Walter Walsh who died unexpectedly on 30 July, after a short illness, was one of the first graduates from the Local Studies programme at the Maynooth Outreach campus based in St Kieran’s College to be awarded a doctorate and was a prolific writer on the history of County Kilkenny.
He was born to a farming family at Kilfane in 1949, the son of Laurence Walsh, a veteran of the War of Independence, and his wife Nora, who was a native of County Carlow. After attending national school in Thomastown he continued his education at CBS Secondary School in Kilkenny before taking up employment for a brief period with the newly established Runtal Rad Company in Thomastown and later worked with Michael Doyle at his hardware store on Market Street.
He joined the Garda Siochána in 1972 and between then and 1983 was stationed in several districts in Dublin including Rathmines, Dundrum and Blackrock. Following the death of his father he returned to Kilfane where his mother still lived and he served as District Clerk in Kilkenny station and later in Thomastown. He retired from the Gardai in 2002.
As a young man he had witnessed the destruction of the records of a local landed estate. (‘Rent-books, ledgers and documents going back to the 18th century brought out in wheelbarrows, piled up on the lawn and burned’ was his description.) At the time the official attitude was one of ‘good riddance’ but Walter was appalled by the apparent unthinking destruction of the records of the endeavour of so many ordinary people over such a long period of time. It was an image that was to remain with him always.
In Dublin he began to visit in his spare time the National Library, the Registry of Deeds and other repositories, copying all the information he could find on the Kilfane and Thomastown areas. As the years passed this developed into a systematic and comprehensive archive which he used for his own writings and also very generously made available to other historians and he formed a large network of like-minded friends and acquaintances. For anyone seeking out information on Thomastown he very quickly became the ‘go-to’ person. He had a comprehensive knowledge of families and liked nothing better than telling stories of the ‘characters’ who lived locally.Though he wrote on other topics his particular interest was the land, the countryside and rural matters.
While in Dublin also he met and married Josephine and they had two children, Jennifer (now on the staff of Kilkenny College) and Shane (student NUI Galway). Josephine supported Walter fully in all his endeavours and indeed later on became a dedicated and very efficient research assistant. She was his constant companion on his numerous visits to libraries and archives and shared fully in the tedious burden of research.
When he returned to Kilkenny, Walter joined the Dúchas (Tullaherin) Society. He quickly became an active member and served as treasurer for a long period. He wrote for the first number of In the Shadow of the Steeple and has contributed articles to every issue since, including number 11 which will be published later this year. He has written for such as the Old Kilkenny Review and was an enthusiastic supporter of the Ossory, Laois and Leinster journal, when it was founded in 2003.
When Kilkenny Archaeological Society organised a Diploma in Local Studies under the auspices of UCC, in the mid-1990s, he immediately appreciated the opportunity to put his hobby on a professional basis and became a student. Thus began a journey that was to last for the remainder of his life. His dissertation for the diploma was on the subject of ‘Landlord and Tenant relationships on a South Kilkenny estate’ (1996).
He later transferred to the Local Studies programme at the Maynooth Outreach Campus where he graduated with a BA in 2002. His minor thesis was on the subject ‘What caused the Land War in County Kilkenny?’ As part of this course he broadcast one of a series of lectures organised in conjunction with Radio Kilkenny. This was later published in Themes in Kilkenny History (2000).
Now recently retired he continued his study of the land war in Kilkenny on a full-time basis under Professor Vincent Comerford of Maynooth College and was awarded a doctorate in 2007 for his thesis ‘Land, Conflict and Society in County Kilkenny 1850-82’. This was published in 2008 with the title Kilkenny: The struggle for the land 1850-1882.
Speaking at the launch, a memorable function in The Long Man, Professor Comerford described it as one of the most comprehensive local studies of the Land War yet produced and cited in particular Walter’s dedication and persistence in seeing the project to completion. The book has attracted considerable notice since and can fairly claim, even already, to have become a standard work of Kilkenny history. As one reviewer has noted ‘One of the impressive features of this book is the painstaking efforts of the author to establish the background to the Land War in Co. Kilkenny by tracing the various tributaries of precedent and influence that fed into the events of the second half of the nineteenth century ... What Walter Walsh has accomplished ... is to establish a comprehensive template for discussion of the agrarian question at local level ...’ It was his intention to publish a second volume which would bring the history of the Land War in County Kilkenny up to the early years of the20th century and he was working on this at the time of his death.
Walter was a fine singer and guitar player. Country music and the old ‘cowboy’ songs were his forte. He played at many functions through the years and was also a regular in the Tullaherin church choir. In his younger days he was an accomplished handball player (with Kilfane Handball Club and afterwards in Dublin), hurler (with Bennettsbridge Hurling Club) and he often recalled fondly the games played on summer Sunday afternoons with the local football team – the Dreadnoughts. He is survived by Josephine, Jennifer, Shane and his brother Séan (Dublin).