Coffey, George (1857–1916), archaeologist and nationalist, was born 2 July 1857 in Dublin, the third and youngest son of James Charles Coffey (d. 1880), county court judge for Londonderry, and his wife, Anna Maria Coffey (formerly Lee Trafford, née Wilkinson). Educated at TCD, as a student he forged a lasting friendship with Douglas Hyde (qv) and became a familiar figure at the cultural evenings and discussion groups attended by John O'Leary (qv), T. W. Rolleston (qv), W. B. Yeats (qv), George Sigerson (qv), and others. One of the founders of the Dublin University Review, which he briefly edited, he was also an inaugural member of the Contemporary Club. He graduated BA in 1878 and BE in 1881, and was called to the Irish bar in 1883 but never practised seriously. Left to support his widowed mother, he tried unsuccessfully to secure various government posts and a position at the RUI.
Throughout much of the late 1880s Coffey was politically active in the campaigns for free trade and home rule. He served as secretary to the Irish National League, addressed meetings in England and Ireland, and wrote numerous pamphlets and articles, notably The common sense of home rule (1885), Home rule: answers to objections (1888), and ‘Mr Parnell and the land purchase bill’ (Westminster Review, Dec. 1890). Briefly engaged in journalism, he was probably an early anonymous contributor to the Irish Independent. Through his work as secretary to the Dublin working men's club he met his future wife, Jane Sophia Frances L'Estrange. They married in September 1885 and had one son Diarmid Coffey (qv). As a couple they made a significant contribution to the cultural climate of the time, and through their differing backgrounds (he catholic and she protestant gentry) their home in Harcourt Terrace became a meeting-place for a wide range of Dublin society, among them many prominent in the Celtic revival. Harcourt Terrace provided the location for the first production of Deirdre by AE (George Russell (qv)) in January 1902, in which Coffey himself took a supporting role. He and his wife later participated in the establishment of the Irish Literary Theatre.
Best known for his work as an archaeologist, Coffey seems to have made no conscious decision to enter the field. His initial interest in the subject may have had much to do with his friendship with Robert Day, the Cork businessman and antiquarian. A keen excavator, he collaborated with Thomas Plunkett MRIA on the opening of the cairn on Topped Mountain near Enniskillen, and went on to work on the Craigywarren Crannog, a tumulus near Loughrea, Co. Galway, and the caves at Kesh, Co. Sligo; he wrote a paper on each of these sites for the RIA's Transactions. Elected MRIA in 1886, in 1896 he was appointed curator of Irish antiquities in the National Museum of Ireland, and subsequently became the first keeper of that department. His publications include A catalogue of Irish coins in the R.I.A. (1895), The origins of prehistoric ornament in Ireland (1897), Celtic antiquities of the Christian period (1909; repr. 1910), New Grange (1912), and The bronze age in Ireland (1913). He also contributed papers to the RSAI, of which he was appointed a member in 1891 and a fellow in 1894. He served on the councils of both the RSAI and RIA and was an officer of the Académie Française. Having suffered a stroke in 1904, which forced him drastically to reduce his public commitments, Coffey produced many of his later publications with great difficulty. He is remembered as one of the earliest Irish archaeologists to examine prehistoric Irish remains within a broader European context, and as a pioneer in the application of scientific methods to research.
Coffey was an honorary member of the RHA, and was appointed its professor of antiquities in 1899; as an enthusiastic painter he contributed to several of the academy's exhibitions. He was also an amateur craftsman. The sole Irish contributor to the English Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in London (1888), he went on to play a major role in the development of the Irish society, on whose executive committee he served. He submitted work to its first exhibition in 1895, and provided financial backing for later exhibitions. He wrote occasional poems and, with James Cousins (qv), started a libretto for an opera on Queen Maeve. He and his wife were active in the Irish section of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children from its inception; Coffey served on both its executive (1899–7) and general committee (1897–1916). His portrait was painted by John Butler Yeats (qv) and his likeness sculpted in relief by Oliver Sheppard (qv). Despite ill health he stayed on as keeper at the National Museum until 1914, when, on retiring, he was granted a civil-list pension. After a prolonged illness he died 28 August 1916 at 5 Harcourt Terrace, Dublin. He was buried in Deans Grange cemetery.