of the group of brilliant intellects who clustered about Hedford Park, a coterie which included the Yeats, father and sons, Dr. John Todhunter, and Professor F. York Powell among its members. He published in 1884, a translation of Emile de Lavelaye’s “Socialisme Contemporain.” On another side he studied the Irish Gaelic language, and it was out of a class which he formed for reading Dr. Hyde’s collections of Irish folktales that the idea of founding a society for the publication of Irish manuscripts, especially those of the later medieval period took shape. The Irish Texts Society, then formed, has justified its existence since that date by the publications of many volumes of Irish texts, besides three dictionaries of the modern tongue.
It was in 1892 that the first of Orpen’s publications bearing on the Norman period in Ireland appeared. This was his edition with English translation, of the French metrical account of the coming of the conquerors into Ireland which he called “The Song of Dermot and the Earl,” one of the very few examples of an Angle-Norman poem written in Ireland, and one of the two chief contemporary authorities for the earlier history of the invasion, the other being the narrative of Giraldus Cambrensis. We owe its preservation to the enthusiasm for the collection of Irish documents shown by Sir George Carew during his Presidency of Munster in Elizabethan days, to which his great collections of manuscripts, now housed in the Archiepiscopal Library at Lambeth, bear witness.
After his return to Ireland to live on the property of his wife at Monksgrange, Enniscorthy, in County Wexford, Dr. Orpen began that systematic study of the sites of Norman motes and castles in Ireland which formed the archaeological groundwork for his historical studies on the same period. The results of his investigations were published in a series of articles contributed to the ‘’Journal’’ of the Royal Society of Antiquaries, Ireland, and in papers for the ‘’English Historical Review’’, the Royal Irish Academy, of which he was a member, the ‘’Journal’’ of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society, and elsewhere. This was perhaps the most important, as it was the most original work that Dr. Orpen has left behind him. His conclusions revolutionized many accepted views as to the age of these structures, and were particularly at variance with those of Mr. Thomas J. Westropp, who was at the same period investigating the earthworks of the west of Ireland and simultaneously publishing the results of his studies in the same journals.
The publication in 1911 of the first two volumes of Orpen’s “Ireland under the Normans” made the name of the author much more widely known. Though wanting something of the verve and vigour of the original authorities from which he derived his materials, this book is likely to remain the standard authority for the period with which its deals. It considerably enlarges the extent of the Anglo-Norman dominion beyond what had been usually realized, and it shows in its most favourable light the advances in prosperity and settlement made by the country during the Norman domination.
Dr. Orpen married, in 1880, Adela Elizabeth Richards, herself an author. He was a modest and diligent student, and a conscientious investigator, a man held in high esteem by those who knew him for his kindness and amiability.