Hardiman, James (1782–1855), historian and librarian, was born in February 1782 at Westport, Co. Mayo, only son of Tomás (or Richard) Ó hArgadáin or Hartigan, a small estate owner, originally from Co. Meath, and his wife Marcella or Margery (née Hall). Hardiman, according to his friend John O'Donovan (qv), was reticent about his background. He spent his childhood in Galway and Irish was his first language. When young he lost his right eye and so was incapacitated for his intended future in the priesthood. After initial education locally, he went to Dublin to study law. He entered King's Inns (1809), and was admitted a solicitor (1814). He worked in the Public Record Office of Ireland (1811–30) and in 1818 acquired some 200 acres in Co. Mayo.
His first major work was History of the town and county of Galway (1820), for which he researched sources in TCD, the Record Tower at Dublin castle, the British Museum, the town records of Galway, Irish annals, and the Bodleian library, Oxford. It contains facsimiles of primary sources such as charters and maps, as well as engravings, lists of civic officers, and a wealth of toponymical and genealogical evidence employed to trace Galway's history from the earliest times to the post-union era. It was an ambitious and pioneering work, and remains useful for reference.
Hardiman's next work was the Annals of Innisfallen (1822), to which he added a topographical index. His ‘Catalogue of maps, charts and plans relating to Ireland among the manuscripts in the library of TCD’ was published in RIA Trans., xiv (1821–5), 57–77. He was an active MRIA. In 1825 he furnished to the Irish Record Commission, where he was then employed, a valuable report on grants and conveyances passed under the acts of settlement (1652) and explanation (1665), as well as those perfected under the 1688 forfeitures sales. The Irish Record Commission published his Inquisitionum in officio rotulorum cancellariae Hiberniae . . . Leinster in 1826. He also abstracted patent and close rolls of the Irish chancery, and published a calendar up to the time of Henry VII. B. 1830 he was a sub-commissioner with the Irish Record Commission, though he lost his position in that year because of government cutbacks, and returned to Galway. He was obliged to sell many of his manuscripts to the British Museum for a third of their value, viz. £500, to enable him to complete the proof of the Netterville peerage for James Netterville. Hardiman carried out extensive researches in support of Netterville's claim, which was acknowledged by the house of lords in 1834, but he received little or no recompense from the client.
In December 1827 Hardiman travelled in Longford and Roscommon collecting Irish verse and songs. His major anthology, Irish minstrelsy: or, Bardic remains of Ireland (2 vols, 1831) reveals an interest in the Irish language, although its usefulness is lessened by a lack of provenance for the poems. Turlough Carolan (qv) is well represented in Irish minstrelsy. Hardiman's aim was to establish the antiquity of Irish verse – equal, he felt, to that of Rome or Greece, and he hoped that the work would offer abundant evidence of the richness of Gaelic culture. Versifications in English were provided by Thomas Furlong (qv) and John D'Alton (qv), and others assisted in the work. His plan to issue a later volume with music, though supported by Thomas Davis (qv), fell through. Samuel Ferguson (qv) severely criticised Irish minstrelsy in four articles in Dublin University Magazine in 1834. Hardiman had also planned to edit a manuscript history of Oliver Cromwell's (qv) activities in Ireland, but this never appeared.
To the Irish Archaeological Society, of which in 1840 he was a founder member, Hardiman gave (1843) a translation of the statute passed at Kilkenny in 1366, from a manuscript in the British Museum, accompanied by his notes. Hardiman's edition of A chorographical description of west or h-Iar Connacht (1684), by Roderic O'Flaherty (qv), was published by the Irish Archaeological Society in 1846, in which year he became a founder member of the Celtic Society.
On the establishment of QCG (1849), Hardiman was appointed librarian, having declined the chair of Irish; he was also law agent for the college. He was a prominent member of the Royal Galway Institute (later Galway chamber of commerce), was instrumental in providing the institute's royal charter, and bestowed on its library some 1,000 volumes. He endowed the Franciscan friary at Errew, Ballykean, Co. Mayo, with ten acres in perpetuity. His papers are mostly in the RIA and the British Museum.
Urbane and mild-mannered, he always enjoyed excellent health until on 13 November 1855 he was suddenly seized by apoplexy and paralysis, and died a few hours later. He was buried in the Abbey chapel, Galway. His wife (name unavailable) had predeceased him and he was survived by a son.
Hardiman's library, one of the most valuable Irish collections to come to market, went to auction in 1,648 lots on 26 March 1856. Included were a rare complete set of Watty Cox's (qv) Irish Magazine (1807–15), Fynes Moryson's (qv) History of Ireland (1735 ed.), and Caleb Threlkeld's (qv) rare Irish herbal (1727), as well as many essential texts by Philip O'Sullivan Beare (qv), Richard Stanihurst (qv), Sir Richard Musgrave (qv), Edward Hay (qv), and others. Among the manuscripts offered for sale was Hardiman's eighteen-volume set of notes, as well as primary sources relating to Galway corporation, dating from 1679 to 1818. The James Hardiman Library at the NUI, Galway, is named in his honour.