Best, Richard Irvine (1872–1959), Celticist and librarian, was born 17 January 1872 at 3 Bishop Street, Derry, son of Henry Best, excise officer, and his wife Margaret Jane (née Irvine), and educated locally at Foyle College. He did not attend university but worked briefly in banking until he received an inheritance. In the mid-1890s he was a member of the Irish Literary Society in London before joining a brother in Paris, where he mixed in the local Irish literary circle which included Stephen MacKenna (qv) and John Millington Synge (qv). By attending the public lectures of Henry d'Arbois de Jubainville (qv) at the Collège de France he acquired a knowledge of palaeography and an enthusiasm for Old and Middle Irish which he demonstrated in 1903 by publishing his translation and annotations of that eminent French Celticist's Le cycle mythologique irlandais et la mythologie celtique (1884). In 1904 Best joined the staff of the National Library of Ireland (NLI) in Dublin. He was honorary secretary of the School of Irish Learning from its foundation (1903) until its incorporation, largely due to his own efforts, into the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) (1926); he edited the school's journal Ériu for some years. Best was elected a member of the RIA (1906) and served as its president (1943–6).
Pursuing his career at the NLI, he became chief librarian (1924) and subsequently (with a change of title) director until his retirement (1940). He made his mark as an indexer with his Bibliography of Irish philology and of printed Irish literature (1913), to which he later added a supplement, Bibliography of Irish philology and manuscript literature: publications, 1913–1941 (1942); he promoted similar bibliographical projects by two members of his staff, Rosalind Elmes (Irish portraits and Irish topographical prints) and James Carty (qv) (Irish politics between 1870 and 1921).
Best earned particular distinction as a prolific writer on Celtic philology and literature. In 1912 he established his reputation by publishing a seminal article in Ériu, ‘Notes on the script of Lebor na huidre’. Later he edited, with Osborn Bergin (qv), Lebor na huidre: book of the dun cow (1929), with H. J. Lawlor (qv), The martyrology of Tallaght (1931) and with Bergin and M. A. O'Brien, The book of Leinster (1954–7). His complete works are listed in Celtica, v (1960), pp v–x (where there is also a portrait of him). On leaving the NLI he became a senior professor in the School of Celtic Studies at the newly founded Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS), retiring only upon reaching the age of seventy-five. He became a member of the Irish Manuscripts Commission at its foundation in 1928 and served as its chairman 1948–56. Deeply versed in literature (French and German as well as English) and having a fine appearance and many social gifts, he was for long familiar in Dublin literary circles and was portrayed by George Moore (qv) in Hail and farewell! (1911–14) and James Joyce (qv) in Ulysses (1922). He was awarded the Leibniz medal of the Prussian Royal Academy (1914), an honorary Doctor of Letters (D.Litt.) by the National University of Ireland (NUI) (1920) and an honorary Doctor of Literature, Doctor in/of Letters by Trinity College Dublin (TCD) (1923). Best died 25 September 1959 at his home at 57 Upper Leeson Street, Dublin. His marriage to Edith (qv) (née Oldham), a distinguished pianist, was childless.
More information on this entry is available at the National Database of Irish-language biographies (Ainm.ie).