Gailey, Robert Alan (1935–2013), folklife scholar and museum director, was born on 4 October 1935 in Galway. Known by his middle name, Alan was the second child of Andrew J. Gailey (d. 1963), a presbyterian minister in Galway, and Mary Gailey (née Porter). He had two sisters. From 1962 Andrew J. Gailey was clerk of the presbyterian General Assembly.
Alan attended Galway Grammar School and the Royal Belfast Academical Institution (1948–53). In 1953 he entered QUB to study geography and was a student of Emyr Estyn Evans (qv). Evans's inspiring lectures and encouragement shaped the rest of Gailey's career. An undergraduate project dealing with the Aran Islands, which he had known as a boy in Galway, gave him his first experience of fieldwork. He graduated in 1957 with a first class honours BA degree. In 1961 his thesis 'Settlement changes in the southwest Highlands of Scotland' was accepted for a Ph.D. degree by the University of Glasgow, and among his first publications in the 1960s were a number of articles drawing on his fieldwork in Scotland.
In October 1960 Gailey was appointed research officer to the newly founded Ulster Folk Museum. He was the first curatorial appointment and joined George B. Thompson, the director, in establishing policy for developing the museum on its newly acquired site, Cultra Manor, outside Holywood, Co. Down. Together they planned an open-air park in which actual vernacular buildings would be re-erected in a landscape suggestive of the early twentieth century in Ulster, with galleries to exhibit artefacts and displays of craft activities typical of local life. The concept was extended as the museum's staff and capabilities were enhanced, but it was Gailey who was chiefly responsible for the fieldwork to discover suitable old buildings, and organising their transfer and re-building on the museum site. Farmhouses and cottages, churches, urban dwellings and mills were identified throughout the nine counties of Ulster, acquired, painstakingly measured and logged, then dismantled and re-erected in appropriately prepared settings in Cultra. Visitors frequently refuse to believe that the old buildings they see were so recently re-built. The site was greatly enlarged in 1966 with the purchase of the adjacent Dalchoolin estate, and further developed to include wide-ranging and important collections relating to transport in Ireland. In 1967 the museum's name was changed to the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum.
As the museum's assistant keeper (1963–73), keeper of buildings (1973–86), keeper of non-material culture (1975–86), acting director (1986–8) and director (1988–96), Gailey's contribution to its physical development was immense. His contribution to the academic study of Irish vernacular buildings, crafts and folkways was equally important: he published over 130 articles and book chapters, as well as several major monographs on his main research interests, such as Spade making in Ireland (1982) and The rural houses of the north of Ireland (1984). He was also an expert on folk drama, including mumming, and wrote a definitive work, Irish folk drama (Cork, 1969).
As assistant editor (1959–72) and editor (1973–86) of the journal Ulster Folklife, Gailey encouraged and helpfully admonished scores of contributors and would-be contributors, including the present writer. Alongside his own fieldwork and researches, he jointly edited a number of books of essays as well as festschriften (Gold under the furze (1982) for Caoimhín Ó Danachair (qv) and The use of tradition (1988) for George B. Thompson). In turn, in 2000, Gailey's Welsh friend Trefor M. Owen edited a festschrift, From Corrib to Cultra: folklife essays in honour of Alan Gailey.
In his later career, Gailey published a number of thoughtful contributions on the nature of tradition, on cultural markers and regional identity. His work on the role of museums and heritage education in Ireland in helping people come to terms with opposing identities and past and present conflicts was regarded as particularly valuable. He was secretary of the (British) Society of Folk Life Studies (1975–82) and president (1986–9). Serving on numerous committees concerned with community relations and education in Northern Ireland, he was one of the first Ulster scholars from a protestant background (from the mid-twentieth century) to engage with colleagues and with subject matter from elsewhere on the island. His knowledge of the west of Ireland and his inheritance of a liberal presbyterian tradition contributed significantly to his awareness of the possibility of alternative identities. In the 1997 New Year Honours List he was awarded an OBE for services to museums and galleries.
On 24 March 1961, in the chapel of the University of Glasgow, Alan Gailey married Evelyn McNee Thomson Sclater from Dunbartonshire, Scotland. They had two sons; the younger son died before his father. Andrew Gailey died in 2013.