Finlay, Thomas Aloysius (1848–1940) and Peter (1851–1929), Jesuit priests, scholars, and teachers, were born at Lanesborough, Co. Roscommon, sons of William Finlay, engineer, and Maria Finlay (née Magan), who had four other children: three daughters, all of whom became religious sisters, and a son William, who became secretary of Cavan county council. Tom and Peter were educated at St Augustine's diocesan college, Cavan (predecessor to St Patrick's College), and in 1866 both entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus at Milltown Park, Dublin. Subsequently, they were sent for studies to St Acheul, near Amiens, after which they moved in somewhat different directions.
From St Acheul Peter Finlay went to Stonyhurst College, England, for two years philosophy, and spent a further year in philosophic studies at the Jesuit college of Maria Laach in Germany. Returning to Ireland (1872), he taught for two years at Crescent College, Limerick, and for four years at Clongowes Wood College, Co. Kildare. His theological studies were conducted with distinction at Poyanne in France and Tortosa in Spain. Recalled home, he lectured in philosophy at the Jesuit seminary college, Milltown Park, and at UCD for three years; and then in theology at St Beuno's, Wales, for three years. The next six years were spent at Woodstock College, USA, where he professed theology. When in 1889 a theologate was established at Milltown Park, Peter was summoned home. He professed theology there from then till his death. His lectures, said to have been models of clarity, were presented in fluent and exact Latin, the medium of the time for such lectures. He also lectured (1912–22) in catholic theology at UCD. In constant demand for retreats and lectures, and with a heavy weight of correspondence, he was also rector (1905–10) of Milltown Park, and was three times elected to represent the Irish province at general congregations in Rome. Peter Finlay did not have his brother's range of interests nor his literary productivity, but his published writing on theological and apologetic themes were widely read. These included The church of Christ: its foundation and constitution (1915), Divine faith (1917), and smaller works reflecting the issues of the day, such as The decree ‘Ne temere’; Catholics in civil life, The catholic religion, The catholic church and the civil state, The authority of bishops, Was Christ God?, The one true church: which is it?, and Is one religion as good as another?. He was an unassuming man, dedicated to a life of poverty, obedience, and obligation – never, it was said, missing a lecture for thirty-nine of his forty-four years as lecturer. He died of cancer of the kidneys on 21 October 1929, having lectured till 2 October, the day before going to hospital for the final time.
Thomas Finlay went (1869) to the Gregorian University, Rome, and thence, after Garibaldi's invasion, to Maria Laach where he was trained (1871–3) in modern scientific methods and was impressed by the new agricultural policy of the Prussian government, an experience he drew on in his later work. On his return to Ireland (1873) Tom joined his brother at the Crescent, Limerick, where he stayed till 1876, acting as headmaster as well as teaching German and French. He also found time to publish, under the pseudonym ‘Thomas Whitelock’, a best-selling novel, The chances of war, based on the life of Owen Roe O'Neill, which went through several editions. In addition he wrote pamphlets and was co-founder of the periodical Catholic Ireland, which became the influential Irish Monthly. In 1877 he went to St Beuno's for theology, and was ordained in 1880. His self-reliance, great energy, equable temper, and gifts for making and keeping friends were already in evidence, as also his prowess as a conversationalist and a fisherman. In 1881 he was placed in charge for a short time of St Stanislaus College, Tullabeg, near Tullamore, before being entrusted with the joint task of rector of Belvedere College, Dublin (1882–7), and fellow of the RUI in classics. In 1883 he and Peter were appointed joint professors of philosophy at UCD. He occupied the chairs of philosophy (1883–1900) and political economy (1900–30). Hence his unusual distinction of professing in three different disciplines – classics, philosophy, and political economy. Like Peter, he was a highly successful lecturer, noted for his clarity of exposition, and popular also with the students for his human qualities and his policy of promoting responsibility and independence. At Belvedere he built a new wing and purchased additional playing fields, while at the same time reconstructing the philosophy programme of the Royal University and responding to demands for retreats and spiritual lectures from the clergy of different dioceses. In 1887 he took up residence at UCD and turned again to writing as well as teaching. He translated articles from German on philosophy, and Stockle's History of philosophy. The extent and range of his articles during a busy life may be judged from the incomplete list of titles in R. J. Hayes's Sources . . . articles in Irish periodicals. He founded and edited the Lyceum magazine (1889–94) and the New Ireland Review (1894–1911), which was succeeded by Studies in 1912. In addition, as part of his deep involvement in the Irish cooperative movement, he founded and was an incisive editor of the Irish Homestead. In support of the movement, he traversed the country preaching the merits of being industrious and self-supporting, and won support among northern unionists as well as southern farmers. Sir Horace Plunkett (qv), founder of the movement, termed him ‘a remarkable living Irishman’ who had ‘largely moulded my own life work’, and who, ‘for a full half-century, laboured disinterestedly for the moral, social, and economic uplifting of the Irish poor’ (A page of Irish history, 246–7). Finlay's strong advocacy of high moral standards in public life made him enemies in the Irish parliamentary party; and his critical review of Cardinal James Gibbons, Our Christian heritage (1889), led to complaints to Rome from American Jesuits and his suspension from writing (1890–92). Despite these varied activities, he was primarily an educationalist. Apart from his teaching in Jesuit schools and at UCD, he was a commissioner for intermediate education for many years, was active in establishing and administering a system of technical education at the start of the century, was editor-in-chief of the ‘School and College’ series of books for pupils and students, and inspired and guided those who created the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction. Moreover, he was for many years a prominent member of the senate of the NUI and of the governing body of UCD, and was chairman (1909–38) of the trustees of the NLI. Little wonder that his successor to the chair of economics, George O'Brien (qv), remarked in Studies (1940) that ‘to write about him is like writing about a number of persons rather than a single man’. He alleged that in forty-seven years Finlay ‘never broke an engagement, never missed a lecture, never was late for a meeting’. Finlay's retirement (1930) was marked by a collection to provide a presentation portrait (now in UCD) by Leo Whelan (qv). It was so generously subscribed that funds were available to endow an annual Finlay lecture on an economic theme; the first was given by John Maynard Keynes. Tom Finlay died 8 January 1940 in his ninety-first year. He had been an invalid from 1936.
The brothers were among the most influential academics in Ireland in the last quarter of the nineteenth and the first quarter of the twentieth centuries. Thomas was described by W. E. H. Lecky (qv) as probably the most universally respected man in Ireland. Peter, who professed theology in Britain, America, and Ireland for 44 years, was widely consulted on most aspects of theology and highly regarded for his gifts of exposition.