O'Rahilly, Alfred (1884–1969), scholar, university president, controversialist, and priest, was born 19 September 1884 in Listowel, Co. Kerry, eighth child of Thomas Francis Rahilly and Julia Mary Rahilly (née Curry); he changed his name to ‘O'Rahilly’ by deed poll in 1920. His fourteen siblings included Celtic scholars Thomas Francis (qv) and Cecile (qv), and a first cousin was The O'Rahilly (qv), killed during the 1916 rising. Educated at St Michael's College, Listowel, Blackrock College, and UCD, he underwent a long period (1901–14) of training as a member of the Society of Jesus, but eventually left during the final stages of preparation for the priesthood, because of temperamental unsuitability. Appointed an assistant lecturer in mathematics and mathematical physics at UCC in October 1914, he became the dominant figure in the institution within six years. He became professor of mathematical physics on 1 June 1917 and registrar on 11 February 1920, and vacated these offices when he became president (1943–54).
His early career in UCC was set against the background of the revolutionary period, and he became predominantly identified, within and without the college, with the rise of post-1916 Sinn Féin. In UCC he led the nationalist interest that ousted the perceived pro-British old regime, personified by Sir Bertram Windle (qv), who resigned from the presidency in 1919. O'Rahilly was flamboyant, extrovert, disputatious and dynamic. During the low-key, unassertive presidency (1919–43) of P. J. Merriman, O'Rahilly as registrar was heir-presumptive and acted as de facto president. All in all, the whirlwind age of O'Rahilly lasted for almost four decades.
He was a volatile and bristling polymath of inexhaustible energy: the vast range of his scholarly interests – politics, sociology, finance, Christology, mathematical physics, history – aroused astonishment and envy. One critique of his work on Money ended with the reflection that the book would enable people to relieve rural tedium by laughing the winter nights away. His contemplated multi-volume life of Christ prompted a National University colleague to observe (not very originally) that a life of O'Rahilly by Christ would be much more interesting. O'Rahilly, who was vain but not stuffy, was not offended by such descriptions of him as ‘a cross between Thomas Aquinas and Jimmy O'Dea’ (qv), but was not pleased by the jibe that he had the best mind of the twelfth century, since he considered himself a very modern man indeed. But he would not have taken exception to the waggish description of the Holy Shroud of Turin (the subject of his province-wide lectures) as ‘Alfie's flying carpet’.
There were some negative and even frivolous aspects of his UCC presidency. He had a strong appetite for the hurly-burly of academic politics and, it was said, entered no controversy that he did not aggravate. He had the reputation of being a bully and exploiter in his dealings with junior academic staff; but he could be kind, helpful, and extraordinarily generous to staff and students with problems. His zeal for vigorously promoting a Roman catholic ethos in a nominally pluralist institution was frequently paternalistic and extended to acts of petty supervision, particularly perhaps over women students. This was the kind of atmosphere that prompted a visiting examiner to describe the UCC of the 1940s as ‘a convent run by a mad reverend mother’.
All this being said, O'Rahilly was one of the most vibrant and effective presidents in the history of the National University. His initiatives included extensive improvements in the library, of which he was director, and the institution of student health and restaurant services. He founded the electrical engineering department and the Cork University Press, which he believed would provide a publication outlet for the researches of his colleagues, particularly those concerned with native learning. He strengthened UCC's links with the city and the province, and these were significantly expressed through the provision of adult education courses, an area where O'Rahilly was particularly innovative and pioneering.
As a young academic, he had become caught up in the struggle for independence. He served on Cork corporation in the heroic age of Tomás Mac Curtáin (qv) and Terence MacSwiney (qv), and spent a patriotic period in jail and on the run. He represented Cork borough (1923–4) in Dáil Éireann for Cumann na nGaedheal but resigned his seat in 1924. He was a constitutional adviser to the Irish delegation at the treaty negotiations in 1921, argued publicly for the acceptance of the treaty, and helped to draft the constitution of the Irish Free State. His links with the local labour and trade-union movement were long and close, and at national level he served as Irish government chief representative in successive sessions of the International Labour Conference in Geneva. He was also a member of government commissions on banking and vocational organisation. After retirement he went to reside at Blackrock College, where he was ordained a priest (18 December 1955), and became a domestic prelate (monsignor) in 1960. O'Rahilly died 2 August 1969. He married (4 September 1916) his first cousin, Agnes O'Donoghue (d. 14 September 1953); they had two children, Ronan and Sybil.
No other layman of his day so self-confidently assumed a central role in so many areas of catholic life – philosophy, sociology, theology, scriptural studies. The controversies in which be became involved were a source of interest and pride to UCC students. Their president was a pugnacious polemicist (who jousted with such eminences as H. G. Wells and Bernard Shaw (qv)), a man of stature, and a formidable catholic intellectual. And who could not be impressed, as well as entertained, by his exuberant claim: ‘I have not now the smallest doubt that I have Einstein refuted’?