Harris, Walter (1686–1761), antiquarian, was born in May 1686 in Mountmellick, King's Co. (Offaly), second son of Hopton Harris, who was described as a gentleman and served as lieutenant of the local Williamite militia in 1690–91. He entered the famous Kilkenny School in 1702 and went on to TCD in 1704, probably to study law. He was expelled from the college in 1708 due to a controversy where another student was expelled for toasting King William (qv) as a conqueror. Despite this, Harris entered the Middle Temple, London (31 May 1708), and then the King's Inns (1713), and set up house in Clarendon St., Dublin. He married Elizabeth, daughter of the Rev. Thomas Waye of Kilree, Co. Kilkenny, in November 1716 but she died one month later.
Harris does not seem to have practised the law much, as he certainly never became a noted lawyer. Instead, he married (1720) Jane Ware, granddaughter of the famous antiquarian Sir James Ware (qv), and pursued similar interests. The Ware family or his legal work seem to have opened some doors into antiquarian and improving circles for Harris, though he was not publicly involved in the debates of the 1720s and 1730s about the state of the Irish economy. From as early as 1731 he worked on a translation from Latin of Ware's Irish writings; a two-volume work, with much additional material from Harris, was published by subscription in 1739 and 1746. This was followed in 1740 by a much shorter work, A topographical and chorographical survey of the county of Down, which was less than its title suggested but did include a plan for a new society (based on the earlier Dublin Philosophical Society) to collect materials for county surveys and then publish these. Harris pursued these plans in the early 1740s and gained support from the likes of Sir Richard Cox (qv), MP, Lord Chief Baron Robert Jocelyn (qv), the Rev. Samuel Madden (qv), and Bishop Henry Maule (qv). By 1744 Harris (with a collaborator, Charles Smith (qv)) published the much larger The antient and present state of the county of Down, and in May 1745 was one of the founders of the Physico-Historical Society, based on the lines of his 1740 suggestions. From 1745 to 1752 the society minutes show him very active as a travelling ‘inquirer’ in Co. Dublin and a keen editor of the works (on Cork, Waterford, and Kerry) of Smith.
Harris continued to research and write his own books, concentrating on the history of seventeenth-century Ireland. In 1745 he had published a life of William III, though he said the printer had ‘maimed and castrated it in several particulars’ and so he had published by subscription a ‘new’ edition in 1749. In these years Harris also began what he intended to be a multi-volume series called Hibernica, publishing transcribed documents from Henry II's (qv) reign onwards. In the event, only two volumes appeared (1747, 1749), though a third one on the restoration settlement of 1661 was prepared for publication in 1752. In that year Harris published his last historical work, Fiction unmasked, criticising a pamphlet by the catholic historian Dr John Curry (qv) on the 1641 rebellion. Reiterating the traditional protestant view of the rebellion as a sectarian massacre, it was generally poorly received. Yet Harris's work was far from rejected, and in 1756, when Sir Richard Cox sought parliamentary support for continuing the Hibernica series, the proposal was recommended to the Dublin Society for assistance. The end result was a pension of £100 a year and the purchase of his manuscripts for the Society's library.
After 1752, with the failure of Fiction unmasked and the demise of the Physico-Historical Society, Harris slipped out of the public eye. He continued work on his topographical and historical survey of Dublin city and county, though this was published posthumously and very selectively in 1766. It would be easy to judge, from 1750s reports that he was impoverished, that his anti-catholicism and fears for the economic welfare of Irish protestants were out of touch. The truth is that polemic like Fiction unmasked did not suit all tastes, but celebrations of William of Orange, county surveys of improvement, and antiquarianism did; and, as a reward, he was given an honorary doctorate by TCD and made vicar general of Meath diocese, both in 1753. Harris died on 26 July 1761 and is buried in Dublin. His manuscripts include his ‘Collectanea’ (NLI, MSS 1–19); Armagh Public Library, MSS G.I.13–14, G.III.2, and G.V.11–15; and Dublin Public Libraries, Gilbert collection, MS 101.