Dunlevy, Mairéad (1941–2008), museum curator and expert on Irish costume and decorative arts, was born Margaret M. Dunlevy on 31 December 1941, eldest of three children (two boys and a girl) of James Dunlevy, a grocer and general merchant in Mountcharles, Co. Donegal, and his wife Pearl (Margaret) (née Begley). Four of her father's siblings were medical doctors; one, Pearl Dunlevy (1909–2002), played an important role in the campaign to eradicate tuberculosis in Dublin. Mairéad attended Glencoagh national school and then Coláiste Bhríde in Falcarragh, Co. Donegal. At only nine years of age, she was sent to stay in the Gaeltacht in Ranafast to improve her Irish.
From schooldays onward, Mairéad was interested in the Irish language and in Irish traditional crafts, both strongly linked to her home area and to her own family background. In the 1950s, Mountcharles was noted for a thriving cottage handcraft industry in crochet, lace and embroidery; her father's shop, like others in Donegal, stocked embroidered Irish-linen household articles made locally under his wife's supervision. Donegal textile crafts had a worldwide reputation in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; three hundred Donegal women are said to have worked for three years on embroidered linen stair-cloths for the imperial palace in Moscow. As a young woman, Dunlevy made the acquaintance of Harry Swan (qv) of Buncrana, and was impressed and influenced by his knowledge of traditions and by his collections of art and antiquarian objects.
She trained as a teacher in Carysfort college, Dublin, and at the age of 19 became a teacher in the national school associated with Mount Anville convent in south Dublin. She continued to develop her interest in the applied arts by studying at night for an archaeology degree in UCD with professor Ruaidhrí de Valera (qv), and she then did an MA on Irish medieval combs (later published). In 1960 she served as unpaid part-time editor of Inniu, the Irish-language newspaper, and worked for a time on excavations at Bunratty Castle, which were coordinated by John Durell Hunt (qv).
When in 1970 she became an assistant keeper in the art and industrial division of the National Museum of Ireland (NMI), she began, thanks to her background and interests, to develop a novel approach to the historical interpretation of Ireland's material culture. The prevailing, if unarticulated, view was that Ireland's heritage in folkways and folk arts was more important than, and perhaps even morally superior to, the applied arts which had appealed to the upper classes in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Dunlevy began to collect, research and publish in thematic areas which had previously been largely ignored, such as the history of Waterford glass. However, on her marriage to Arthur Reynolds, a journalist, she was obliged to resign, in accordance with the ban on married women working in the public service. In 1975, when the ban was lifted, she returned to the NMI to take charge of glass, ceramics and textiles, and greatly enhanced the national collections by purchase and by documenting material already acquired. (For a time, she was known as Mairéad Reynolds, or Dunlevy-Reynolds, but when the marriage ended, she reverted to her maiden name.)
Dunlevy was seconded for a time in the 1970s to An Foras Forbartha, which at the time was responsible for planning for heritage issues. After returning to her post in the museum, she contributed monthly articles to the Irish Times, throughout 1982 and part of 1983, to encourage people to visit and enjoy the treasures in the NMI. Later she had the idea of recreating and furnishing an eighteenth-century Dublin townhouse to show how earlier generations had lived. The project was jointly carried out by the museum and the Electricity Supply Board, and the townhouse at 29 Lower Fitzwilliam Street has been a popular tourist attraction since it opened in 1991.
In 1990 Dunlevy was appointed the first curator of the museum established to house the collections of John Hunt. As at all other times in her career, she was alive to the importance of involving the community; the Hunt Museum was the first in Ireland to bring in docents (volunteer guides), and she worked closely with a voluntary group of Friends of the Hunt Museum. During her tenure of the post, she set out the curatorial specifications for the old Custom House in Limerick city being renovated to house the collections. The building opened in 1997, a year after Dunlevy's return to the National Museum as keeper of the art and industrial design division.
There she helped establish what was effectively a new, large museum of decorative arts in the previously dilapidated site at Collins Barracks, two miles away from the NMI's headquarters in Kildare Street, Dublin; it also opened in 1997. Dunlevy curated a permanent costume display in the beautifully repurposed buildings; 'The way we wore' has been outstandingly popular since opening in 2000. As well as successfully interpreting and displaying artefacts from the museum's collections, Dunlevy also bought many new artefacts, both contemporary and less recent. She pioneered the acquisition of items from Ireland's fashion designers, including Sybil Connolly (qv), and her awareness of the international importance of modern Irish crafts and design further developed the national collections.
In the course of her career, Mairéad Dunlevy became the leading authority on the history of all aspects of dress in Ireland. Her Dress in Ireland (1989; reprinted, 1999) is the definitive work on the subject to date. She published separately on topics such as Irish jewellery and lace, and wrote histories of the Irish post office (1983) and of Collins Barracks (2002). She lectured all over the country, regularly gave radio and television interviews, and appeared in several documentaries on RTÉ. Dunlevy was Ireland's representative on the 1997 European committee which short-listed the designs for euro coinage. Always deeply involved with the Irish language, she was a member of Bord na Gaeilge and was chairman of Cumann Merriman, running three summer schools in honour of the Irish poet Brian Merriman (qv).
Her knowledge of Irish culture, history and heritage was wide, and her willingness to share it equally expansive. She was well known and well liked throughout the Irish historical and museum world; even well loved, because of her grace, enthusiasm and light-heartedness. Her loyalty to her native place was a major element in her life; always a member of the Donegal Historical Society and for a term its president, she was founding chairman of the Federation for Ulster Local Studies in 1975, and joint editor of an important collection of essays, Donegal: history and society: interdisciplinary essays on the history of an Irish county (1995). Pomp and poverty: a history of silk in Ireland, a book on her main area of interest, appeared posthumously in 2011, and had only been completed with great difficulty, during a long struggle with cancer. After retiring from the museum in 2002, Dunlevy had had a few happy years with a new partner, a wealthy businessman, John Reihill (d. 2013). Together they were well known in Dublin society and in the art, fashion and publishing worlds. After her death in the Blackrock Clinic, Dublin, on 18 March 2008, Reihill wanted to celebrate Mairéad's life and achievements, and both her funeral and the launch of Pomp and poverty were notable social occasions bringing together many friends. A commemorative lecture in the University of Limerick was inaugurated in 2010, partly financed by a company associated with John Reihill. The Reihill family had established a foundation in her memory; Mairéad had had no children of her own, but had been lovingly accepted by John Reihill's children. Her body was donated to medical science.
More information on this entry is available at the National Database of Irish-language biographies (Ainm.ie).