Macalister, Robert Alexander Stewart (1870–1950), archaeologist, was born 8 July 1870 at Leinster Road, Rathmines, Dublin, eldest among two sons and two daughters of Alexander Macalister, anatomist and Egyptologist, of Dublin, and Elizabeth Macalister (née Stewart) of Perth, Scotland. His grandfather, Robert Macalister, moved from Scotland to Dublin to become secretary of the Sunday School Society of Ireland and married Margaret Anne Boyle of Dungiven, Co. Londonderry. His father held the chair of zoology at TCD, then that of anatomy and chirurgery, before becoming professor of anatomy at Cambridge (1883). The change of home from Dublin to Cambridge was a crucial event in Macalister's childhood and his Irish identity always remained important to him throughout his life.
Educated at Rathmines School and the Perse School, Cambridge, he went on to graduate in mathematics from St John's College, Cambridge (1892). His study of geology then led him to research in the Sedgwick Museum of Geology, and he gave classes in prehistoric archaeology in the university at a time before the archaeological and anthropological tripos was established. However, by 1894 he had already contributed a paper on Killeen Cormac, Co. Kildare, to the Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, and in 1895 he returned to Ireland, became a member of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, and immediately embarked on the steady stream of publications that typified his career. His vast range of interests is evident in his published works, embracing not only the archaeology of Ireland and western Europe, but languages, epigraphy, the history of the near east, Celtic studies, music, the history of ecclesiastical vestments, and many more topics. Inscriptions, particularly ogham, feature prominently from first to last, with a set of Studies in Irish epigraphy between 1897 and 1907, and a final two-volume inventory, long in use, Corpus inscriptionum insularum Celticarum (1945, 1949).
His professional life fell into two parts: one as an excavator employed by the Palestine Exploration Fund; the other as professor of Celtic archaeology at UCD (1909–43). Between 1898 and 1909 he worked in Palestine, mainly at Gezer. The site, written up in three volumes (1912), marks a turning point in archaeological reports in precision of detail, although his excavation methods may be faulted in the light of advanced techniques. It was a huge task for one man alone to oversee up to 200 workmen. He was granted leave of absence to return to Jerusalem, where his name is still respected, to direct the Hill of Ophel, City of David, excavation (1923–5). His work in Palestine is embodied in over fifty separate publications; his compact A history of civilization in Palestine (1912) had a wide circulation.
The UCD chair centred him on Irish antiquities; and he had a strong interest in the Gaelic revival. He was a founder of professional archaeology in the Irish Free State, becoming the first chairman of the national monuments advisory council (1930–43), president of the RSAI (1924–8) and editor of its journal (1910–18), and he served on the Irish Manuscripts Commission. He was also president of the RIA (1926–31) and of the Cambrian Archaeological Association (1932–3, 1934–5). His key position enabled him to influence the development of cultural policy in the new state. He strongly advocated the need for legislation to protect the archaeological heritage.
He was a prolific, scholarly writer and produced several books that became standard texts. A textbook of European archaeology (1921), 600 pages filled with facts, yet down to earth, shows his ‘gift of clear and well-ordered exposition’ (Eoin MacNeill, Studies, xi, no. 43 (Sept. 1922), 468–75). Also in 1921, Ireland in pre-Celtic times arose from a series of public lectures. He was an eloquent speaker with an even flow that was always interesting. Forthright in his opinions, his imagination could sometimes lead to flights of conjecture. The archaeology of Ireland (1928) was for many years the major source of information, but the rewritten second edition (1947) tends to be eccentric. He engaged in a number of short-term excavations, usually with a partner, such as R. Lloyd Praeger (qv), and often worked in collaboration, e.g. studying rock art in Ireland with the Abbé Breuil. His distinction as an archaeologist of enormous range, impossible in later generations, was marked by honorary doctorates from Cambridge, Dublin, the University of Wales, and Glasgow.
He counted Éamon de Valera (qv) and Douglas Hyde (qv) among his friends, and it is known that when Eoin MacNeill (qv) was in prison, both Macalister and Osborn Bergin (qv), the professor of early Irish at UCD, who were bachelors, gave part of their salaries to support the family of their colleague. In academic work he was also generous, handing over his own material on rock art to the young archaeologist Eoin MacWhite (qv). Short and stocky in build, he was noted for old-world courtesy. He was a gifted musician, an Associate of the Royal College of Organists, and organist and choirmaster of Adelaide Road presbyterian church for seven years. He made arrangements of early Irish airs for hymns and won Feis Ceoil prizes for composing music to Irish words, some written by Douglas Hyde. He also wrote a suite in D minor for piano and violin, published in 1927.
After retirement, for health reasons he went to live in Cambridge with his two sisters at Barrmore, Lady Margaret Road, the home of his late brother-in-law and relative, Sir Donald MacAlister (1854–1934), a remarkable polymath. He died in Cambridge on 26 April 1950. Portraits by Dermod O'Brien (qv) and Norman French McLachlan (1895–1978) are in the RIA. M. L. Brennan's ‘Robert Alexander Stewart Macalister 1870–1950: a bibliography of his published works', RSAI Jn., ciii (1973), 167–76, omits entries for the archaeology of the near east.