‘A man of strong enthusiasms’ – Brian Maye on antiquarian Richard Hitchcock

A key figure in the preservation and recording of Ogham inscriptions

One of Co Kerry’s earliest and finest antiquarians, Richard Hitchcock, who was born 200 years ago on April 6th, is probably little remembered now. In fact, it seems he was largely forgotten within so short a period as 20 years after his death. Richard Brash, in his book The Ogham-Inscribed Monuments of the Gael in the British Islands, published in 1879, suggested that memory of Hitchcock had faded and declared it his “duty to make this brief record of the little-known but invaluable services rendered by [him] to the cause of Irish archaeology”.

Marc Caball, who wrote the entry on Hitchcock in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, puts forward his early death (he was only 32), his modest provincial origins and his lack of formal academic training as possible reasons why his scholarly achievements were obscured.

He was born in Annagh townland, near Blennerville, Tralee, Co Kerry, one of three children of Rodney Hitchcock, who came originally from Co Cork. It seems that his parents were initially well-off but suffered reduced circumstances, for reasons that aren’t clear, and lived on a small farm under Sliabh Mis, overlooking Tralee Bay. Richard was mostly self-educated, apart from spending a few years at an Erasmus Smith school in Blennerville.

The young Hitchcock was a bright child and Arthur Blennerhassett Rowan, a local Church of Ireland curate, who was also an antiquarian and archaeologist, encouraged his interest in geology and archaeology. He made his library available to the boy, who read books on Irish history and antiquity enthusiastically. Hitchcock also learned drawing from an engineer who was working on the building of the Tralee Ship Canal and he developed an ability to do architectural drawings accurately.

An appointment as a temporary clerk on famine-relief schemes in his early twenties caused him to live in Dingle (1846-48), “and the access this provided him to the antiquities of west Kerry was to prove a critical influence in his formation as an antiquarian,” according to Marc Caball. Hitchcock later described how he had found in remote Corca Dhuibhne “monuments of almost every age and class, and in a remarkably fine state of preservation the Ogham inscriptions, of which the barony of Corkaguiny [Corca Dhuibhne] contains so many, possessed peculiar attractions for me”.

He began to correspond with Edward Clibborn, assistant librarian of the Royal Irish Academy (RIA), about deciphering Ogham characters and this, in turn, brought him into contact with Dr Charles Graves, an eminent antiquarian who was himself studying Ogham at the time. He commissioned Hitchcock to collect Ogham inscriptions in the Dingle peninsula and elsewhere in the region and “Hitchcock soon became recognised as an authority on the rich archaeological heritage of west Kerry”, according to Marc Caball.

Through Graves’s connection with the head of Trinity College Dublin library, Hitchcock was given a position as library clerk there and also became an assistant to the Geological Society of Ireland. He moved to Dublin in 1848, where he had library resources and scholarly advice not available in Kerry. Becoming deeply involved in the new and growing Kilkenny Archaeological Society, piloted by Rev James Graves, he contributed to and worked on the production of its Transactions, and corresponded regularly with antiquarians throughout the UK.

Charles Graves commissioned him to compile a comprehensive record of the Ogham inscriptions of southern Ireland, which was to be his “most substantial achievement”, according to March Caball. However, although he presented the record to Graves for publication in 1850, it never appeared in book form (the manuscript is in the RIA library). While he was acknowledged for being a careful scholar, he was aware himself that his ignorance of Irish “severely curtailed his potential as an expert in Ogham” (Caball).

An anonymous tribute to him in the Kerry Magazine in 1856 (probably written by Blennerhassett Rowan) gave an insight into his personality. “With various eccentricities, much of the primitive simplicity, and something of the importance incidental to self-teaching, Richard Hitchcock had high principles, thoroughly disinterested feelings, and an enthusiastic delight in obliging or serving those who had befriended him.” Marc Caball described him as “clearly a man of strong enthusiasms” (he was a convinced vegetarian, for example) but, most of all, “a passionate student of archaeology, particularly that of his native Kerry”.

He married Mary Fuller, of Ventry, Co Kerry. They had no children and she survived him by 40 years. On December 3rd, 1856, at the young age of 32, he died from TB at his home in Roundtown (now Terenure) in Dublin (his brother and sister in Kerry had died earlier that year from the same disease).

He was buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery, where the staff of Trinity College Dublin had a monument raised in his memory.

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