Maginn, William (1794–1842), writer, was born 10 July 1794 in Cork, eldest son of John Maginn, a classical scholar who kept a private school in Marlborough St., and Anne, daughter of William Eccles of Ecclesville, Co. Tyrone. William was educated by his father and was extraordinarily precocious: he entered TCD in 1806 at the age of 11 and graduated with a BA in 1811. He then returned to Cork to help his father in the school, and took it over after his death in 1819. He was admirably qualified for this; to extensive knowledge of classical and English literature he added knowledge of German, Italian, French, Portuguese, and modern Greek. From his childhood he had studied Irish and could make philological comparisons between it and other Celtic tongues. At 25 he took the LLD at TCD. However, he had no vocation for teaching and was already deciding to earn his living by the pen. His first literary efforts were in a libellous Cork paper, the Freeholder, owned and secretly printed by John Boyle. Maginn's contributions included parodies of Thomas Moore (qv), whom he despised as pseudo-Irish; he ventured his own efforts at a more genuine Irish dialect. In 1819 he started contributing verse and burlesques to the Edinburgh-based Blackwood's Magazine, under the pseudonyms ‘Ralph Tuckett Scott’ and ‘Morgan O'Doherty’. He was at first unpaid, but a visit to Blackwood in 1821 made him a permanent contributor at the highest rate paid to any writer.
On 31 January1824 he married Ellen, daughter of the Rev. Robert Bullen, curate of Newmarket, Co. Cork, and, deciding to leave the school to his brother John, went to try his fortunes in London. He quickly established himself, contributing to numerous magazines. He was briefly in Paris in 1824 as the well paid correspondent of the young Benjamin Disraeli's short-lived paper, the Representative. On his return, he became joint editor of the tory paper, the Standard, at a salary of £400 a year. Here he gave full vent to his Orange and ascendancy thinking. He opposed the catholic emancipation act on the grounds that it would spur catholics to demand complete political independence, and presented the government with the alternatives of repealing either the emancipation act or the act of union, arguing that any halfway house would lead to war. He attacked England's attitude to Ireland with Swiftian rancour, stating that her laws paralysed and beggared the country. He likewise argued against the anti-slavery campaign, claiming that the government should rather concentrate on alleviating the sufferings of its own working class, for whom he had great compassion.
His dissipation and extravagance were already becoming notorious, but these were offset for a time by his great powers of erudition, humour, exaggeration, and invective, which earned him the title of ‘the modern Rabelais’. In 1830 came his most memorable undertaking: together with Hugh Fraser he established Fraser's Magazine, for many years the most brilliant of the English monthlies and the forerunner of Punch. Maginn dashed off his articles in the backroom of the publisher's shop in Regent St., entertaining the while with his brilliant and humorous conversation, impeded only by his pronounced stutter. He was responsible for the enormously popular ‘Gallery of literary characters’, in which parodies of contemporary writers and politicians were accompanied by caricatures by the Cork painter Daniel Maclise (qv). The subjects included Daniel O'Connell (qv) whom Maginn treated with scant respect despite a sneaking admiration. He also wrote articles entitled ‘Irish genius’ enumerating Ireland's contribution to the arts, especially that of Corkonians. He had a sentimental devotion to his home city and could so little resist the demands of fellow Corkmen on his generosity that he finally had to beg friends to withhold his address from them.
His decline dates from 1836; in that year a coarse review of the novel Berkeley Castle, supposedly written when drunk, led to his being challenged to a duel by the author, Grantley Berkeley, in which three shots were exchanged without effect. In 1838 appeared in Fraser's the ‘Homeric ballads’, versified episodes from the Odyssey, which received much popular and critical notice and which he thought enough of to publish under his own name. It was his last memorable undertaking. In 1838 he suffered intense grief after the death in suspicious circumstances of the popular poetess Laetitia Landon, to whom he was devoted, though there is insufficient proof of any actual liaison. His circumstances were now desperate: he had broken with Fraser's, and the government refused him a pension. Private aid from Thackeray and Sir Robert Peel (qv), among others, proved inadequate. In 1840 he was thrown into a debtor's prison, forced to declare bankruptcy, and emerged in an advanced state of consumption. He retired to Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, where he died on 21 August 1842, leaving a number of children. He was buried in a pauper's grave in St Mary's, Walton-on-Thames. His character was immortalised by Thackeray in Pendennis as the dissolute Capt. Shandon, and James Clarence Mangan (qv) published a feeling sketch of him in 1849. His works are too diverse to be ever fully collected, but many were gathered into five volumes by Dr Shelton Mackenzie (New York, 1855–7), and Ten tales, including the racy ‘Bob Burke's duel with Ensign Brady’, was published in 1933. His centenary saw favourable critical notices, but despite the lasting nature of the best of his work, it is currently out of print. Bibliographical catalogues of his work and criticisms of it are found in Wolff, Nineteenth-century fiction (1984), and in the New Cambridge bibliography of English literature (1965).