Raftery, Joseph (1913–92), archaeologist, was born in Dublin, son of John Raftery, governor of Mountjoy prison. Most of his childhood was spent in Portlaoise, Co. Laois, where he attended St Mary's CBS, to which he had won a scholarship. He obtained a further scholarship to UCD, where he took his degree in Celtic studies (1933), followed by a master's in archaeology (1934), for which he submitted a thesis, ‘Archaeological monuments in Counties Laois and Tipperary’. A bursary in archaeology enabled him to travel to Europe to visit museum collections, and on his return he was chosen to work with Hugh O'Neill Hencken of the Harvard Archaeological Mission to Ireland in order to improve his field-working skills. He obtained a von Humboldt fellowship to study at the University of Marburg, where he took his doctorate in 1939. In the same year he married Charlotte Lang, whom he had met in Germany. The marriage took place in that country and the couple managed to reach Ireland at the last moment before the outbreak of the second world war. Raftery was appointed to the National Museum of Ireland (NMI) in 1939, and in 1945 was promoted to acting keeper of Irish antiquities in succession to Adolf Mahr (qv). He was confirmed in the post in 1949. In 1976 he was appointed to the position of director of the NMI, from which he retired in 1979.
The greater part of his career was spent as curator of the national archaeological collections, in which capacity he made many important additions to the museum's holdings. These included, for example, the Gorteenreagh gold hoard from Co. Clare, the bronze and gold hoard of iron-age objects from Somerset, Co. Galway, as well as a wide variety of important material discovered accidentally during the course of agricultural and other developmental work throughout the country. His excavations at Cairn H, Lough Crew, Co. Meath, and at Lough Gara, Co. Sligo, not only added to the collections of the NMI but provided, at the former, important data on the final bronze-age–iron-age transition and at the latter, interesting questions posed by the reuse of a neolithic passage tomb by iron-age craftsmen.
It is perhaps difficult from the perspective of the early twenty-first century to appreciate how much Raftery was instrumental in modernising attitudes to Irish archaeology. His first major publication, Prehistoric Ireland, was completed in 1941, but for various reasons outside his control was not issued till 1951 by his British publishers. What had been conceived as a rich source-book on Irish archaeology by then appeared dated, and his efforts to provide a comprehensive conspectus of illustration of Irish archaeological evidence had been overtaken by ten further years of discovery and development. At the time of writing, however, it was a thoughtful and comprehensive review of Irish archaeology as it was then understood. One of his more notable publishing achievements early in his career was his persistence in seeing through to completion the second volume of the album Christian art in ancient Ireland which had been conceived by Mahr at the time of the eucharistic congress of 1932, before Raftery's career had begun. Published during the second world war, it was a remarkable investment in promoting the understanding of the importance of the national collections.
Raftery was an extremely conscientious publisher of archaeological material, and throughout his career (and after retirement) he continued to publish extensively. His earliest major paper was a pioneering examination of long stone-cist burials of the Irish iron age. His work also included important studies of neolithic and bronze-age burials, of varied gold hoards such as that from Derrinboy, Co. Offaly (and of course the Gorteenreagh find), of viking-age silver, of hanging bowls of the early medieval period, and many more spectacular finds. He also attended to the more routine discoveries carefully and productively. Without any administrative support the duties of keeper of Irish antiquities were exceptionally heavy, and the younger Raftery worked a punishing schedule and his correspondence with regional contacts was key to the work of the Museum. The central position of the NMI gave him an acute appreciation of the complete penetration of the Irish landscape by human habitation in ancient times, a view not particularly fashionable at the time.
Raftery was a skilled controversialist and delighted in unpicking the arguments of contemporaries about issues of importance. One of these exercises, an article entitled ‘Ex Oriente . . .’, deconstructing the theory that Irish art and culture of the early medieval period were deeply influenced by massive and direct Coptic influences, was published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland for 1965. Of its kind, the article has never been bettered in Irish archaeological debate, and it has often been praised by scholars internationally. It is a delight to read and remains the only sceptical paper convincingly dealing with the topic.
There is no doubt that Joseph Raftery experienced continuous frustration in his professional life. Throughout his career, the NMI was disgracefully under-funded and the resources simply did not exist for busy curators, particularly those with managerial responsibilities, to bring their major works to fruition. As a result, two of his more important excavations remained unpublished for lack of support to deal with the analytical work so essential for modern excavation, although his significant excavation at the rath of Feerwore, Co. Galway was fully published. His professional life was, therefore, one of constant improvisation and equally constant, but largely fruitless, lobbying for staffing and resources. By no means unique, it was nevertheless a galling position for a person with his fine intellectual training and wide European outlook.
In addition to his work for the NMI he served on many outside bodies. He was president of the RSAI and played an important role on advisory bodies dealing with archaeology: he was, for example, a long-term member of the national monuments advisory council. He was elected to membership of the RIA in 1941; frequently elected to council, he served as vice-president 1963–5 and PL&A secretary 1965–7, and was elected president of the RIA in 1967. He belonged to a group of members of that organisation who believed that the Academy should be modernised, and it is to his credit that he fostered the process of change. He died 12 May 1992.
The private Joseph Raftery showed many sides. At his best he could turn a very good anecdote. His circle of acquaintance, both professionally and otherwise, was very large, and while many who worked with him will testify that he was a demanding head of department, there are many who will also remember his numerous acts of kindness and helpfulness which went largely unpublicised.