Magee, William (1766–1831), Church of Ireland archbishop of Dublin, was born at Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh, on 18 March 1766, the third child of John Magee (d. 1799), a farmer turned linen merchant, and his wife, Jane Glasgow, a wealthy presbyterian. The Scottish ancestors of the Magees had settled in Ireland during the 1640s. The loss of a leg forced John Magee to sell his land, reducing the family to poverty. William, their only child to reach maturity, showed a promising intellect from an early age, first taking lessons from a private tutor and then attending Portora Royal School, Enniskillen, where he was taught by the Rev. Daniel Viridet, his mother's half-brother.
Magee entered TCD as a pensioner on 30 June 1781, placing himself under the supervision of the noted scientist Richard Stack (qv). He became a scholar in 1784, graduated BA with the gold medal (1786), was elected fellow in June 1788, and graduated BD (1797) and DD (1801). He was elected MRIA (1790). As a student at Trinity he was a contemporary and friend of Theobald Wolfe Tone (qv), although political differences led him to renounce the friendship in the 1790s. In 1788, when Tone was at the Middle Temple reading for the bar, Magee was tempted to do likewise and sought Tone's assistance to enrol him; but when the provost of Trinity, John Hely-Hutchinson (qv), refused to recommend that he be exempted from the requirement that fellows be ordained (which presumably would have been incompatible with a legal career), he settled for an ecclesiastical career, as his uncle and guardian, Viridet, wished. Accordingly, he was ordained in the Church of Ireland by Thomas Percy (qv), the bishop of Dromore, at St Peter's, Drogheda, Co. Louth, in 1790.
Magee's later career at Trinity was remarkable, and if he had not suffered from poor health which forced him in 1797 to move out of the city to Rathfarnham, he might have attained greater intellectual eminence. Since a college statute forbidding fellows to marry was practically in abeyance, in 1793 Magee wed his first love, Elizabeth Moulson, an Englishwoman; the couple had sixteen children. In 1795, 1798, and 1800, Magee was Donnellan lecturer, taking the subject of prophecy for his discourses. In 1800 he became a senior fellow and was appointed professor of mathematics, and in 1809 professor of Greek. Until his resignation in 1811 he was at the forefront of the intellectual and political life of the college: students admired his teaching and intellectuals sought his opinion. His reputation as a protestant divine rested on his famous Discourses and dissertations on the atonement and sacrifice (1801), dedicated to his lifelong friend W. C. Plunket (qv), which were delivered in Trinity College chapel in 1798 and 1799. The excellence of this work, which went through seven editions, later persuaded Spencer Perceval, the prime minister, seriously to consider making Magee bishop of Oxford, yet he desisted, for the appointment of an Irishman to an English bishopric had no recent precedent. Although Magee backed Plunket's candidature as MP for Dublin University, his toryism and obsessive anti-catholicism prevented him from following his friend in supporting catholic emancipation.
When Magee finally resigned his fellowship in 1811 and retired to the college livings of Cappagh, Co. Tyrone, and Killyleagh, Co. Down, scholars of Trinity and members of the College Historical Society presented him with a silver vase and tray as a tribute. In 1813 he was appointed dean of Cork, and became increasingly famous as a preacher and as chaplain to the lord lieutenant. After his success in Cork, where his health suffered, Magee was promoted to the bishopric of Raphoe on 12 September 1819, and immediately busied himself with correcting clerical abuses within his diocese. His sermons so impressed George IV when he visited Dublin in 1821 that, when Primate William Stuart (qv) died in 1822, the king wanted Magee transferred to Armagh. The government, however, moved John George Beresford (qv) to Armagh from Dublin; Magee in turn was appointed archbishop of Dublin, his letters patent being issued on 24 June 1822; he held the position until his death in 1831.
As archbishop, Magee actively engaged in controversy with other churches by encouraging public debates and the publication of polemical literature. His provocative primary visitation charge, preached from the pulpit of St Patrick's cathedral on 24 October 1822, called the clergy to spiritual arms against the catholic faith, inaugurating a new era of religious controversy in Ireland. Magee fully supported the ‘Second Reformation’ and sought to bolster the position of protestantism in Ireland by opposing catholic emancipation, funding Bible societies, and testifying in 1825 to a select committee of the house of lords on the gains made by vigorous proselytism. Through his diligent zeal, Magee rendered many benefits to his archdiocese, as clerical standards and churchmanship improved.
After 1829 Magee's health noticeably declined. A trip to North Wales failed to rejuvenate his spirits, and he eventually succumbed to paralysis, dying on 18 August 1831 at Stillorgan, near Dublin. A private funeral, attended by his family and by Plunket, took place in Dublin. Three of Magee's sons and nine of his daughters survived him. John (d. 1837), the eldest, became vicar of St Peter's, Drogheda, and John's son, William Connor Magee (qv), became archbishop of York. His fifth daughter, Anne (d. 1881), married Hugh McNeile (qv), afterwards dean of Ripon. A portrait of Magee hangs in the senior common room at TCD.