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Sir John Pentland Mahaffy was the Provost of Trinity College Dublin from 1914-1919 and regarded as one of Dublin's great curmudgeons and also one of its greatest wits. Oscar Wilde described him as his "first and greatest teacher". 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."

Born in Switzerland in 1839 to Irish parents, Mahaffy's association with Trinity began in the 1860s when he came to Ireland with his parents. He was a distinguished student at Trinity and was president of the University Philosophical Society (1858-9). As a young man, Mahaffy was also a proficient sportsman: he was a leading member of the college cricket team, was a keen salmon fisherman and a devoted game shooter, even representing Ireland in international rifle competitions at Wimbledon. 

In 1871, he was appointed professor of Ancient History. He became a senior fellow of Trinity in 1899 and became Vice-Provost in 1913. It was on the death of Dr Anthony Traill the following year that he became provost.

Orthodoxly unionist in his politics, Mahaffy had a great admiration for the nobility and would often prefer the company of dukes and kings. For this reason, he had a summer residence at Earlscliffe (a house on the Hill of Howth, Co. Dublin). 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.

A man of great versatility, Mahaffy published numerous works, some of which, especially those dealing with what may be called the Silver age of Greece, became standard authorities:

History of Classical Greek Literature (4th ed., 1903 seq.); Social Life in Greece from Homer to Menander (4th ed., 1903); The Silver Age of the Greek World (1906); The Empire of the Ptolemies (1896); Greek Life and Thought from Alexander to the Roman Conquest (2nd ed., 1896); The Greek World under Roman Sway from Polybius to Plutarch (1890). His translation of Kuno Fischer’s Commentary on Kant (1866) and his own exhaustive analysis, with elucidations, of Kant’s critical philosophy are of great value. He also edited the Petrie papyri in the Cunningham Memoirs (3 vols. 1891–1905).

His death has been met with many tributes to his intellect, character and service. King George V issued a statement declaring his loss to be a ‘grievous one, not only for Trinity College in particular, but generally for the world of science and letters’.

The Irish Times, declared him a ‘great Provost’, and said that ‘posterity will raise him to his full stature’ and also praised his patriotism:

‘John Mahaffy loved and knew his country as few Irishmen love and know it. He loved it so well that he refused to ignore its faults...He saw Ireland through the eyes of world, and so saw much for blame: but he saw much also for affection and pride.’


See also: Mahaffy: A Biography of an Anglo-Irishman (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971).

PHOTO © National Library of Ireland

Additional Information
Date of Birth 26th Feb 1839  
Date of Death 2nd Apr 1919  
Associated Building (s) Long Room Library, Trinity College Dublin  
Mother (First Name/s and Maiden) Elizabeth Pentland (d.1894) VIEW SOURCE
Father (First Name/s and Surname) Rev. Nathaniel Brindley Mahaffy (1798-1897)  
Townland born Vevey in Switzerland  
Spouse (First Name/s and Maiden/Surname) m 1865 Frances Letitia MacDougall (d. 1908)  
Names of Children Rachel Mary Mahaffy (d. 1944) and Elsie Mahaffy (d. 1926), Arthur William Mahaffy (d. 1919) and Robert Pentland Mahaffy (d. 1943).  
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