2013. Obituary: Professor Robert (Bob) Welch MRIA

Obituary: Robert Anthony (Bob) Welch MRIA (1947-2013)

 Professor Bob Welch MRIA was a distinguished scholar, poet, novelist and playwright, as well as being a transformative faculty dean and research group leader.

 Born in Cork in 1947, Bob Welch studied English and Irish for his first degree at University College Cork before taking a Masters degree in literature under Sean Lucy. He then studied for his PhD at Leeds University under the supervision of the noted Yeats scholar A N Jeffares during which time he held lectureships at the Universities of Leeds and Ife, Nigeria. His research at Leeds majored on the interaction between Gaelic tradition and Irish poetry in English, for which he received international recognition and a field in which he continued working until his death.

 He was appointed to the chair of English and Head of the Department of English, Media and Theatre Studies at the newly established University of Ulster in 1984 where he developed an attractive and academically rigorous set of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. An inveterate scholar, researcher and writer, he relinquished his departmental headship in the 1990s in order to pursue a number of research projects. In seeing the necessity for the development of large and major integrative research programmes in the humanities, Bob Welch was ahead of many of his contemporaries, and his work presaged the development of funding initiatives for projects of scale such as the establishment of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. This approach led to a number of highly important works including the best selling  The Oxford Companion to Irish Literature ( 1996) and the five volume The Oxford History of the Irish Book (2006 onwards) to which he was a major contributor as well as being co-general editor. 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 throughout the world.

As author and poet, Professor Welch published several novels in both English and Irish.  These included Groundwork (1997), named by the New York Times Book Review as one of the notable books of 1998. His most recent book was Kicking the Black Mamba: Life, Alcohol and Death (2012), a memoir of his son Egan which has received much acclaim.  His output as a poet included Muskerry (1991) , The Evergreen Road (2006) and Constanza ( 2010). As a research scholar, he published major works of scope and ambition, including Irish Poetry from Moore to Yeats ( 1980), Changing States: Transformations in Modern Irish Writing (1993) and a History of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, The Abbey Theatre 1899-1999: Form and Pressure (1999). His plays included  Protestants – described by the Herald  as “a serious and breathtaking exploration of faith, belief systems and all the ambiguities that go with them” which toured  Northern Ireland as well as being performed in the Soho Theatre, London and Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh.

Bob was persuaded to return to a management role in 2000 and served two terms as a hugely successful and innovative Dean of the Faculty of Humanities (later the Faculty of Arts) until 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 (Belfast), Media (Coleraine), and Irish Cultural Heritages (Magee). He regarded, rightly, the establishment of the Academy for Irish Cultural Heritages as one of his greatest achievements. It reflected his longstanding and deep 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 Welch received a number of accolades for his work. In 2008 he was elected to Membership to the Royal Irish Academy, Ireland’s most senior academic body. In 1992 he was awarded the Oireachtas Prize for criticism and in 2003 he received the Senior Distinguished Research Fellowship Award of the University of Ulster.

Those who had the privilege of knowing and working with Bob Welch will remember always a warm, generous and stimulating man, possessed of unusual self belief, inordinate wit, and an abundance of intellectual  and moral courage. Although he had been suffering from cancer since 2009, this did not deter his prodigious written output or dampen his enthusiasm and good humour.

Bob died on 3 February 2013. A devoted husband and family man, he is survived by his wife Angela, daughter Rachel and sons Killian and Tiernan. His son Egan predeceased him in 2007.

Professor Gerry McKenna MRIA.             

February 2013



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