William Reeves, Irish antiquarian and the Church of Ireland Bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore from 1886 until his death, is born on March 16, 1815. He is the last private keeper of the Book of Armagh and at the time of his death is President of the Royal Irish Academy.
Reeves is born at Charleville, County Cork, the eldest child of Boles D’Arcy Reeves, an attorney, whose wife Mary is a daughter of Captain Jonathan Bruce Roberts, land agent to the Edmund Boyle, 8th Earl of Cork. This grandfather had fought at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, and Reeves is born at his house in Charleville.
From 1823, Reeves is educated at the school of John Browne in Leeson Street, Dublin, and after that at a school kept by the Rev. Edward Geoghegan. In October 1830, he enters Trinity College, Dublin, where he quickly gains a prize for Hebrew. In his third year, he becomes a scholar and goes on to graduate BA in 1835. He proceeds to read medicine, wins the Berkeley Medal, and graduates MB in 1837. His object in taking his second degree is that he intends to become a clergyman and to practice the medical profession among the poor of his parish.
In 1838, Reeves is appointed Master of the diocesan school in Ballymena, County Antrim, and is ordained a deacon of Hillsborough, County Down. The following year, he is ordained a priest of the Church of Ireland at Derry.
In 1844, Reeves rediscovers the lost site of Nendrum Monastery when he visits Mahee Island in Strangford Lough, County Down, searching for churches recorded in 1306, and recognises the remains of a round tower. By 1845, he is corresponding with the Irish scholar John O’Donovan, and an archive of their letters between 1845 and 1860 is preserved at University College, Dublin. In July 1845, Reeves visits London.
Reeves resides in Ballymena from 1841 to 1858, when he is appointed vicar of Lusk following the success of his edition of Adomnán‘s Life of Saint Columba (1857), for which the Royal Irish Academy awards him their Cunningham Medal in 1858. In 1853, he purchases from the Brownlow family the important 9th-century manuscript known as the Book of Armagh, paying three hundred pounds for it. He sells the book for the same sum to Archbishop Beresford, who has agreed to present it to Trinity College, Dublin.
In 1875 Reeves is appointed Dean of Armagh, a position he holds until 1886 when he is appointed as Bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore. In 1891 he is elected as President of the Royal Irish Academy. As bishop, he resides at Conway House, Dunmurry, County Antrim, and signs his name “Wm. Down and Connor.”
William Reeves dies in Dublin on January 12, 1892, while still President of the Academy. At the time of his death, he is working on a diplomatic edition of the Book of Armagh, by then in the Trinity College Library. The work is completed by Dr. John Gwynn and published in 1913.