Robert Shipboy MacAdam (1808 – 1895) was born in the house of his father, James MacAdam (1775 -1821) a hardware merchant, in High Street, two doors from Bridge Street, on the Castle Place side. He lived there until 1833. His mother, Jane Shipboy (1774-1827) was the daughter of Robert Shipboy of Coleraine. They married in Belfast in Oct. 1798. Both James and Jane are buried in Knockbreda Cemetery near Belfast. A record in Belfast states James was son of James McAdam b. 1775. He was probably related to the family of Hugh McAdam cb. 1735 who sons were; William and Hugh, Jr. Hugh McAdam, Jr. is recorded as delivering to the Belfast Historical Society the closing 6th session, June 1817.
Robert was educated at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution which he entered at the age of 10 in 1818. The sons of Samuel Bryson attended the same school with him. Another influence on him was his uncle, Robert MacAdam, who appears to have known Irish and put together a compilation of songs in Irish. Uncle, Robert MacAdam, was a member of the Irish Harp Society, founded by Mr. Bunting and MacDonnell in 1808. The purpose of the Harp Society was primarily providing blind boys and girls with the means of earning a living by teaching them the Harp. Secondarily, the society promoted the study of the Irish language, history and antiquities. It is clear, that the love of things Irish ran in this MacAdam family. Both Robert, and his brother James, were active and life-long members of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Congregation in Rosemary Street in Belfast.
Robert’s father, James died when he was 13 and he became an apprentice to his father’s hardware business. He made frequent journeys throughout the Ireland for the firm where he acquired fluency in the Irish language. Many of the areas he visited, such as Tyrone, North Antrim, South Armagh, Donegal and the West of Ireland was monoglot Irish-speaking. It was in these places that Robert began to collect manuscripts in written in Irish. While still at a young age he saw the importance of recording stories and folklore. There was no other person in the whole of Ireland at the time who understood their value so well, or who had spent so much personal effort and expense in preserving these literary treasures. Especially, in a time when the English efforts were to stamp out all traces of the Irish culture. Before long, he had put together the first collection of Gaeltacht folktales. His personal work included a collection in Irish of song, proverbs, folktale, and folklore. He personally transcribed from Irish-speakers over the period 1828-1847. Being a thorough person, it was his frequent habit to record the name of the subject from whom the text was obtained along with the date of the interview.
In 1830 Edward O’Reilly, the Gaelic scholar, died in Dublin and his magnificent collection of manuscripts in Irish was put up for sale. Robert went to Dublin and came back with the best part of the assortment. Acting on behalf of the Ulster Gaelic Society, he frequently borrowed Irish manuscripts and had them copied. The fact he was able to copy, interpret and translate ancient text shows how proficient in Irish he was.
His brother, James (1801 – 1861) was likewise active in collecting Irish language manuscripts. He also attended the Royal Institute and later studied at Trinity College at Dublin in 1836. Along with his brother, Robert, he managed to run a foundry business, at the same time, succeeded in pursuing his other interest in Natural History. His private collection of geological specimens is ranked as one of the best in Ireland. He was one of the founders of the Botanic Gardens. He was the first librarian to Queen’s College in Belfast.
In 1852, the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science was held in Belfast. Robert MacAdam had a major role in organizing an exhibition of Irish antiquities to be shown in the Belfast Museum. This then lead directly to the founding of the famous “Ulster Journal of Archaeology”, where he was the editor until 1862. During his lifetime, Robert put together an impressive collection of Irish manuscripts. After his death, these manuscripts were scattered, but some found their way to the Belfast Central Library and a smaller number are held at the Royal Irish Academy.
Robert’s livelihood came from the Soho Foundry, situated next to the Presbyterian Church at 28 – 30 Townsend Street in Belfast. The business, jointly owned with his older brother, James, was started in 1838. In 1844, they sold the old shop and in 1846 sold the family house on High Street. With the capital they bought out all the shares in the Soho Foundry. The foundry produced a wide range of iron products where 250 workers were employed. Orders came from many foreign countries, particularly Egypt where a number of their turbines were installed in 1840. The windows in the palace of the Pasha were molded in the Soho Foundry. Because of its export trade this foundry was one of the most interesting businesses in Ireland. The King of Egypt once came to Belfast to visit Robert.
Robert undertook writing an English-Irish dictionary. The manuscript is today housed in Queen’s University Library, still awaiting publication. This prodigious work runs 1388 pages and appears to have been ready to print in 1850.
Including Irish, Robert had knowledge of thirteen languages. He was described as a man of wide culture and refined tastes. He was one who took a warm interest in all that concerned the welfare of his native town, Belfast. Towards the late 1800’s all things Irish were deemed underclass and Robert’s work fell out of favor. His business declined and was eventually sold off. Robert died unmarried on 3 Jan. 1895 and his estate was auctioned off. His personal papers and books ended up in the Belfast Central Library, and some in the Royal Irish Academy and the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI). He is buried in Knockbreda graveyard of the old parish church of Breda, in the townland of Breda and situated in Belvoir Park estate in County Down.
Robert MacAdam’s manuscripts are housed in the Belfast Library. Copies of some of his work have been obtained by the McAdams Historical Society. They are written in old Gaelic and are hard to read. Melaine Jackson of Milipitas, California reads modern Irish and has found the manuscript a tough challenge to translate. Some of the verses are by O’Carolan who was the greatest musician, mainly a Harpist, of all time. Finding forgotten verses by O’Carolan would be like finding a lost overture by Bach.
A James MacAdam, merchant, is listed in Belfast in 1666 and 1669. Robert MacAdam is most likely to be connected to the family of this James. His father was James and a letter confirms that he had an uncle, George MacAdam. Another recorded uncle was Robert MacAdam. It appears that Robert’s family was in Ireland for at least 3 generations. He corresponded around the world, but makes no mention of his MacAdam origin in Scotland. However, the family claims to be of Scotch decent. Robert MacAdam knew Judge William McAdam, a resident of Philadelphia and had written to him about a family connection. Another letter sent to Robert states his relatives in Philadelphia were in comfortable circumstances and were doing well.
Other McAdam and MacAdam families show up in Belfast in the early 1700’s. The largest number of Belfast McAdames was members of the Rosemary Street Presbyterian Church in Belfast during the same time period, as was Robert and his brother James. Listed as members of the church include; families of Clemmons, George, Samuel, David, and Russell McAdam. A smaller group of McAdam families were members of the St. Anne’s Church in Belfast. Some of this cluster is known to have come to Ireland from Whitehaven, England.