MacKenna, Stephen (1872–1935), journalist and translator of Plotinus, was born 15 January 1872 in Liverpool, second child of Capt. Stephen Joseph MacKenna, a flamboyant and improvident former Irish officer in the Indian army, and Elizabeth MacKenna (née Deane), of mixed Irish and English blood. There were ten children in the family by the time his father died (1883), leaving very little provision for them. Stephen and a brother were brought up by two maiden aunts, who saw to his schooling. He excelled in classics and English, showing an early talent as a translator from Latin and Greek, but unexpectedly failed his entrance to London University, and so was sent to work in a bank back in Dublin, whither his aunts had now returned. He hated the bank, but had kept up his literary interests, and in 1896 published a translation of the Imitatio Christi of Thomas à Kempis.
Encouraged by this, he left the bank, and turned to journalism, moving first to London, and then, in the winter of 1896, to Paris, as the correspondent of an English catholic newspaper. This began a particularly formative period of his life. He met J. M. Synge (qv), and consorted with various other Irish exiles. Until 1907 he was based in Paris, working as a journalist. Life was difficult, however, until he landed a job in 1900, first with the New York Herald, and then with Joseph Pulitzer's New York World, which gave him a good living until he resigned after a row with Pulitzer and moved back, after a year in London, to Dublin, where he went to work in 1908 for the Freeman's Journal. He had met in 1902, at a friend's studio, an Irish-American girl, Mary Bray, and they were married in London in January 1903. She was a source of strength to him until her death, after a lingering illness, in 1923. Back in Dublin, MacKenna made the acquaintance of many of the current literary and intellectual establishment: George Russell (qv), art critic Thomas Bodkin (qv), Celtic scholar Osborn Bergin (qv), and the young poets Padraic Colum (qv), Thomas MacDonagh (qv), and James Stephens (qv). From 1908 to 1913 the MacKennas' house was a meeting place, on Saturday evenings, for all these and others, and the talk was brilliant.
MacKenna's claim to fame, however, does not stem from this, but from something more exotic. In 1905, when covering the Russian revolution in St Petersburg, he had come upon, in a second-hand bookstore, a copy of the Enneads of the Greek philosopher Plotinus, and, while confined to his hotel room, began to read it. As a result, already by the spring of 1907, he had formed a resolution (noted in his journal) to translate it into English. This was ultimately to become the great work of his life.
His journals reveal MacKenna as a man who thought very seriously about aesthetics and metaphysics, and also about literary style, but also as one afflicted with a streak of futility, who in normal circumstances would have brought very little to completion. However, fortune was to intervene in his affairs in a curious way. In 1908 he tried a specimen translation of Plotinus, Enn. i. 6, ‘On beauty’, and had it published by Bullen in a limited edition of 3,000. One of those who came on a copy, in 1912, was the intellectual English industrialist and philanthropist Ernest Debenham. He was intrigued, and inquired from the author when the rest of the ‘Enneads’ might be expected. This put MacKenna on the spot. He wrote of the difficulties of finding time, and in response Debenham offered to subsidise him for the duration of the project. This offer changed his life, and in fact trapped him in his own fantasy, since Debenham, by always paying him advances, kept his nose effectively to the grindstone. From 1915 his life was more or less totally devoted to this task – the first volume appeared in 1917, the second in 1921, and the remaining three at regular intervals up to 1930 (all published by Philip Lee Warner of the Medici Society). He became repeatedly ill, with various psychosomatic illnesses, but his benevolent tyrant would not let him escape.
MacKenna, despite his non-violent exterior, was always an extreme nationalist (he tried to join his friend MacDonagh in the rising of 1916, but was gently rebuffed), and in 1921–2 sympathised with the anti-treaty side, which led, after his wife's death in 1923, to his moving permanently to England, where he lived first in various suburbs of London, then near Bournemouth, and ultimately in a little village in Cornwall, Reskadinnick, where he lived surrounded by books and musical instruments (he was an enthusiastic amateur of the accordion).
On the completion of the Enneads in 1930 (in the latter stages of which he was much helped by the Irish classical scholar E. R. Dodds (qv), who also wrote a memoir of him and edited his journal), he devoted himself to learning Gaelic, making the acquaintance of Pádraic Ó Conaire (qv), and attempting to translate various Greek classics into Gaelic, until Ó Conaire dissuaded him. In 1933 he became seriously ill, and, after two futile operations, died on 8 March 1935, at the age of 63.