2013. Tribute to Professor Bob Welch MRIA
Robert Anthony (Bob) Welch MRIA (1947-2013)
Bob Welch enriched the lives of a great many people; socially, intellectually, professionally, and spiritually. This enrichment was based on the continuous development, and exploitation, of the extraordinary gifts he possessed; creativity, curiosity, love of literature, a sense of history and heritage, and an uncommon facility with words. As I observed his prodigious output of high quality academic and creative publications during his illness, I was reminded constantly of the ‘Parable of the Talents’. Bob did not bury or hoard the talents he was given – he multiplied them, sharing them freely and generously with others.
I first met Bob in 1984 when he was appointed to the chair in English Literature at the newly established University of Ulster. He was only 37 and I have no doubt that he appeared to many as brash and irrepressible – qualities normally frowned upon in academia! He was a breath of fresh air in the humanities and he was transformative in their development within and beyond the University.
Bob saw the humanities as a vital and integral part of culture, heritage and civilisation itself. A genuinely world class academic, he was a pioneer in undertaking large scale humanities research projects requiring collaboration and teams of researchers, as well as major external funding. This set him apart from many of his contemporaries and presaged the development of bodies such as the Arts and Humanities Research Council, mirroring developments in the sciences. This approach led to a number of hugely important works including’ The Oxford Companion to Irish Literature’ and the five volume ‘The Oxford History of the Irish Book’ – the latter edited in partnership with his colleague Professor Brian Walker of Queen’s University. Most importantly, it created an incubation unit for tens of young humanities researchers, many of whom have gone on to distinguished academic and literary careers. Remarkably, he maintained the highest level of academic scholarship in parallel with a voluminous output of acclaimed poetry and highly regarded plays.
Bob was a hugely successful and innovative Dean of the Faculty of Humanities (later the Faculty of Arts) at UU from 2000 - 2008. He gave the faculty direction and vitality as part of a clear vision focussed on excellence and innovation. Based at Coleraine, he strengthened the Magee campus through developing and transferring programmes there in the performing and creative arts. His grand vision enabled his faculty to win unprecedentedly large infrastructural grants through the hugely competitive Support Programme for University Research (SPUR) including the establishment of major centres in Art and Design, Media, and Irish Cultural Heritages. He regarded, rightly, the establishment of the Academy for Irish Cultural Heritages at Magee as one of his greatest achievements. It reflected his unusual understanding of the inter-relationships and inter-dependencies between the various strands of culture and heritage. Only an exceptional and generous mind could have conceived of such a farseeing and integrative development.
Bob’s outstanding contributions as a researcher and scholar were recognised, appropriately, through his election to Ireland’s most senior academic body, the Royal Irish Academy. He was a hugely respected and active Member of the Academy where he will be greatly missed.
Many people dread death less than having led a meaningless life. As T S Eliot wrote “I can show you fear in a handful of dust”. Bob Welch was a brilliant, generous man who possessed in abundance the one virtue upon which all others are conditional; courage. He was a loyal, honest and true friend. He will be remembered fondly and reverently by all who knew him and by countless scholars in the future who will benefit from studying his groundbreaking works.
Returning to the ‘Parable of the Talents’, I could not help feeling when Angela told me of Bob’s passing that he would be greeted elsewhere with the words “Well done, good and faithful servant”.
(The above address was delivered by Professor Gerry McKenna MRIA at the funeral service for Professor Bob Welch MRIA on 6 February, 2013).