Shirley, Evelyn Philip (1812–82), antiquarian and landowner, was born in South Audley Street, London, on 22 January 1812, the eldest son of Evelyn John Shirley (1788–1856), landowner and MP for Co. Monaghan (1826–31), and his wife, Eliza (née Stanhope; d. 1859). The Shirley family had large estates in Co. Monaghan (c.26,000 acres) and around Lower Eatington Park, their principal residence, in Warwickshire. Their Irish residence was at Lough Fea, Co. Monaghan, which Evelyn Philip Shirley visited twice a year. Educated at Eton, he went up to Magdalen College, Oxford in 1830, and graduated BA (1834) and MA (1837).
He entered parliament in 1841 as tory MP for Co. Monaghan, which he represented until 1847, before being elected to represent South Warwickshire (1853–65). Though he took on the role of politician, he did so with little conviction and rarely spoke in the house of commons. He performed other public roles and held local office in both Monaghan and Warwickshire: he was a magistrate and a deputy lieutenant of both counties and served as high sheriff in Co. Monaghan in 1837 and in Warwickshire in 1867.
It was in the study of history and antiquity that Shirley's real interests lay, and in his library at Lough Fea he acquired and developed one of the finest private collections in Ireland, which numbered around 3,000 distinct titles in 1872. The library included a range of manuscripts in both Irish and English, as well as hundreds of pamphlets relating to the church of Ireland, the Act of Union, and the revolution of 1688. The most important part of his collection was perhaps the fourteen volumes containing approximately 300 quarto tracts detailing the 1641 rebellion. He added to this collection over the ten years before his death.
This private collection formed the basis for Shirley's own research and his many publications. He concentrated at first on the history of the Shirley family (The annals of the Shirley family (1841); The Shirley brothers (1848)) and local history and topography in Monaghan (Some account of the territory of Farney, Ulster (1846)). He published a description of his own house and estate in Monaghan in Lough Fea, printed privately in London in 1859. Much of this work on his family and Monaghan was incorporated into the wider History of County Monaghan, published in five parts between 1859 and 1877. His attachment to the established church was shown in a number of publications, particularly his Original letters and papers in illustration of the history of the church of Ireland (1851), and he also wrote four pamphlets on the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1868, under the pseudonym ‘Spes’. Shirley achieved a wider recognition for his writings on England, chiefly for his study entitled The noble and gentle men of England (1859). Described by The Times as a work of ‘high merit’, it was republished in several editions. His descriptive work, English deer parks, (1867), also attracted the attention of several London journals.
His reputation as an antiquarian of note was also demonstrated by the positions he held within educational and learned societies. He was a trustee of Rugby School and the National Portrait Gallery, as well as being an FSA. It is believed that Benjamin Disraeli portrayed him as Mr Ardenne in Lothair, describing him as a ‘man of ancient pedigree himself, who knew everyone else's, which was not always pleasant'. Shirley died 19 September 1882 from apoplexy at his home in Warwickshire. He had rebuilt his family home in the high Gothic style between 1858 and 1862.
Shirley married Mary Clara Elizabeth (1823–94), daughter of Sir Edmund Hungerford Lechmere of Worcestershire, on 4 August 1842; they had one son and three daughters. One of the sons, Sewallis Evelyn Shirley (1844–1904), was MP for Co. Monaghan (1868–80) but gained greater recognition as a dog breeder. The main deposits of Shirley's papers are in PRONI and the Warwickshire County Record Office; the 1641 tracks are in NLI.