Mahaffy, Sir John Pentland (1839–1919), classical scholar and provost of TCD, was born at Chapponnaire, near Vevey, Switzerland, on 26 February 1839, youngest of six children of Nathaniel Brindley Mahaffy, Church of Ireland clergyman, and his wife, Elizabeth (née Pentland). Mahaffy's three eldest siblings had died of scarlatina in 1834. The first nine years of Mahaffy's life were spent in Switzerland and Germany, where he acquired a knowledge of French and German which later proved useful in his classical studies; his family then returned to Ireland because the famine reduced the income from their small estate near Newbliss in Co. Monaghan. After a few years in Monaghan, where Mahaffy acquired his lifelong skill at shooting and fishing – he once remarked that the only use of learning Irish was to talk with ghillies in the west of Ireland – the Mahaffys moved to Dublin, where they lived in constrained circumstances. Mahaffy was educated at home by his father with the intermittent assistance of tutors; when his academic potential became apparent his mother developed the ambition of making him a fellow of TCD.
Mahaffy entered TCD in 1855 and graduated in 1859 with a senior moderatorship (first-class honours) in classics and logic. He held a studentship in classics, 1859–62; after competing unsuccessfully for fellowships in 1862 and 1863 (winning the prize as runner-up both times) he finally became a junior fellow in 1864. Shortly thereafter he took holy orders in the Church of Ireland. Mahaffy's mother had given him an evangelical upbringing, which was later modified by his studies and contact with the world: he early realised the tension between evangelical biblicism and what he learned from Whately's handbook on logic. Some of his younger protégés, such as Walter Starkie (qv), amazed by his ‘daring’ conversation on sexual and religious matters – Mahaffy employed the classicist's traditional outspokenness about the sexual habits of ancients and moderns in writing for a wider audience than was customary, and expressed disgust at St Paul's temerity in addressing the Athenians without having enjoyed a university education – found it hard to believe that he was a sincere Christian; indeed, his Christian faith became more definite towards the end of his life.
In fact Mahaffy combined latitudinarianism with a Hellenic belief in a golden mean of all-round intellectual and physical development; he was a skilful cricketer as well as a practitioner of fieldsports, and expressed impatience with senior academics who disapproved of his visits to Greece (memorialised in Rambles and studies in Greece, 1876) because they thought them a diversion from his academic duties. He believed in a natural moral balance contrasted with Pauline or Hebraic asceticism, literalism, and external legalism, and with amoral aestheticism. His musical tastes reflected this world view: he favoured the classicism of Bach and Brahms and abominated Wagner. Mahaffy's Hellenism involved a strong belief that civilisation must be founded on a classically educated elite. He disliked the encroachment of science into university curricula and the spreading influence of vocational definitions of the function of a university.
Mahaffy's increasing wealth and his growing fame as a conversationalist (he published The principles of the art of conversation in 1887) enabled him to mix in aristocratic and even royal circles, and gave him a reputation for snobbery. He was tutor to Oscar Wilde (qv) at TCD in 1871–4, and is generally believed to have influenced Wilde's conversational style; Wilde read the proofs of the first edition of Mahaffy's Social life in Greece (1874), which contained a startlingly frank discussion of Greek homosexuality (expurgated in subsequent editions). In 1877 the two met by chance when Wilde was planning to visit Rome and Mahaffy was en route for Greece with a pupil, William Goulding; Mahaffy persuaded Wilde to go with them to Greece and noted with some satisfaction that the experience had diverted Wilde's imagination from popery to paganism. Although they remained friendly for some years, their relations became tense in the late 1880s because of political and aesthetic differences; Mahaffy refused to discuss Wilde after his conviction and declined to sign a petition for his early release from prison.
After initially focusing on philosophical studies – he translated and edited a German work on Kant's Critique of pure reason in 1866, and produced his own incomplete two-volume Kant commentary in 1872–4 – Mahaffy turned his principal attention to ancient history. He established his reputation with a number of histories of the ancient world: Social life in Greece from Homer to Menander (1874); Old Greek life (1876); A history of classical Greek literature (1880); Greek life and thought from the death of Alexander to the Roman conquest (1887); The Greek world under Roman sway (1890); these were not only scholarly but also financial successes, though his preference for the broad picture and carelessness on matters of detail involved him in academic squabbles and harmed his standing with fellow scholars. He added to the controversies by preferring the refined and opulent Hellenistic monarchies, with their academic literature, to the earlier age of democracy and the city states, whose vices and defects he delighted in exposing; he exalted Euripides over Sophocles (then an unusual view) partly because he considered the older dramatist inferior in his portrayal of female characters. (Mahaffy was by Victorian standards a believer in the expansion of women's rights.) Mahaffy's interest in the Hellenistic period, traditionally dismissed as degenerate, prepared the way for his major work of pure scholarship, his edition (3 vols, 1891–1905) of the Greek texts on papyrus discovered in Egypt by Flinders Petrie. He was also interested in Ptolemaic rule in Egypt, which he liked to compare with English rule in Ireland.
In Mahaffy's time the governance of TCD was dominated by a board of seven well-remunerated senior fellows, chosen from among the junior fellows largely on the basis of age. For various reasons (including the disappearance, with the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, of well-endowed college-owned clerical livings) the late-Victorian senior fellows proved extremely long-lived, and it was not until 1899 that Mahaffy reached the board. In 1904 he hoped to become provost in succession to George Salmon (qv); however, his support for a scheme of university reform, favoured by Chief Secretary George Wyndham (qv) and involving the creation of additional colleges in the University of Dublin (at least one of which would be catholic-dominated), aroused conservative fears for the Trinity ethos. (The claim by the raconteur Gerald Griffin that Mahaffy described James Joyce (qv) as proof that it had been a mistake to build a university for ‘the aborigines . . . who stand on O'Connell bridge spitting into the Liffey’ appears to have been fabricated.) Despite Wyndham's support, Mahaffy was passed over by Prime Minister Arthur Balfour (qv) in favour of Anthony Traill (qv); Mahaffy bitterly resented this decision and lamented that his eventual elevation to provost in November 1914 (after Traill's death) came ten years too late.
In the last decades of his life Mahaffy's major publications concerned the history of TCD. An epoch in Irish history: Trinity College, Dublin, its foundation and early fortunes, 1591–1600 (1903) was notably present-minded in its assertion that TCD and Irish catholics could have worked out a modus vivendi in its early decades had it not been for the malign influence of the Jesuits. His foundation and presidency of the Irish Georgian Society (1908), devoted to the study of Irish architecture, reflected a sense of aristocratic civilisation under threat from native barbarism. Fr Timothy Corcoran (qv) liked to recall Mahaffy's architectural activities in his interwar diatribes against Georgian Dublin as a relic of oppression that required speedy obliteration.
Mahaffy was an outspoken unionist, and his Greek histories contained frequent remarks on such matters as the similarities between the rivalries of Stoics and Epicureans and of Apprentice Boys and Hibernians, the ancient Greek and modern Irish catholic tolerance of perjury, the moral superiority of Caesar to Brutus, and the benefits modern Ireland and Greece might gain from a firm despotic government. In 1887 Wilde complained of Mahaffy's tendency ‘to treat the Hellenic world as Tipperary writ large . . . to finish the battle of Chaeronea [when the city states succumbed to the Macedonian king] on the plains of Mitchelstown’ (Stanford and McDowell, 81).
In 1899 Mahaffy made himself a hate figure for nationalists when he attempted to have Irish removed from the intermediate curriculum on the grounds that the language contained no literature that was not ‘religious, immoral or indecent’. Douglas Hyde (qv), who nursed a certain resentment against his alma mater and led the successful Gaelic League campaign for the retention of Irish, wrote a satirical play ‘Pleasgadh na bulgoide’ (‘The bursting of the bubble’) in which Mahaffy and other Trinity dons fall under an enchantment, forcing them to speak exclusively in Irish. Arthur Griffith's skit ‘The thirteenth lock’ depicts Mahaffy and his colleagues conspiring to assassinate Hyde before being summarily executed by the authorities for allegedly speaking Irish in public. After Mahaffy responded to an appeal to provide shoes for newsboys by suggesting that going barefoot as the Greeks had done was probably healthier, the Leader cartoonist, Tom Lalor, routinely portrayed a barefoot Mahaffy in ancient Greek dress, which led some unwary readers to assume that Mahaffy had actually adopted this costume as an economy measure during the first world war. Mahaffy's reputation as a ‘West Briton’ par excellence was confirmed in the eyes of later nationalists by his suppression of the college Gaelic Society in November 1914 over its decision to commemorate the centenary of the birth of Thomas Davis (qv) with a meeting addressed by ‘a man called Pearse . . . a supporter of the anti-recruiting agitation’.
While opposing the third Home Rule Bill, Mahaffy shared southern unionist dismay at the prospect of partition; in this he was again at odds with the Ulsterman Traill, who was not only in favour of partition but also (unsuccessfully) attempted, in opposition to Mahaffy, to have Trinity excluded from the authority of the home rule parliament. In 1916 Mahaffy helped to organise the defence of TCD during the Easter rising. In 1917–18 he participated in the Irish Convention, advocating a form of home rule modelled on the Swiss cantons, with four provincial parliaments sending representatives to a central Irish assembly. In June 1918 he became a knight grand cross of the Order of the British Empire (anomalously, as it was then customary for clerics in holy orders to refuse knighthoods). Mahaffy was a member of the academies of Vienna, Berlin, Munich, Utrecht, and Athens, received honorary degrees from Athens, Louvain, Oxford, and St Andrews, and was a member of the RIA, of which he was president 1911–16. In 1917 he delivered a lecture to the RIA on the history of the ass as a beast of burden in Ireland, which he dated to the large-scale export of horses caused by the Napoleonic wars. (Eoin MacNeill (qv) thought the subject worthy of its author.) He died 30 April 1919 in Dublin from the effects of a stroke. In 1865 he married Frances Letitia MacDougall (d. 1908), with whom he had two sons and two daughters.
Mahaffy can be seen as an unusually idiosyncratic representative of a golden era of scholarship and prestige in the history of TCD, and as the voice of a brutally elitist version of aristocratic unionism, which saw civilisation as mortally threatened by the refusal of the Irish peasantry to pay rent to support their betters in the enjoyment of high culture. His memory as a Dublin ‘character’ long survived him (assisted by the totality of his political defeat). He was celebrated in several contemporary memoirs (notably those of Oliver St John Gogarty (qv)) and at the beginning of the twenty-first century a pub called ‘Mahaffy's’ existed near Trinity College at the junction of Pearse Street and Westland Row. Mahaffy might have approved; he disliked teetotallers.