Magennis, William (1867–1946), academic, politician, and proponent of censorship, was born 18 May 1867 in Kilmore, Co. Down, the second son of Hugh Magennis, painter, and his wife Catherine Magill. Educated at CBS Belfast and Belvedere College, Dublin, he graduated (RUI) from UCD with a first-class honours BA (1888) in logic, metaphysics, ethics, and history of philosophy, and MA (1889) in mental and moral sciences, receiving the studentship in mental and moral philosophy in 1890. As a student he was active in the college's Literary and Historical Society, becoming auditor (1888–9) and receiving the society's gold medal for oratory (1887); his inaugural address on Irish Democracy was published. He contributed to the college's magazine St Stephens and, while still an undergraduate, began to write for Lyceum, an educational and literary review founded in 1887 as a forum for academics and graduates of UCD. He was one of the foremost contributors in the journal's early years and in October 1891 was appointed editor. Having lectured in a number of small Dublin colleges, including Carysfort, he joined UCD's staff in 1893 when he received a fellowship in metaphysics: in the same year he was called to the Irish bar, but did not practise. In 1909 he became professor of metaphysics at the newly chartered UCD, having in the meantime established a philosophy society in the university and become editor of the New Ireland Review when it replaced Lyceum in 1894. Some of his writings for New Ireland Review (which existed until 1911) examined the Irish university question, but his major interests were literary.
During the 1910s he ran a Shakespearian society in Dublin, lecturing to the National Literary Society in April 1916 on Shakespeare's debt to Irishmen and in 1945 editing a collection of Lamb's tales from Shakespeare. In 1914 it was announced that he would edit – with Alfred Perceval Graves (qv) and Douglas Hyde (qv) – a series entitled Every Irishman's Library to be published by Talbot Press. It was intended that he would contribute a title, ‘The Mind of Burke’. At least seven titles in the series appeared between 1915 and 1917, but ‘The Mind of Burke’ was not among them. During the revolutionary period his public statements were cautious but clearly nationalist. In addressing the inaugural meeting of the Catholic Truth Society of Ireland (CTSI) in October 1919 he nodded approvingly towards the struggle for ‘the preservation of an ancient and distinct civilization’ (Ir. Independent, 23 Oct. 1919).
Elected a Cumann na nGaedheal TD for the NUI in 1922, he denounced the boundary commission agreement of 1925 which maintained the existing border between the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland. He then resigned from Cumann na nGaedheal, setting up his own political party, Clann Éireann, in 1926, along with other opponents of the commission's report. Promoting opposition to partition, the abolition of the oath of allegiance, lower taxes, and the protection of Irish youth from ‘the debasing influences of evil literature’ (Gallagher, 99), Clann Éireann was unsuccessful and merged with the National Protectionist League in 1927. Defeated at the June 1927 general election, Magennis was nominated to Seanad Éireann in 1938 by Éamon de Valera (qv), and was a senator until his death.
A member of the Knights of St Columbanus, he was a strong opponent of maintaining the provision for divorce and a prominent advocate of censorship. He spoke approvingly of the censorship of films bill (1923), arguing that the mass uneducated audience had to be protected from vice. Later that year, speaking in TCD, he described James Joyce's Ulysses as ‘moral filth’ (Foster, 261) and as the decade progressed he was a leader of the CTSI's campaign against ‘evil literature’. When, in 1933, Fianna Fáil attempted to appoint Magennis as the state's representative on the board of the Abbey theatre, W. B. Yeats (qv) refused to accept him stating that Magennis was ‘entirely unfitted to be a director’ (Foster, 464). On that occasion the government backed down, but he was appointed to the censorship of publications board in 1934. He also served on the second (1934–6) and third (1936–9) boards, and was chairman of the fourth (1939–42), fifth (1942–5) and sixth (1946) boards. Reviled by opponents of censorship, he was described by Frank O'Connor (qv) as ‘a windbag with a nasty streak of malice’ (Gallagher, 99). He also served on a commission inquiring into a second chamber for the oireachtas, on the civil service inquiry commission, the commission on broadcasting, the NUI senate, and the UCD governing body; he was also chairman of the cinema appeals board, of the greater Dublin commission, and of the commission on national health insurance; and government representative at the League of Nations concerning international intellectual cooperation, president of the catholic graduates’ association, commissioner of primary and intermediate education, and governor of the NGI.
In 1941 he retired from UCD and was conferred with an honorary D.Litt. by the NUI, and on 8 November 1943 received a papal knighthood (knight commandatore of the Order of St Sylvester) for services to the church, on the recommendation of the archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid (qv). He contributed to numerous American and Irish periodicals; his publications include Irish democracy and Blind Bartimaeus and other poems, although he was criticised for failing to publish much in his capacity as professor of metaphysics. His principal recreations were photography and art. He lived at Páirc na Greine, Stillorgan Road, Dublin, with his wife Jane, and died there 30 March 1946, leaving a considerable estate valued at £25,586.