McEnery, Michael Joseph (1858–1940), archivist, antiquarian, deputy keeper of the Public Record Office of Ireland, was born on 1 January 1858 in Ballintober East, Kileedy parish, Co. Limerick. He was the eldest of eleven children of Thomas McEnery, Ballintober East, and Mary McEnery (née Harnett), of Ballycommane, Tournafulla, Co. Limerick. Mary spoke both Irish and English, and Michael spent some of his younger years in his maternal grandmother’s house where Irish was also spoken, which may account for his enduring interest in the language.
McEnery attended O’Callaghan’s school, a private establishment in Castlemahon. In 1876 he entered Queen’s College, Cork, initially to study English and history. His studies expanded to include law, chemistry, mathematics and metaphysics. An able student, McEnery earned praise from his lecturers and prizes in law and jurisprudence. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1882 from the Royal University of Ireland, the awarding body for Queen’s College, Cork.
McEnery joined the civil service as a second class clerk in the Public Record Office of Ireland (PROI, January 1882), at the Four Courts, Dublin. Promoted to first class clerk and certifying officer (26 February 1889) he took charge of the public search room, the State Paper Office in Dublin Castle and the calendaring of major collections of ancient records. McEnery was among the first PROI staff able to identify and translate Irish place names in ancient deeds. In 1897 he produced a report on the extent of Irish-language records in the PROI. His palaeographical skills were also valued, and he became assistant keeper (1910) before rising to the rank of assistant deputy keeper (1912). On 4 July 1914 McEnery was appointed deputy keeper of the records and keeper of the state papers for Ireland, the most senior position in the PROI, a post he held until his retirement on 31 August 1921.
A devout Catholic from a rural background with a strong interest in Gaelic studies, McEnery never took a narrow or exclusive view in his social or professional networks. His membership of the committee of the Catholic Record Society of Ireland was no bar to his friendship with the Church of Ireland scholar Rev. H. J. Lawlor (qv), precentor of St Patrick’s Cathedral and professor of ecclesiastical history at Trinity College Dublin (TCD), who provided an enthusiastic written testimonial supporting McEnery’s application to become head of the PROI.
McEnery’s period as deputy keeper coincided with tumultuous events for the record office and for the country. The first world war (1914–18) reduced staff numbers as men went to the front, major archival projects were suspended and only essential work continued. During this time McEnery also oversaw repairs to the damage caused by the occupation of the Four Courts in the Easter rising of 1916. Following the outbreak of the War of Independence he resisted a proposal to move the PROI’s collections to a more secure location. With unwitting foresight McEnery reassured the under secretary, James McMahon, that the public record office ‘was fire proof unless set on fire from within’ (Military Archives, IE/MA/CP/5/1/9 (v)).
McEnery became a member of the Royal Irish Academy (RIA, 1900) on the nomination of, among others, James Mills, his superior at the PROI, and the antiquarians Walter Fitzgerald (qv) and Thomas Johnson Westropp (qv). Like McEnery, they were also members of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland (RSAI).
From 1911 to 1917 McEnery was a committee member of the Catholic Record Society of Ireland (CRSI). From 1913 he served as joint auditor of the CRSI with Eoin MacNeill (qv) (except for 1916 when MacNeill was imprisoned following the Easter rising). In 1936 McEnery chaired a meeting to revive the society after a period of inactivity.
In April 1920 McEnery was appointed as a state nominee to the Board of Visitors of the National Museum of Science and Art and the Botanical Gardens, Dublin, to serve for five years. Perhaps reflecting his particular concerns following the destruction of the Public Record Office of Ireland in 1922, the board of visitors’ report for 1923 warned that ‘the danger of serious loss by fire, if not of total destruction, is a very real one’.
McEnery was involved in early attempts to establish a manuscripts commission, at the request of Minister for Justice Kevin O’Higgins (qv). The inclusion in the inaugural Irish Manuscripts Commission of McEnery’s former colleague James Morrissey, assistant deputy keeper of the records, may have arisen from such initial contacts; Morrissey was formally suggested by MacNeill to Diarmuid O’Hegarty (qv), secretary to the executive council.
McEnery’s published output did not reflect the breadth and depth of his scholarship, his energies being chiefly directed to advising and collaborating with others. His expertise was particularly noted in Goddard Henry Orpen’s (qv) Ireland under the Normans, 1169–1333 (1911); Francis Elrington Ball’s (qv) A history of the County Dublin (5 vols, 1902–17); John Begley’s The diocese of Limerick (2 vols, 1906, 1927); and H. F. and P. H. Hore’s History of the town and county of Wexford (4 vols, 1900–11). He was also consulted in the preparation of causes for canonisation of Irish martyrs.
McEnery’s body of work was, however, still substantial, much of it contained in the PROI’s published Deputy Keeper’s Reports. He co-edited, with James Mills, the Calendar of the Gormanston register: from the original in the possession of the right honourable the viscount of Gormanston (Dublin, 1916), while an article on agriculture and living standards in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Ireland was published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland in 1920. McEnery’s main contribution to scholarship was, however, his archival activity, which enabled publications by many other scholars. He prepared an extensive report on the books of the treasury and accounting departments of Ireland (33rd Deputy Keeper’s Report (1900). He also produced manuscript calendars of the chancery and exchequer inquisitions for Co. Limerick, Peyton's survey of Limerick County (1586), and Christ Church Deeds (1605–1700), a continuation of his calendars published in the 20th, 23rd and 24th editions of the Deputy Keeper’s Report and indexed in the 25th. In 2001 McEnery was credited as co-editor, with Raymond Refaussé, of a further edited volume of Christ Church Deeds.
McEnery’s work on the Calendar of the pipe rolls of the exchequer (1128–1343) appeared as a series of appendices to the Deputy Keeper’s Reports, published between 1902 and 1911. His full transcriptions and translations of all documents in the Irish language deposited at the PROI was included as an appendix to the 29th report.
Following his retirement McEnery remained active in scholarly and cultural circles. In April 1922, having been elected president of the RSAI (1921–3), he had the alarming task of writing to the anti-Treaty forces occupying the Four Courts and PROI, and to the Free State provisional government, pointing out ‘how disastrous it would be for the nation if any of the archives therein should suffer any harm’ (National Library of Ireland, Ms 22,433). On 30 June 1922, despite reassurances from both sides, the records were destroyed in the heat of battle. McEnery had planned to write a history of Ireland in his retirement. The loss of the PROI not only destroyed his sources but, according to family tradition, also had a deep emotional impact on him.
As a single man McEnery had boarded in protestant households in Dublin’s respectable unionist suburbs of Glasthule and Pembroke. In February 1914 he married Geraldine Castle Geyer (1869–1967) of Blufton, Indiana, USA, widow of William Henry Geyer and daughter of P. B. Castle, court commissioner and justice of the peace for the state of Wisconsin, and Mary Downs. McEnery was fifty-six years old at the time of the marriage, and Geraldine forty-five; they originally met at the Oberammergau Passion Play in Bavaria, Germany, in 1910. They had no children.
Michael J. McEnery died at his home in Rathgar on 12 March 1940 from heart disease and kidney failure. He was buried in Mahoonagh Graveyard, Castlemahon, Co. Limerick. Geraldine Castle McEnery died on 10 July 1967 and is buried in the same plot. McEnery’s estate was valued at £37,000 and his will was disputed in the High Court. A clause establishing a trust fund ‘enabling the sons and daughters and male descendants of his brothers to obtain professions’, was judged not to be a charitable bequest. Seventeen beneficiaries across three generations were represented in the case. McEnery also bequeathed £120 between three charitable institutions in Dublin.
Geraldine established two educational funds in her husband’s memory. At junior-school level, a bursary of £40 per annum was made available towards secondary education for boys attending either Mahoonagh National School, Castlemahon, or Raheenagh National School, Ballagh, Co. Limerick. Funding was awarded on examination results, a means test and proficiency in Irish. The Michael Joseph McEnery Memorial Doctoral Scholarship was established at the School of History in University College Cork. This scholarship, which continues to operate, supports research in Irish historical studies.
Photographic portraits of McEnery appear in the Mills Album, National Archives of Ireland; as the frontispiece in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, series 6, vol. XIV (1924), and in the Academic Calendar, University College Cork (1944). The library of the RIA purchased nineteen volumes of mainly nineteenth-century Irish-language and devotional works from McEnery’s library.