Primate Richard Robinson: The man who transformed the city of Armagh

Primate Richard Robinson passed away in October 1794 and is buried in the crypt of Armagh Cathedral
Primate Richard Robinson passed away in October 1794 and is buried in the crypt of Armagh Cathedral
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Historian GORDON LUCY looks at the life and legacy of the man who was archbishop of Armagh from 1765-1794

Richard Robinson was Archbishop of Armagh from 1765 until his death in 1794.

Dr A P W Malcolmson contends in ‘Primate Robinson: a very tough incumbent, in fine preservation’ (2003) that to ‘most people of moderate historical awareness’ he is the only archbishop of Armagh who is ‘anything like a household name’.

Dr Malcolmson attributes this to Arthur Young’s celebrated account of his visit to Robinson’s Armagh in 1776 and ‘the number of still functioning buildings and institutions which bear Robinson’s name or mark’.

Born at the end of the first decade of the 18th century, the archbishop was the sixth son of William Robinson of Rokeby Park, Greta Bridge, Yorkshire.

Educated at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford, he came to Ireland in 1751 as chaplain to the Duke of Dorset, the lord lieutenant of Ireland.

This was by far the most common route by which clergymen became Irish bishops. Twenty-nine of the 75 Church of Ireland bishops appointed between 1750 and 1800 achieved their bishopric by this route.

Robinson became bishop of Killala in the year he arrived in Ireland. He then became bishop of Ferns (1759) and bishop of Kildare (1761) in rapid succession. An ecclesiastical historian would be hard-pressed to identify any achievement of significance on his part in any of these three bishoprics which he held before he attained the primacy. Then why was he appointed primate?

George Grenville, the prime minister, wanted to appoint an able man to the role but Edmund Keene, bishop of Chester, and Thomas Newton, bishop of Bristol, his first and second choices, both declined the position.

At least two other names were in the frame (Bishop Carmichael of Meath and Bishop Ewer of Llandaff) but they may have been unacceptable to George III. Although Robinson was the candidate that Grenville wanted least, he was ultimately successful because of his acceptability to the young monarch.

For many centuries the northern and southern parts of diocese of Armagh were treated as almost two completely separate and distinct entities. The southern part of the diocese was under the direct supervision of the archbishop who lived in Drogheda whereas the northern part of the diocese was administered by the dean and chapter of the cathedral.

Robinson decided that he wished to live in Armagh which before his arrival was little better than ‘a nest of mud cabins’ (to quote Arthur Young), a run-down cathedral and no public buildings. During the course of his long episcopate Robinson is credited with transforming and beautifying the city.

He built a ‘Primatial Palace’ which John Wesley described as ‘neat and handsome, but not magnificent’. Nevertheless this did not prevent Wesley from accusing Robinson of being ‘more interested in buildings than in the care of souls’.

Robinson repaired the cathedral and placed a spire on the building ‘in spite of the fears of the congregation’. In 1771 he founded a library – widely regarded as one of the finest Georgian buildings in the city.

In 1774 he rebuilt the Royal School and in 1789 was responsible for founding the Observatory as part of his ambition to establish ‘a second university in the Province of Ulster’. He secured the Mall for the town but was not responsible for the buildings around it which were only added after 1800.

Robinson patronised two architects: the English-born Thomas Cooley and his pupil Francis Johnston. Cooley was responsible for the Palace and the Robinson Library. After the death of Cooley early in 1784, Johnston (whose most famous commission was the GPO in Dublin) was appointed his successor to oversee Robinson’s building projects in the city. Dr Edward McParland of TCD has suggested that Robinson ‘frustrated Thomas Cooley’s brilliant potential by feeding him fat commissions for dull buildings’.

Dr Malcolmson casts doubt on the extent of Robinson’s ‘much vaunted munificence’ and contends that Robinson’s reputation was bought at substantial cost to future incumbents of the primacy, pointing out that he was extremely skilled in avoiding spending too much of his own money. The biggest beneficiary of Robinson’s accumulated wealth was neither the Church of Ireland nor Armagh but his extended family.

Only one of Robinson’s sermons has survived. In the 1970s the sermon was closely analysed by George Otto Simms, the archbishop of Armagh from 1969 to 1980. Simms concluded that listening to it would have been ‘a painful experience’. He also noted that he failed to mention Jesus Christ in the course of it and that its theological content was minimal.

Since Robinson’s voice was ‘low and indistinctly heard’, it may also have been inaudible. However, it seems unfair to condemn Robinson on the strength of a single sermon.

Robinson was keen to encourage a resident clergy. In 1788 he limited pluralities according to the practice of the Church of England whereby pluralities were only permitted when benefices were within 30 miles of each other.

He left Ireland in October 1786, spending his time chiefly at Bath and London, and never came back. Thus he was an absentee archbishop for the last eight years of his life. This might be regarded as somewhat hypocritical on his part.

For his political services, he had been created Baron Rokeby in the peerage of Ireland in 1777. His absence from narratives of late-18th-century Irish political history might lead one to suppose he was apolitical.

Despite the peerage, he was a pretty mediocre politician. He failed to give the Church of Ireland the political leadership it required and was completely overshadowed by Archbishop Agar of Cashel, a much more substantial figure whose translation to the archbishopric of Dublin he successfully stymied in 1778.

Robinson died on October 22 1794 at Clifton. He is buried in the crypt of Armagh Cathedral.

John Hotham, successively bishop of Ossory and bishop of Clogher, described Primate Robinson as ‘publicly ambitious of great deeds’ and insatiable in his desire for praise.

While this verdict may be harsh, it is not necessarily inaccurate.