Evans, Emyr Estyn (1905–89), Ireland's first professor of geography, was born 29 May 1905, youngest of four sons and one daughter of the Rev. George Owen Evans, minister of the Presbyterian Church in Wales, and Elizabeth Evans (née Jones). Born in Shrewsbury, he spent his early life in the parish of Coedway, across the border in Wales. Educated at Welshpool County School, Evans won a scholarship to University College of Wales at Aberystwyth, graduating (1925) with first-class honours in geography and anthropology. He gained his MA in 1931, and in 1939 was awarded a D.Sc. from the same university. After graduation he had planned to go to Oxford, but ill-health prevented him accepting his studentship; instead he spent his convalescence in Wiltshire, developing an appreciation of prehistoric landscapes in the company of local archaeologists. Later he worked for a time for his former professor, H. J. Fleure, as a consultant editor on the Encyclopaedia Britannica (14th ed.), until in 1928 he was appointed lecturer in geography at QUB. He spent the remainder of his professional career at Queen's, with short breaks on sabbatical in the USA, at Bowdoin College in Maine, Louisiana, and Indiana. He was appointed professor in 1945, and by the time of his retirement in 1969 the department he founded had become one of the largest in Britain and Ireland. He also helped establish archaeology and social anthropology as independent departments at Queen's, as well as the Institute of Irish Studies, a multi-disciplinary centre for postgraduate research; in 1965 he became its first director, and remained an honorary research fellow until his death.
In his first decade at Queen's, Evans developed his interests in prehistoric geography through survey and excavation; with his colleague Oliver Davies he revived the Ulster Journal of Archaeology, and undertook the enormous task of compiling the first systematic field survey of historic monuments, published in 1940. His experience was put to use for many years as a member of the government advisory committees on historic monuments in both Northern Ireland and the Republic, and as a trustee of the Ulster Museum.
Through fieldwork Evans developed an intimate knowledge of the Irish countryside and the way of life of its people. His books Irish heritage (1942) and Irish folk ways (1957) were pioneer studies, based on first-hand knowledge and experience, and opened a whole new field for scholarly research. The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, founded in 1958, was a tangible result of his work and he served as a trustee for many years. The journal Ulster Folklife, first published in 1955, was another initiative, catering for the growing professional and lay interest in the subject.
As a geographer, Evans's work dealt mainly with the evolution of the man-made landscape, in Ireland and in western Europe. He dealt with these themes in papers to international symposia such as the Wenner–Gren meeting (1955), and in his presidential addresses to the geography section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1957 and to the anthropology section in 1959. Work on the urban geography of Belfast was given recognition by the Royal Town Planning Institute, which made him an honorary member in 1950. As president of the Institute of British Geographers in 1970, he developed his long-held interest in regional identity, first explored in a regional geography of France written in 1937, and in his classic Mourne country (1951), perhaps his favourite book. His last major publication, The personality of Ireland (1973), bore the apt subtitle ‘habitat, heritage and history’: the intertwining of these three strands, he believed, provided the geographical basis for regional identity and the sense of place.
Evans's academic work brought him many honours: the Victoria medal of the Royal Geographical Society (1973), the merit award of the Association of American Geographers (1979), and honorary doctorates from NUU, TCD, NUI, QUB, Wales, and Bowdoin College; he was elected MRIA in 1938. For his public work on many advisory and statutory bodies he was awarded the CBE in 1970. He was one of the foremost scholars of his generation, an academic who gave unstintingly of his time and expertise for public benefit, but who above all was a fine lecturer and caring teacher, much loved by his students. Evans died in Belfast on 12 August 1989.
He married (1931) Gwyneth Jones, herself the daughter of a university professor, and two of their four sons have also become academics, in medicine and in architecture. A full bibliography of his writings appears in E. E. Evans, Ireland and the Atlantic heritage (1996), 261–8.