Flower, Robin Ernest William (1881–1946), Gaelic scholar, poet, and translator, was born 16 October 1881 at Meanwood, Leeds, England, son of Marmaduke Flower, painter, and Jane Flower (née Lynch), both of Irish descent. He was educated at Leeds Grammar School and entered Pembroke College, Oxford (1900), graduating with first-class honours in classical moderations (1902) and in literae humaniores (1904). After a bout of ill-health, he joined the British Museum as assistant in the department of manuscripts (1906) and became an expert palaeographer. He later served as deputy keeper of manuscripts (1929–44).
He was commissioned to complete the catalogue originated by Standish O'Grady (qv), and later published as The catalogue of Irish manuscripts in the British Museum (1926). He travelled to Dublin (1910) to study Irish under the Norwegian philologist Carl Marstrander, but it was his visits to the Blasket Islands, where he was affectionately known as ‘Blaithín’ (‘Little Flower’), that stirred his enduring passion; he mastered the Irish language and immersed himself in the traditions of the islands. He translated the autobiography of the Blasket islander Tomás Ó Criomthain (qv) as The islandman (1934), and his own account of life there, The western island (1944), is an eloquent testimony to both the passing of a way of life and his deep affection for the island and its people. He was later credited with bringing the island's culture, particularly its literary tradition, to a worldwide audience. He also wrote Ireland and medieval Europe (1928) and An Irish journal: the story of the Blaskets (1933). His translations include Love's bitter-sweet: translations from the Irish poets of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (1925), Trírech inna nÉn (1926), and Fuit Ilium (1928).
In 1910, with Vivian Locke Ellis, he launched and edited a literary periodical, The Open Window, which survived two editions and included such contributors as E. M. Forster and Jack Yeats (qv). A poet of some stature, he published the original collections Éire, and other poems (1910), Hymenea, and other poems (1918), and The Leelong flower (1923), and (with his wife Ida) The Great Blasket (1924). A selection of his work appears in Poems and translations (1931). He wrote numerous reviews and articles for such publications as The Times, Times Literary Supplement, and Zeitschrift für Celtische Philologie.
Erudite in Gaelic and medieval studies, he lectured at University College, London, the British Academy, the Royal Society of Literature, and Boston, Yale, and Chicago universities. He was a prominent member of the Irish Texts Society, whose council he chaired, and the Early English Text Society, becoming its honorary acting director in 1940. He was elected FBA in 1934 and was a fellow of the Medieval Academy of America and an MRIA (1931). He was awarded honorary degrees of D.Litt.Celt. from the NUI (1927) and D.Litt. from Dublin University (1937).
Flower was an arresting personality, self-confident and self-centred; his powerful intellect sometimes led him to dismiss ruthlessly opinions that did not accord with his own. He was, nonetheless, a kind and sympathetic character who proved stimulating, enjoyable company. He fell ill while working on a history of Irish literature, and after two years of illness he died 16 January 1946 in Southgate, north London. His projected last work was published – as The Irish tradition (1947) – posthumously, as was Seanchas Ón oileán thiar (1956) which was written from the speech of Tomás Ó Criomthain. His portrait was drawn in pencil by David Bell and in watercolour by W. Bennett. He married (1911) Ida Mary Streeter of Croydon; they had one son and three daughters.