Ledwich, Edward (1737?–1823), clergyman and historian, was born in Dublin, son of John Ledwich, merchant and brewer, and his wife, possibly Elizabeth (née Davies); his father's brother was Edward Ledwich (1707–82), dean of Kildare. Edward Ledwich jun. was educated by a Mr Shiels and entered TCD in 1755. He graduated MA (1760) and LLB (1763). He was ordained in the Church of Ireland, became (1770) a curate at Rathdowney, in the diocese of Ossory, and on 28 May 1772 was instituted vicar of Aghavoe (Aghaboe) in Ossory. There were only about twenty-five protestant families among 3,000 catholic parishioners, but it is said that Ledwich helped the development of agriculture in the area by building a limekiln, and donated 400 spinning-wheels. He lived for the most part in Aghaboe until October 1797, when he resigned his parish and went to live in Dublin.
His description of the History and antiquities of Irishtown and Kilkenny appeared in 1781 as part of the ‘Collectanea de rebus hibernica’, a series published by Charles Vallancey (qv). Ledwich afterwards openly and very strongly opposed Vallancey's views on ancient Irish history, particularly his beliefs about the Phoenician origins of the Irish people. Ledwich was convinced that the ancient Irish had been as barbarous as the scanty Greek and Roman descriptions suggested; that they originated in Scandinavia; and that English colonisation had brought to the island such civilisation as it had subsequently enjoyed. Both Vallancey and Ledwich, along with Charles O'Conor (qv) of Belanagare and William Burton Conyngham (qv), were founder members (1779) of the Hibernian Antiquarian Society, which collapsed in 1783 in the bitter disagreements between Vallancey and Ledwich.
Ledwich was particularly concerned with the early history of the Christian church in Ireland, because he argued that the contemporary dominance of the Church of Ireland was justified by its being the true successor of the early Irish church. This, according to James Ussher (qv) and other protestant apologists, had been free from Roman and papal influence. In 1790 Ledwich's The antiquities of Ireland appeared and was widely read. Those who agreed with his views found it an impressive and even a seminal work, and he has been credited with a pioneering appreciation of the importance to historians of primary sources (though he refused to use Irish-language manuscripts), as well as with a novel critical approach to traditional tales. Opponents of his attempt to discredit Irish legendary history devoted a great deal of effort over many years to attacking his bias and apparent proselytising tendencies, and itemised numerous inconsistencies and errors. John Lanigan (qv) for instance, listed in his history of the Irish church (published 1822) ninety-five separate ‘proofs of and animadversions on [Ledwich's] ignorance, errors, and malevolence’, and by 1857 even Ledwich's co-religionists James Graves (qv) and J. G. A. Pim regretted the ‘perverse ingenuity’ of Ledwich's particularly strong antipathy to the saints of the early church. He regarded almost all of them, even St Patrick, as ‘imaginary personages’, invented by later hagiographers.
In 1791 Ledwich was asked to complete the work of his friend Francis Grose (1731?–1791), who had died suddenly while visiting Ireland. Ledwich obtained permission to use some of the antiquarian drawings from the collection of Burton Conyngham, which had been produced under the ægis of the Hibernian Antiquarian Society, and the two volumes of Grose's Antiquities of Ireland, largely written by Ledwich, were published 1791–5. The RIA was founded in 1785 after the collapse of the Hibernian Antiquarian Society, with Vallancey as a prominent member. Ledwich refused to join until 1791, but afterwards was secretary of the committee of antiquities; Vallancey's membership at the same time must have produced some difficult moments, since neither man was notably conciliatory. Ledwich also published A statistical survey of the parish of Aghaboe (1796), of more lasting utility than his other works, and a few papers on antiquarian subjects. He was FSA of London and Scotland. Edward Ledwich died 8 August 1823 at his house in York St., Dublin.
He married (15 August 1778) Frances Phillips in Aghmacart, Queen's Co. (Laois); they had at least four daughters and four sons. One of his grandsons was Thomas Hawkesworth Ledwich (qv). An elaborate study of the antiquities of the Wiltshire town of Salisbury, Antiquitates Sarisburiensis, was published in Salisbury in 1771, with another edition there in 1777. It appeared at first anonymously, but was attributed to an Edward Ledwich, a curate in Coome and Harnham, Wiltshire. It has generally been assumed that this was the same man as Edward Ledwich, author of the Antiquities of Ireland, though as the latter was a curate in Ossory from 1770 it might have been difficult for him to see the work through the press.