Carney, James Patrick (1914–89), Celticist, was born 17 May 1914 in Maryborough (Port Laoise), son of Patrick Francis Carney, a customs officer originally from Kiltimagh, Co. Mayo and his wife, Constance Grace, from Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny. His father died while Carney was still a child and the family moved to Dublin soon afterwards where he attended the CBS Synge St. He matriculated to UCD in 1931 pursuing Celtic studies under Osborn Bergin (qv) and Gerard Murphy (qv). He was conferred with a first class honours BA in 1935. The following year on receipt of a scholarship he moved to Bonn to study under Rudolf Thurneysen (qv). A year later he joined the ‘Leabhair ó Láimhsgríbhnibh’ project under the direction of Gerard Murphy. He contributed five volumes to the series, one of which, Sgéalta rómánsuíochta, his future wife, Máire Ní Mhuirgheasa, co-wrote. During the same period he also transcribed texts under the palaeographer R. I. Best (qv). He was appointed assistant in the School of Celtic Studies at the DIAS in 1941 where he remained until his retirement in 1986. Within it he held a series of seminars beginning in 1956–7 with a study of the poetry of Blathmac (qv). He delivered his final series on archaic Irish verse just prior to his retirement. During the course of his career he spent a number of periods in universities abroad. Between 1950 and 1952 he was the first holder of a visiting lectureship in Celtic in Uppsala University, Sweden where he founded the Anglo-Irish department. The university awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1973 in recognition of his services to Celtic studies. He also spent one and a half years in the University of California, Los Angeles (1965–6). During the course of two winters in the 1960s he gave a course in QUB one day per week. In 1975 he was appointed senior professor in the Institute and also functioned as director for a time towards the end of his career.
Carney had a broad range of interests in the field of Irish studies including works in old, middle and modern Irish, both prose and poetry, in addition to works in Latin. His main works include Regimen na sláinte in three volumes (1942–4); Topographic poems, by Seán Mór ó Dubhagáin and Giolla-na-naomh ó hUidhrín (1943); Poems on the Butlers of Ormond, Cahir and Dunboyne (A.D. 1400–1650) (1945); Poems on the O'Reillys (1950); Sgéalta románsuíochta (1952) edited together with his wife Máire and Siabhradh Mhic na Míochomhairle (1955). The work he is best remembered for, Studies in Irish literature and history, created a sensation amongst Irish and Celtic scholars on publication in 1955. In it, he criticised a number of scholars, including some of his former teachers, for their ‘nativist’ reading of Irish literature.
Terence McCaughey states that Carney's views regarding early Irish literature diverged from those of most of his contemporaries as a result of his reading E. R. Curtis's ‘European literature and the latin middle ages’ (Celtica, 23). Indeed, some of his later works were also to prove controversial and a number of his critics accused him of deliberately courting controversy. He was an authority on St Patrick and his work, The problem of St Patrick (1961), in which he argued that St Patrick had come to Ireland at a later date than the fifth century, was also contentious. In addition, he was responsible for an entry on the saint in the Encyclopedia Americana. Other works include Medieval Irish lyrics (1966), The Irish bardic poet: a study in the relationship of poet and patron (1967), and The playboy and the yellow lady (1986). This latter work was unrelated to Celtic studies but had as its subject matter James Lynchehaun (qv) from Achill Island who, sought by the police, had fled to the USA at the beginning of the twentieth century. J. M. Synge (qv) used this case as the model for his Playboy of the western world.
Although Carney had a love for the oral Irish tradition, attending the open house sessions of Professor Seamus Ó Duilearga (qv) every Saturday night for many years, he did not become involved in the Irish-language revival movement and accepted the demise of the modern spoken language as inevitable.
The NUI awarded him an honorary doctorate for his services to Celtic studies at a ceremony in Galway in 1979 that coincided with the sixth international congress of Celtic studies. In his citation, Professor Breandán Ó Buachalla noted that Studies in Irish literature and history would mark the ‘pre-Carney and post-Carney’ period in the genesis of Irish literature.
He suffered ill health during his later years and died 7 July 1989; he was pre-deceased by his wife Mary Ellen (Máire) Morrissey in 1975; their son Paul Carney was appointed a judge of the high court in 1991.