Walker, Joseph Cooper (c.1762–1810), antiquary, was born in Dublin, son of Cooper Walker, merchant, and educated by Thomas Ball. He suffered from asthma, which prevented his attending college; instead he travelled to Italy, where he may have had some private tuition in Latin, Greek, French, Italian, and Spanish. He took a special interest in Italian literature and Irish antiquities, and on his return to Ireland (where he was employed in the Irish treasury as third clerk in the upper department) resided in an Italianate villa, St Valerie, on the road from Bray to Enniskerry, Co. Wicklow.
In 1785 he was elected one of the original members of the RIA and on 17 March 1786 was requested to sit on its committee of antiquities. In this capacity he submitted several essays to the Academy's Transactions. However, his best-known work was Historical memoirs of the Irish bards (1786). His interest in poetry, and in eighteenth-century vernacular survivals of the ancient bardic tradition, suggested important new contemporary and literary dimensions for what had previously been antiquarian and scholarly pursuits. He also broke new ground by considering modern as well as historical Irish culture, and introduced it to an Anglo-Irish audience by providing English translations of Gaelic songs and poems.
The authorities Walker cited covered the entire range of Irish and Anglo-Irish scholarship on Irish antiquities. He included excerpts from his correspondence with Charles O'Conor (qv), Charles Vallancey (qv), and Sylvester O'Halloran (qv) and carried out an extensive correspondence with Thomas Percy (qv) after he became bishop of Dromore in 1782. He focused on both poetry and music, which according to the popular eighteenth-century view had been the two traditional pursuits of the Irish bards. He presented a historical outline of their progress from the earliest times to the eighteenth century and ended with nine appendices, which were almost as lengthy as the main text. In these, his appreciation of what he considered to be the contemporary survivals of the ancient Irish bardic tradition is apparent in his including an account of Cormac Common, a blind eighteenth-century poet from Mayo, as well as a lengthy biographical notice of Turlough Carolan (qv), together with translations of several of his songs. The book brought together many of the literary, scholarly, popular, Celtic, antiquarian, political, and musical dimensions of eighteenth-century Irish culture and prefigured the synthesis of literary modes, cultural theories, and musical styles that would occur in the literary productions of the United Irishmen.
Despite his linguistic skills, he had little knowledge of Irish, yet Walker (a member of the Anglo-Irish elite) was consistent in his praise of Gaelic culture, portraying it as sophisticated and literate; and although he highly romanticised his work, he did help to challenge negative appraisals of the Irish character. By the standards of the time it was a work of great erudition; however, today the book is judged to be of limited academic merit as Walker was severely hampered by a shortage of primary documents and by his limited grasp of the Irish language. This is illustrated by his ambiguous use of James Macpherson's volumes of Ossianic poems, published in the 1760s, which Walker quoted as authentic in the text while hinting in the footnotes that they were unreliable.
Charlotte Brooke (qv) translated three poems, and in return Walker encouraged her to produce her Reliques of Irish poetry (1789). Her work reflected Walker's influence and she thanked him in the preface for affording her ‘every assistance which zeal, judgment and extensive knowledge, could give’ (Brooke, 1789, ix) as well as for prevailing on people to subscribe to her work and for being a subscriber himself. Walker was part of a literary circle that included Edward Ledwich (qv), Charles O'Conor, Edward Berwick (qv), John Philpot Curran (qv), and Henry Grattan (qv). Walker also wrote Historical essay on the dress of the ancient and modern Irish (1788), dedicated to his friend the earl of Charlemont (qv) for which Walker interviewed the older generation, consulted manuscripts, and even visited tombs to examine the clothing of corpses, and admitted he had received copious aid from Lady Moira (qv). The English Review received it warmly but Richard Gough, the reviewer for the Gentleman's Magazine, stated he was ‘much disappointed in the perusal of this high priced history’ (Gent. Mag., lviii (1788), pt ii, 998). Other works by Walker include ‘An historical essay on the Irish stage’, RIA Trans., ii (1788); Historical memoir on Italian tragedy (1799) and contributions to Vallancey's Collectanea de rebus Hibernicis (Dublin, 1770–1804). In the 1790s he subscribed to Anthologia Hibernica: a monthly collection of science, belles lettres and history and in December 1794 submitted an ‘Historical essay on the Irish stage’ which surveyed Irish drama from bardic times through to contemporary folk plays. He died 12 April 1810 at St Valerie, leaving a fine gallery of pictures, a library containing Irish manuscripts, and a collection of antiquities. His memoirs of Allessandro Tassoni were published posthumously in London in 1815 (with a lengthy preface by his brother Samuel), as was the second edition of Historical memoirs of the Irish bards (2 vols, Dublin, 1818). A complete list of his works is in the BL catalogue, cccxliv, 19.