John Pentland Mahaffy

Sir John Pentland Mahaffy
Born (1839-02-26)26 February 1839
Vevey, Switzerland
Died 30 April 1919(1919-04-30) (aged 80)
Dublin, Ireland
Occupation Irish classicist and polymathic scholar

Sir John Pentland Mahaffy GBE CVO (26 February 1839  30 April 1919), was an Irish classicist and polymathic scholar.

Education and Academic career

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. He was elected a scholar in 1857, graduated in classics and philosophy in 1859, and was elected a fellow in 1864.

Mahaffy held a chair in Ancient History at Trinity from 1871, and eventually became Provost in 1914, at the age of 75. He was a distinguished classicist and papyrologist 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.

He was High Sheriff of County Monaghan for 1900 and a Justice of the Peace for county Dublin. He was president of the Royal Irish Academy from 1911 to 1916.[1][2]

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 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.”[3]

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.[4]

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.

Personal life

Mahaffy's paternal ancestry could be traced back to south Donegal, where his great-grandfather owned land. His grandfather and father, Nathaniel Brindley Mahaffy, were also clergymen.[5]

In 1865, Mahaffy married Frances Letitia MacDougall (d. 1908), by whom he had two daughters, Rachel Mary (d. 1944) and Elsie (d. 1926), and two sons, Arthur William (d. 1919) and Robert Pentland (d. 1943).[6] He travelled widely, to destinations such as Africa, Greece and the United States. Despite his ordination as a clergyman, he was knighted in 1918, shortly before his death.

His interests were 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.[7] He was also instrumental in setting up a Georgian Society for the appreciation of Irish Georgian architecture; this functioned from 1908 to 1913.

The memory of many of Mahaffy's accomplishments were preserved thanks to the efforts of R. B. McDowell, who together with W. B. Stanford published Mahaffy: A Biography of an Anglo-Irishman (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971).


Among Mahaffy's most notable works are

His translation of Kuno Fischer's Commentary on Kant (1866) and his own exhaustive analysis, with elucidations, of Kant's critical philosophy are also highly regarded. He also edited the Petrie papyri in the Cunningham Memoirs (vols. VIII (1891), IX (1893), XI (1905)).

See also


  1. Kelly's Handbook to the Titled, Landed and Official Classes. 1916.
  2. O'Day, Alan. Irish Home Rule, 1867–1921. p. Glossary xxvi.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 28 August 2012
  5. Mahaffey Descendants(1914), 144–167.
  6. 1901 to 1922 – John Pentland Mahaffy.
  7. Stanford & R. B. McDowell
  8. Vol II part one online)


  • Ellmann, Richard, James Joyce. Oxford University Press, 1959, revised edition 1982. ISBN 0-19-503103-2.
  • Griffin, Gerald. The Wild Geese; Pen Portraits of Famous Irish Exiles. London: Jarrolds, 1938.
  • Stanford, W. B. and R. B. McDowell. Mahaffy: A Biography of an Anglo-Irishman. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971. ISBN 0-7100-6880-8
  • Valerio, F. 'John Pentland Mahaffy', in Capasso M. (ed.). Hermae. Scholars and Scholarship in Papyrology, III, Pisa-Roma: Fabrizio Serra, 2013, pp. 11–19.


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Academic offices
Preceded by
Anthony Traill
Provost of Trinity College, Dublin
Succeeded by
John Henry Bernard
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