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Etienne Rynne

11 September 1932 - 22 June 2012

Appreciation by
Terry Barry

Rynne photo

Professor Etienne Rynne, who has recently died at the age of 79, was a well-known personality in Irish archaeological circles for many decades. His main area of interest centred on the early medieval period, and especially of the art of that era, although he maintained an active involvement in many other areas of the discipline. Born into a diplomatic family in 1932 he studied archaeology and French in University College Dublin. He received his BA in 1953, and then two years later, in 1955, he secured an MA in archaeology.

After a year spent travelling in Europe on a National University of Ireland Travelling Scholarship, he joined the Irish Antiquities division of the National Museum of Ireland in 1957. While in the Museum he was able to make an in-depth study of one of the most iconic objects of the early middle ages, the Ardagh Chalice. He then accompanied it to the British Museum, when it was sent there for repair. He joined the team in the memorable excavations of Tara, which were then being directed by Professor S.P. O'Riordain of University College Dublin. Ten years later, in 1967, he became a lecturer in the Department of Archaeology in University College Galway, with Michael Duignan as his Professor. He then succeeded him as Professor in 1978, and stayed there until his retirement in 1998.

As one of only three full Professors of Archaeology in the Republic of Ireland he took an active part in all the major archaeological controversies in Ireland. Arguably the most important was the development of the Wood Quay site along the River Liffey in the late 1970s. This significant Viking Age site and its preservation divided public opinion as well as, to a lesser extent, the archaeological community throughout Ireland and beyond. In this case he argued for a comprehensive excavation to be determined by professional archaeologists. A few years later he also gave his support to the preservation of the environs around the great prehistoric fort at Navan in County Armagh, when there were proposals to extend a nearby quarry.

Without his support it is unlikely that the Society for Medieval Archaeology would have visited Galway for their annual conference, one of the first occasions that they had held it outside the UK. At events like these an international audience was able to enjoy his engaging style of public speaking that countless students had enjoyed in lectures in Galway. As a true academic, even if he disagreed with somebody over an academic point, once he had enjoyed the pleasure of the argument that would inevitably follow, a twinkle in his eyes would signal that it was over once and for all. He was the driving force behind the creation of a museum in Galway, which is still flourishing to this day. As an archaeologist, he excavated a varied number of sites, and published extensively, ranging from many articles in both scholarly and local journals, as well as books. Two examples of the latter include a volume on Athenry: a medieval Irish town (1992) and the edition of his father-in-law's book, A. T. Lucas' Cattle in Ireland in 1989. Finally, he was also an editor of two important collections of papers: North Munster Studies (1967) in memory of Monsignor Michael Moloney, and Figures from the Past (1987) in honour of Helen M. Roe.

As President of the Society of Antiquaries of Ireland and then, of the Cambrian Archaeological Society, he made an important impact on Irish archaeology more generally. He was also the editor for three decades of one of the most significant local archaeological journals, The North Munster Antiquarian Journal. As well as being a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, he was elected a Member of the Royal Irish Academy. He was a fluent linguist, especially in French, assisted both by the fact that his mother was French, and by attending a school in France for part of his secondary education.

The extent and breadth of his interests, especially in Celtic Christian art, will remain as a testament to a great Irish archaeologist.