Atkinson, Robert (1839–1908), philologist, was born 6 April 1839 near Gateshead, Co. Durham, the only child of John and Ann Atkinson. He attended Anchorage Grammar School, and entered Trinity College Dublin (TCD) (1856), but spent 1857–8 at Liège, Belgium, and worked as a schoolmaster in Kilkenny until he won a scholarship (1862). He graduated Bachelor of Arts (BA) (1863), Master of Arts (MA) (1866), and Doctor of Laws (LLD) (1869); in 1891 he received an honorary Doctor of Letters (D.Litt). He became professor of Romance languages in TCD in 1869, and in 1871 was appointed to the chair of Sanskrit and comparative philology. He held both posts until 1907. In 1884 he was also Todd professor of the Celtic languages in the Royal Irish Academy (RIA); he had been elected a member of the Royal Irish Academy (MRIA) in 1875, and was a member of the Academy's council for thirty-two years, secretary for twenty-three years, librarian (1876–8), and president (1901–6).
An exceptionally gifted linguist and teacher, Atkinson studied most of the European, Near Eastern, and Indian languages, including Persian; also Chinese and Coptic, and planned a dictionary of Vedic. Most of his published work, however, deals with the Irish language, beginning in 1876, when at the Academy's request he produced a valuable edition of the manuscript Book of Leinster. In 1880 Atkinson became first editor of the RIA's planned ‘Dictionary of the Irish language’; despite lack of funding, some progress was made. The texts he subsequently worked on were selected chiefly to serve the dictionary's needs: introductions to facsimile editions of the Book of Ballymote and the Yellow Book of Lecan appeared in 1887 and 1896; he published editions entitled The Passions and homilies from the Leabhar Breac (1887) and Trí Bior-gaoithe an Bháis (1890), and edited, with J. H. Bernard, The Irish Liber Hymnorum (2 vols, 1898). He spent twelve years on the complexities of The ancient laws of Ireland, producing a fifth volume of the series and a glossary, but these, partly based on the work of others, have been severely criticised. Atkinson died 10 January 1908, at his home in Rathmines, and was buried in Skipton, Yorkshire.
A few days after his graduation Atkinson married (28 December 1863), in Gateshead, Hannah Maria Harbutt, who survived him. Their son, Herbert Jefcoate Atkinson, became a civil engineer.