MacAdam, Robert Shipboy (1808–95), folklorist and antiquary, was born in High St., Belfast, younger of two surviving sons of James MacAdam (1755–1821), who owned a hardware shop in the same street, and his wife Jane Shipboy (1774–1827), a native of Belfast. MacAdam was educated at the Belfast Academical Institution, where his interest in the Irish language was stimulated by the Rev. William Neilson (qv). Robert MacAdam and his older brother James (qv) continued in their father's hardware business and around 1834 established the Soho foundry in Townsend St., where they manufactured a variety of ironware. From 1850 onwards the foundry acquired an international reputation for the production of turbine engines (horizontal water wheels developed in France by Benoît Fourneyron) and at its peak the enterprise had a workforce of 250. However, the foundry went into decline from about 1860, its workforce had fallen to 150 by 1870, and it closed in 1894.
Robert MacAdam showed an early interest in various branches of learning. He was active in the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society from about 1829 and held various offices in the society between 1832, when he first served as its secretary, and 1888, when he accepted the office of president. When Cuideacht Gaoidhilge Uladh (the Ulster Gaelic Society) was formed in 1830 under the chairmanship of Dr James MacDonnell (qv) and the patronage of Lord Downshire (qv), with the aims of collecting Irish manuscripts, promoting the study of Irish, and publishing books in the language, MacAdam was one of its joint secretaries. One of the society's more notable publications was a translation by Tomás Ó Fiannachta of Forgive and forget by Maria Edgeworth (qv), and MacAdam collaborated with Ó Fiannachta on An introduction to the Irish language intended for the use of Irish classes in the Royal Belfast Academical Institution – a grammar that appeared in 1835. MacAdam retained his interest in Irish after the Ulster Gaelic Society ceased to operate, and employed Aodh Mac Domhnaill (qv) as a full-time scribe and collector of songs, folklore, and Irish-language manuscripts. Other collectors and scribes who worked for MacAdam included Peter Galligan and Arthur Bennett (qv). In the period 1842–56, with Mac Domhnaill's assistance, MacAdam wrote an English–Irish dictionary that ran to more than 1,000 pages in manuscript but was never published. He also compiled a collection of 600 proverbs in Irish, which appeared in serial form in the Ulster Journal of Archaeology, an annual publication that was established by MacAdam in 1853 and which he continued to edit until the end of its first series in 1862.
Ill-health, financial pressures, and an increased workload following the death of his brother (1861) reduced MacAdam's involvement in scholarship from the 1860s onwards. He sold more than fifty manuscripts from his extensive collection to Dr William Reeves (qv) in 1889 and these were dispersed on the latter's death in 1892. Manuscripts that MacAdam presented to the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society are now held by the Belfast Public Library, while others that were still in his possession at the time of his death are in the library of QUB. In 1894 financial necessity obliged him to auction his library.
Robert MacAdam did not marry. From the early 1830s he lived with his brother at 18 College Square East, Belfast, and he died there on 3 January 1895. He was buried in Knockbreda churchyard. A silhouette of MacAdam dating from 1837 is in the art department of the Ulster Museum.