Battle of wits – An Irishman’s Diary on Trinity and John Pentland Mahaffy

Because of his dismissal of literature in the Irish language and his refusal to allow Patrick Pearse address Trinity’s Gaelic Society in the college, John Pentland Mahaffy, who died 100 years ago on April 30th, would not be fondly remembered in Irish historical folklore. Although he had a reputation for being something of a curmudgeon, he was also reputed for his wit and was, most of all, a much-respected classical scholar.

He was born at Chapponnaire in Switzerland in February 1839, the youngest of six children of Nathaniel Mahaffy, a Church of Ireland clergyman, and Elizabeth Pentland. He lived in Switzerland and Germany, learning French and German, until the age of nine, when the family returned to their small estate in Co Monaghan. A few years later, they moved to Dublin, where he was educated at home before entering Trinity College in 1855.

Graduating with first-class honours in classics and logic, he became a fellow in 1864 and was ordained in the Church of Ireland.

The following year he married Frances Letitia MacDougall; they had two sons and two daughters.


He loved shooting and fishing, was a skilful cricketer and adept at other field sports as well. Music was another passion, especially Bach and Brahms. A committed Hellenist who frequently visited Greece, he wrote about his experiences in Rambles and Studies in Greece (1876).

His fame as a conversationalist grew in tandem with his wealth (he published The Principles of the Art of Conversation in 1887). His preference for the society of earls, dukes and even royalty garnered him a reputation as a snob.

Oscar Wilde was a student of his at Trinity and he is said to have influenced Wilde’s conversational style. The two were close for a time, visiting Greece together; Wilde proofread the first edition of Mahaffy’s Social Life in Greece (1874), which contained a remarkably open consideration of Greek homosexuality (removed from later editions). But the friendship cooled over political and aesthetic differences, and after Wilde’s conviction Mahaffy declined to refer to him and refused to sign a petition calling for his early release.

Oliver St John Gogarty was another well-known student of Mahaffy’s who developed a reputation for wit.

Following an initial academic focus on philosophy, Mahaffy devoted himself to ancient history and published a number of well-received books, among them Social Life in Greece from Homer to Menander, A History of Classical Greek Literature and The Greek World under Roman Sway. These publications enhanced his scholarly reputation and his wealth. His major academic achievement was his three-volume edition of the Greek texts on papyrus discovered by Flinders Petrie in Egypt.

Although a member of Trinity’s academic staff since 1859, and professor of ancient history since 1871, he wasn’t elected to the college’s board until 1899. He hoped to become provost in 1904 but lost out to Anthony Traill, a long-time member of the board with degrees in engineering, medicine and law. Although Mahaffy succeeded Traill as provost in 1914, he regretted that the position came 10 years too late.

In 1899, he fell foul of Irish-language supporters when he tried to have Irish removed from the intermediate curriculum on the grounds that there was no literature in the language that was not “religious, immoral or indecent”. In response, Douglas Hyde wrote a satirical play, Pléascadh na Bulgóide (The Bursting of the Bubble), in which Mahaffy and other Trinity professors fall under an enchantment where they can speak only Irish.

In November 1914, Mahaffy suppressed Trinity’s Gaelic Society when it proposed to mark the centenary of the birth of Thomas Davis with a gathering that was to be addressed by “a man called Pearse ... a supporter of anti-recruiting agitation”.

Mahaffy, strongly pro-unionist and pro-British, wanted all possible support for the UK’s war effort.

The prospect of the partition of the country greatly worried him. During the Irish Convention of 1917-18, he called for a federalist home-rule arrangement in Ireland, based on the Swiss cantons’ model, with parliaments in each of the provinces sending representatives to a central assembly.

Some of his witticisms are still current, such as his comment when aspiring to be Trinity provost and on hearing that the incumbent was ill: “Nothing trivial, I hope?” Another would be: “In Ireland the inevitable never happens and the unexpected constantly occurs”. When confronted by a suffragette and asked what was the essential difference between a man and a woman, he replied: “Madam, I cannot conceive.”

Historian Patrick Maume, in his entry on Mahaffy in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, says there was a pub bearing his name near TCD: “Mahaffy might have approved; he disliked teetotallers.”