Magee, William Connor (1821–91), bishop, writer, and orator, was born 17 December 1821 in Cork, eldest son of the Rev. John Magee, curate and librarian of Cork cathedral and later treasurer of St Patrick's, Dublin, and his wife Marianne, daughter of the Rev. John Ker. His grandfather was Archbishop William Magee (qv). Educated at Dr Bailey's school in Kilkenny, he entered TCD (November 1835), where he was made a scholar (1838), won the Archbishop King divinity prize (1841), and graduated BA (1842). Throughout his college career he had been a prominent member of ‘the Hist.’, the college's debating society. This society had been expelled from the college in 1815, and Magee approached Provost Franc Sadlier (qv), on behalf of the extern society and negotiated its return to TCD in May 1843. He was ordained deacon (1844) in the diocese of Chester and priest (1845) in the diocese of Tuam.
He was appointed curate of St Thomas's in Dublin (1844) but became ill in 1846 and went to Spain to recover his health. On one occasion, while travelling in the Pyrenees, he was thrown by his horse and narrowly escaped serious injury. In 1848 he accepted the curacy at St Saviour's in Bath, being appointed minister of the Octagon chapel in Bath in 1850. His preaching style very much suited his new congregation and he soon became renowned for his concise arguments and the power of his delivery. In 1852 he published Sermons at St Saviour's church, Bath and this was followed by Sermons at the Octagon chapel, Bath (1853). Both of these collections enjoyed a wide circulation and he continued to publish theological works for the remainder of his career. In 1854 he graduated BD from TCD, and he was later appointed an honorary canon of Wells cathedral (1859). Moving to London, he took up an appointment as a perpetual curate at the Quebec Chapel (1860–61) while also graduating DD from TCD (1860).
He returned to Ireland later in 1860 on being appointed rector of Enniskillen, a living controlled by TCD. During his time there he had numerous confrontations with members of the Orange order. He tried to stop their hanging flags and bunting from the church; on one occasion members of the order actually took control of the church. In 1861 he escaped injury yet again when he was involved in a rail accident while travelling from London to catch the mailboat at Holyhead. This period marked a very productive phase in his life, however, and he published several works including Christ the light of all Scripture: a sermon preached at Trinity College, Dublin (1860), The voluntary system and the established church (1861), and The church's fear and the church's hope (1864), some of which ran to several editions. In 1864 he was appointed dean of Cork and the following year was the Donnellan lecturer at TCD. Appointed also dean of the Chapel Royal in Dublin Castle (1866), he attended the church congress in Dublin (1868), delivering the opening sermon.
In late 1868 he was appointed bishop of Peterborough on the recommendation of the prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli. He was the only Irish clergyman to be raised to an English bishopric. In his maiden speech in the lords (15 June 1869) he vehemently opposed the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland: ‘This bill is characterised by a hard and niggardly spirit. I am surprised by the injustice and impolicy of the measure, but I am still more astonished at its intense shabbiness’ (quoted in NHI, v, 730). Having distinguished himself in his first speech in the lords, he was soon recognised as one of the most polished parliamentary orators of the period. In May 1872, while debating the Intoxicating Liquor (Licensing) Bill, he referred to the question of the permissive bill, commenting: ‘It would be better that England should be free than that England should be compulsorily sober’ (MacDonnell, 44). These words were seized on by members of the temperance movement; often repeated and misquoted in the popular press, the statement would dog him for the remainder of his career in the lords. He later introduced legislation for the regulation of church patronage and the control of infant insurance.
He remained in demand as a preacher and addressed meetings of the Church Missionary Society. Awarded an honorary doctorate by Oxford University (1870), from 1880 to 1882 he served as select preacher at the university, and was chairman of the church congress at Leicester (1880). He served as an occasional guest preacher at St Paul's and Westminster abbey, and Queen Victoria invited him to preach at the Chapel Royal in Whitehall and at Windsor castle. He continued to write, and later publications included Sunday-school teaching work (1880), The Gospel and the age (1884) and Disestablishment and disendowment: an address (1885). In January 1891 he was elected archbishop of York, and was enthroned in York minster on 17 March. He took up the appointment in the middle of a flu epidemic, and by May his whole family had come down with flu. Despite being ill, he travelled to London as his child insurance bill was to be debated in the lords. He died 5 May 1891 in London and was buried in Peterborough cathedral.
He married (August 1851) Anne, daughter of the Rev. Charles Smith, rector of Arklow, Co. Wicklow. Two of their children died in infancy; three sons and three daughters survived. Further writings and collections of his sermons were published after his death, including Growth in grace (1891), a new edition of Christ the light of all Scripture (1892), and Addresses and speeches (1892). When Vanity Fair began publishing its series of portraits of prominent figures, he was the first Irishman to be included in this series of drawings by ‘Ape’. Portraits by Holl and Falkland were in the possession of the family in the 1920s. A bust by Joseph Watkins (1838–71) is in the Old Library of TCD. There are collections of his papers in TCD and the NLI.