We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Edwards, Robert Walter Dudley (1909–1988), historian, was born on 4 June 1909 at 7 North Frederick Street, Dublin, the eldest of the two children of Walter Dudley Edwards (1862–1946), civil servant, and his wife, Bridget Therese McInerney (1871–1956), a nurse. His father was a Quaker, from Worcestershire, but Edwards was brought up in his mother's religion, Roman Catholicism. Apart from a brief interlude after the Easter rising of 1916, when, at her insistence, he successively attended Patrick Pearse's school, St Enda's, Rathfarnham, and its associate Scoill Bhride, at Ranalagh, he was educated at the Catholic University School. He entered University College, Dublin, in 1926, graduated in 1929, and read law for a year, again at his mother's insistence, while settling down to the study of the laws against the nonconformist churches in early modern Ireland for which he was awarded an MA in 1931.

There followed two years in London, where Edwards attended the Institute of Historical Research and, as he later delicately phrased it, learned the historian's trade after a manner that had not been possible in Dublin, where his teachers ‘had had little connexion with historical research’ (Edwards, 1). There he prepared the thesis on the penal laws against Catholics for which he was awarded a doctorate in 1933 by the University of London. The revised first part of this study was published in 1935 as Church and State in Tudor Ireland. In 1933 Edwards married Sheila O'Sullivan (formerly Julia Sullivan; 1905–1985) , a teacher from Cork with interests in folklore. They had three children, Mary, Owen, and Ruth, the latter two both notable authors.

Edwards was elected to membership of the Royal Irish Academy in 1936, awarded the degree of DLitt by the National University of Ireland in 1937 for published work, and appointed to a lectureship in modern Irish history in University College, Dublin, in January 1939; he was promoted to statutory lecturer in the following year and succeeded in 1944 to the professorship, a post that he was to retain until his retirement in 1979. By that stage he had produced a significant body of both editorial and original work, notable for its wide chronological range, and become involved, in partnership with Theodore Moody, with whom he had shared lodgings in London, in a programme for the improvement of historical writing in Ireland which is commonly held to have begun the professionalization of Irish history. The two men shared not merely a concern to impose closer fidelity to the evidence and to improve scholarly practice, but also a belief in the ameliorative power of an informed understanding of the past.

The outcome was the foundation of the Ulster Society for Historical Studies. The Irish Historical Society began life separately in 1936, but the two bodies became complexly intertwined through the Irish Committee of Historical Sciences in 1937, of which Edwards was secretary, and combined to launch Irish Historical Studies, jointly edited by Edwards and Moody, which first appeared in March 1938. Edwards retained his joint editorship until 1957, when eye trouble forced his resignation. By then he had diverted his energy towards raising a new generation of rigorously trained historical scholars, not only by strengthening the undergraduate course and promoting research activity in University College, Dublin, but also through the foundation of the Irish Universities History Students' Association (1950) which, with its annual conference and its associated Bulletin (1956), performed for students the integrative function that the Ulster and Irish historical societies performed for their teachers.

A man of commanding presence and a compelling lecturer and conversationalist who revelled in paradox and allusion, taught that questions were more important than answers, and regarded shock tactics as a necessary teaching strategy, Edwards's influence owed more to personality than to example. Persistent eye trouble restricted his own research activity and for many years he eked out publications from the materials he had accumulated as a young man. Perhaps in compensation, he became increasingly concerned with the collection and preservation of the sources. In the 1970s he embarked upon a fresh constructive phase which contributed greatly to establishing the profession of archivist in Ireland. He was the main force behind the founding in 1970 of an Irish Society for Archives, which published the first issue of its Bulletin a year later, the initiation of a graduate diploma course in archival studies in 1972, and the creation of a department of archives in University College, Dublin, in 1970, which was designed as a research centre for the history of the modern Irish state and for which, as director until 1979, he acquired major collections of twentieth-century material.

After his retirement Edwards collaborated with Dr Mary O'Dowd in a valuable critical description of the sources of early modern Irish history, published in 1985. He had already begun to publish freely: a survey of Irish history appeared in 1972, an illustrated account of Daniel O'Connell and his World in 1975, and a narrative account of Tudor Ireland in 1977. These are works of indifferent quality, slackly written and unoriginal. As an obituarist noted:
The pity is that nothing that Dudley wrote captured the flamboyance, the arrogance, the perverseness, the passion, the erudite intuition, and the theatrical instinct that made him what he was, a great performer whose exuberance irradiated ‘the dismal muse of Irish history’. (Clarke, 127)
Edwards died on 5 June 1988 at his home, 21 Brendan Road, Donnybrook, Dublin, and was buried at St Fintan's cemetery, Sutton, Dublin.

Aidan Clarke

Sources  

University College, Dublin, Edwards MSS · C. Cullen, ‘The historical writings of Professor R. D. Edwards’, Studies in Irish history presented to R. Dudley Edwards, ed. A. Cosgrove and D. McCartney (1979), 347–53 · R. D. Edwards, ‘T. W. Moody and the origins of Irish Historical Studies: a biographical memoir’, Irish Historical Studies, 26 (1988–9), 1–2 · A. Clarke, ‘Robert Dudley Edwards (1909–1988)’, Irish Historical Studies, 26 (1988–9), 121–7 · [A. C. Holland], ‘Editorial: Robert Walter Dudley Edwards and a decade of archival achievements’, Irish Archives: Journal of the Irish Association for Archives, 1 (1989), 5–9 · The Leader (10 Nov 1956) · personal knowledge (2004) · private information (2004)

Archives  

University College, Dublin, archives department, LA/22


Likenesses  

photographs, University College, Dublin, archives department, Edwards MSS