John Pentland Mahaffy bigraphy, stories - Irish classicist and polymathic scholar

John Pentland Mahaffy : biography

26 February 1839 - 30 April 1919

The Rev. Sir John Pentland Mahaffy, GBE, CVO (26 February 183930 April 1919), was an Irish classicist and polymathic scholar.


Category:1839 births Category:1919 deaths Category:Commanders of the Royal Victorian Order Category:Former officers of the University Philosophical Society Category:Irish classical scholars Category:Irish scholars and academics Category:Knights Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire Category:Members of the Royal Irish Academy Category:Provosts of Trinity College, Dublin


Mahaffy's brilliant, polymathic, eccentric life, suffused with wit, snobbery and real erudition, would be much less well known than it is today, were it not for the tireless endeavours of Dr R. B. McDowell, former Junior Dean of Trinity, Dublin. He has become widely known throughout international Academe for his inexhaustible fund of anecdotes on Mahaffy, and published with Professor W. B. Stanford of Trinity Mahaffy: A Biography of an Anglo-Irishman (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971).

Education and interests

He was born near Vevey in Switzerland on 26 February 1839 to Irish parents, receiving his early education privately in Switzerland and Germany, and later and more formally at Trinity College, Dublin. As an undergraduate, he became President of the University Philosophical Society. As an academic Mahaffy held a Trinity professorship of ancient history and eventually became Provost. He was a distinguished classicist and Egyptologist as well as a Doctor of Music. He wrote the music for the Grace in chapel. Mahaffy, a man of great versatility, published numerous works across a range of subjects, some of which, especially those dealing with the 'Silver Age' of Greece, became standard authorities. His versatility was not confined to academia: he shot and played cricket for Ireland, and claimed to know the pedigree of every racehorse in Ulster. He was also an expert fly fisherman.Stanford & R. B. McDowell


Famous wit

He was regarded as one of Dublin's great curmudgeons and also one of its greatest wits. When aspiring to be Provost of Trinity College, upon hearing that the incumbent was ill, he is said to have remarked, "Nothing trivial, I hope?" In his academic years, he was acquainted with TCD undergraduate Oscar Wilde, with whom he discussed homosexuality in ancient Greece, and Wilde described him as his "first and greatest teacher". Like his protégés, Wilde and Oliver Gogarty, Mahaffy was a brilliant conversationalist, coming out with such gems as “in Ireland the inevitable never happens and the unexpected constantly occurs.” When asked, by an over-zealous advocate of women’s rights, what the difference was between a man and a woman he replied, “I can’t conceive.” Gerald Griffin records him as saying “James Joyce is a living argument in defence of my contention that it was a mistake to establish a separate university for the aborigines of this island – for the corner boys who spit into the Liffey.”Gerald Griffin, p. 24. The jibe was enshrined in Ellmann's 1959 biography, though not without introducing a slight departure—“a living argument in favour of my contention”—and it continues to circulate widely.

Mahaffy also had a reputation as being a snob. For instance, he had a great admiration for the nobility and would often prefer the company of dukes and kings. When he moved into Earlscliffe (a house on the Hill of Howth, Co. Dublin) as his summer residence, a wag at the time suggested that maybe it had better be renamed Dukescliffe! As quoted on the website , which, in turn was taken from the Mahaffy biography by W. B. Stanford & R. B. McDowell (1971). Permission to quote this was given by the Earlscliffe website owner, David Foley 28th August 2012

Curmudgeon and snob though he could undoubtedly be, Mahaffy was also capable of great and spontaneous kindness, as is evident from the instance of the schoolboy whom Mahaffy came upon near the Hill of Howth, where the boy was reading Greek. Mahaffy asked him about his studies, later lent him books to assist him, and eventually saw to it that the young man was admitted free of charge to read Classics at Trinity, Dublin.

Living octopus

Living octopus

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