Griffith, Sir Richard John (1784–1878), public servant, surveyor, and geologist, was born 20 September 1784 at 8 Hume St., Dublin (the house is marked by a plaque), son of Richard Griffith (qv), MP for Askeaton, deputy governor of Co. Kildare, and director of the Grand Canal Co. of Ireland, and Charity Yorke (née Bramston; d. 1789) of Oundle, Northamptonshire. His father had made a considerable fortune with the East India Co., but lost a great deal of money during the building of the canals.
Griffith spent much of his childhood at his father's estate at Millicent, Co. Kildare. He was educated at a number of provincial schools, in Portarlington, Queen's Co. (Laois), and then Rathangan, Co. Kildare, and at the age of 15 joined the Royal Irish Regiment of Artillery in 1800. His army sojourn was short; following the enactment of the act of union in 1801, Griffith resigned his commission (but continued to receive full pay) and went to London, where he studied geology, chemistry, and mineralogy at William Nicholson's Scientific Establishment for Pupils. At much the same time he also studied chemistry under Robert Perceval (qv) of TCD. In 1806 he was in Edinburgh, where he attended the lectures of Robert Jameson, and moved in the city's scientific circles, becoming a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh the following year.
Between 1809 and 1813 he served as one of a number of engineers appointed to investigate and map bogs for the Irish bog commissioners, and produced a valuable report on the bog of Allen. Recognising his newly acquired geological expertise, the Dublin Society in 1809 commissioned him to survey the Leinster coalfield; his report and map were published in 1814, and he followed this with similar reports for the Connacht coalfield (1819) and that of Co. Tyrone and Co. Antrim (1829). He served as the society's mining engineer (1812–39), which required him to deliver a public course of lectures, and was engaged in road and bridge building in the south-west of the country (1822–36). During this period he was responsible for laying out 243 miles of roads and erecting eighteen bridges; his finest bridge is that of five arches which spans the River Feale at Listowel, Co. Kerry.
Griffith is today mainly remembered for his work as commissioner of the general survey and valuation of rateable property (1830–64). He was responsible for overseeing two important surveys. The first general survey undertaken was the ‘perambulation’ or ‘boundary survey’, which mapped the extent of the 68,000 townlands in Ireland. The second tenement valuation survey, now known as the ‘Griffith valuation’, was established in 1846 and charged with estimating the value of land holdings, data that was then used to determine local taxation levies. From 1836 he was a commissioner of railways (the commission deliberated until 1838 on the most suitable routes for Ireland's developing rail network), and later was appointed deputy chairman, and subsequently chairman, of the board of works, positions he held between 1846 and 1864.
Through his own field observations and through those of a number of members of the valuation staff, most notably Patrick Ganly (qv), Griffith acquired a comprehensive knowledge of the geology of Ireland. He was determined to produce a geological map of the country that would match William Smith's 1815 geological map of England and Wales, and in 1839 he persuaded the railway commissioners to publish such a map at the scale of a quarter of an inch to the mile; further revised versions appeared up till 1855. Griffith was very proud of his geological cartographic achievement but failed to acknowledge the major contribution of others in its genesis. His fossil collections were described in two monographs (1844, 1846) by Frederick M'Coy (qv), and these remain important sources for modern-day palaeontological research.
Griffith was an active and founder member of the Geological Society of Dublin and its successor the Royal Geological Society of Ireland, serving on the council for many years and as its president (1836, 1840). He was elected an honorary member of the Geological Society of London (1808) and an MRIA (1819), and was president of the geological and geographical section at the 1835 Dublin meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. TCD conferred on him an honorary LL.D. (1849) and honorary MAI (1861). In 1854 he was awarded the Wollaston medal by the Geological Society of London. He was elected president of the Institution of Civil Engineers of Ireland (1850–55; 1861–63).
Griffith had a remarkable, long, and varied career as a public servant, and he was rewarded for this work with a baronetcy in 1858. He died 22 September 1878 at his home, 2 Fitzwilliam St., Dublin (marked, like his birthplace, with a plaque), and is buried in a prominent position in Mount Jerome cemetery, Dublin. A marble bust by Sir Thomas Farrell (qv) is in the possession of the RDS. He married (September 1812) Maria Jane Waldie (1786–1865) of Kelso, Scotland. They had one son – George Richard (d. 1889), who later took the surname Waldie-Griffith on inheriting his mother's family Scottish estate in 1865 – and four daughters. His eldest daughter Jane, was thought to have eloped to America at the age of 16, and was apparently never mentioned in the family circle again.