Phillips, Walter Alison (1864–1950), historian and first Lecky professor at TCD, was born 21 October 1864 at Lewisham, England, youngest son of John Phillips, merchant, and Jane Phillips (née Atkins); throughout his career he was known as W. Alison Phillips. His father died in 1871 and the family emigrated to Weimar, Germany, where his mother was a friend of Ottilie von Goethe, the poet's daughter-in-law. Educated at a private school in Margate (1875–7) and Merchant Taylors' School, he entered Merton College, Oxford, where he graduated with a first in history in 1885. A scholar at St John's College, Oxford, in 1886, he was also president of the Oxford Union that same year. He abandoned his plans for a career in the church and returned to Germany, where he studied painting and music. In 1901 he published a school textbook, Modern Europe, 1815–99, and wrote many of the historical articles for the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1903), of which he was also chief assistant editor. Over the next few years he wrote leaders for The Times and essays for the Times Literary Supplement, and moved to Ireland in 1914, when he was appointed the first holder of the Lecky chair in modern history in TCD (1914–39). Later that year he published his first monograph, The confederation of Europe, to modest acclaim.
Although he had some difficulties adjusting to life in Ireland, not helped by his distaste for the 1916 rising and subsequent revolutionary events, he proved an excellent teacher and was always interesting and entertaining in lectures. For example, undergraduates always enjoyed his stories of the Franco–Prussian war, which he had witnessed first-hand as a small boy. In 1923 he published his major work, The revolution in Ireland, 1906–23, the first account by a professional historian of the tumultuous period. A committed unionist by his own admission, Phillips regarded the 1916 rising as treason, supported the executions, and regretted the creation of a national myth around the event. Because of his government sympathies he was given complete access to official records, many of which were destroyed in 1922, and he made good use of the confidential reports of RIC officers. Despite its obvious bias it was an important work on the period, and Phillips remained the only academic to assess the rising comprehensively for over forty years. After this he became the editor of the official History of the church of Ireland, which was published in three volumes (1933–4). He died 28 October 1950 in London. He married (1905) Catherine Beatrice Sennett; they had no children.