Professor Bob Welch (1947 - 2013):
Robert Anthony Welch was a highly prolific writer, both as a writer of academic books in literature and also an author of literary works in his own right, novels and poetry which he wrote in Irish as well as English. He was also an energetic and effective administrator at the University of Ulster, where would spend much of the rest of his career, leaving his considerable mark on that newly-formed establishment.
Bob Welch, as he was usually known, was originally from Cork, where, at University College, studying English and Irish, he obtained his primary and Master’s degrees before moving to the University of Leeds to study under AN Jeffares, the noted Dublin-born specialist on WB Yeats. He graduated with his PhD in 1974 and lectured for a time at Leeds (1971-19730), with a spell in Nigeria at the University of Ife. It was during his years at Leeds that he would build up his considerable expertise in and wide recognition for his work on the links between the Gaelic tradition and Irish poetry in English, a topic to which he would devote much of his career. In 1984 he moved to the University of Ulster as Professor of English and Head of the Department of English, Media and Theatre Studies at University of Ulster, which had just been established after merger of the New University of Ulster, the Ulster Polytechnic; and Magee College, Derry. Welch was based at the Coleraine, County Londonderry campus but also had responsibilities for the Magee campus. He soon became known as an imaginative developer and teacher of undergraduate and postgraduate courses, and not the least of his achievements was his successful pursuit of large-scale major integrative research programmes in the humanities, from which many scholars setting out on academic careers were able to benefit. He stood back from management roles in the 1990s for w while to concentrate on his academic and other writings, but in 2000 returned to management in 2000 and served for four years as an admired and innovative Dean of the Faculty of Humanities. He was a driving force behind the establishment of the Academy for Irish Cultural Heritages at the University. Despite his prodigious work rate, he would be inclined to lend his time and expertise to all sorts of academic projects dedicated to Irish literary and cultural studies, whether or not remunerated, dedicated scholar as he was. Just one instance was serving on an advisory group, based in Queen’s University, Belfast, which established the first-ever degree in Irish Studies as far afield as Transylvania, Romania. He also was a board member of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, and, his distinction always in demand, was an occasional broadcaster on local, national and southern Irish stations.
His list of publications lengthened as he produced work in his various roles. Perhaps his most monumental achievement came in 1996 when he published as principal editor The Oxford Companion to Irish Literature, a comprehensive guide to every aspect of Irish literature which took him some years to compile and was highly critically acclaimed throughout the British Isles by historians, writers and literary scholars alike. Welch followed this up with The Concise Oxford Companion to Irish Literature in 2000. He had already in 1980 produced Irish poetry from Moore to Yeats and his subsequent scholarly publications included, Changing States: Transformations in Modern Irish Writing in 1993 and a history of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, The Abbey Theatre 1899-1999: Form and Pressure 1999. Also in 1999 appeared The structure of process: John Montague's poetry. One of his particular interests and specialties was that he was a fluent Irish speaker, and in 1988 he had published A history of verse translation from the Irish, 1789-1897. He also produced as editor Irish Writers and Religion as well as a collection of pieces by WB Yeats, Writings on Irish folklore, legend and myth. Later, he was a general editor (along with Professor Brian Walker of the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s University, Belfast), of the multi-volume Oxford History of the Irish Book, to which he was also a major contributor.
As an author himself, Welch published as a novelist, playwright and poet. His novel in English, Groundwork, drew very favourable notices as far afield as The New York Times Book Review which called it one of the notable books of 1998. His Irish language novel, Tearmann, had been published the previous year. His output as a poet included Muskerry in 1991, The Evergreen Road in 2006 and Constanza, 2010. A play, Protestants: a play in seven scenes was commissioned in 2004, premiered in Belfast, toured throughout Northern Ireland and was performed in London and Edinburgh. Poignantly, some of his last work, published in 2012, commemorated a son who had died in 2007.
Bob Welch, who died on February 3, 2013, was a much-liked individual, as well as a distinguished and significant figure in education and scholarship in Ulster and beyond, in demand as en external examiner for PhD candidates on both sides of the border, and even holding a Visiting Professorship at Jawaharlal Nehru University, India. His accolades included the Oireachtas Prize for criticism in 1992 and in 2003 he received the Senior Distinguished Research Fellowship Award of the University of Ulster. Most notably, in 2008 he was elected a Member of the Royal Irish Academy, Ireland’s most senior academic body. A former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ulster described him this way:
“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.”
Obituaries: Coleraine Times 24 February 2013 (Professor Gerry McKenna); The Guardian 1 March 2013 (Professor Andrew Hadfield); Arts Council of Northern Ireland, 5 February 2013; http://research.ulster.ac.uk/research; www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/people/bob-welch; personal knowledge
© 2023 Ulster History Circle