Preston, William (1750–1807), lawyer, poet, and dramatist, was born in St Michan's parish, Dublin, the only son of William Preston, a gentleman, who disappeared about 1755, after setting out for India. William jnr attended Dr Campbell's school, Dublin, before entering as a pensioner TCD in 1765 (graduating BA in 1770 and MA in 1773). While he was a student, Preston belonged to the Neosophers, a literary society in the university. Under the pseudonym of Charidemus, he wrote many of the satirical pieces collected in the ‘Pranceriana’, which criticised the appointment and conduct of the new provost of TCD, John Hely-Hutchinson (qv). It seems likely that these impolitic attacks on Hely-Hutchinson thwarted any possibility of an academic career; though he was a distinguished student, Preston failed to obtain a fellowship and turned instead to a legal career. In 1775 he entered the Middle Temple, London, and in 1777 he was called to the Irish bar. During this time, in response to the English travel writer Richard Twiss's Tour in Ireland in 1775 (1776) which made some slighting comments on the hygiene of Irishwomen, Preston wrote two popular satirical ripostes in rhyming couplets, An heroic answer from Richard Twiss . . . (1776) and An heroic epistle from Donna Teresa Pinna Y Ruiz . . . (1776). Preston was closely associated with Lord Charlemont (qv) and the Volunteer movement, and these political connections secured him early promotion to the position of commissioner of appeals in 1784, though he did not achieve further advancement. He was also a member of the patriotic society the Monks of the Order of St Patrick (popularly known as the Monks of the Screw), which combined convivial and political pursuits in support of commercial and constitutional reform. His politically liberal views were again evident in 1797–8, when he wrote for The Press, the Dublin journal of the United Irishmen. Though he is not believed to have joined the United men, he was sympathetic to catholic emancipation.
Preston was prominent in Dublin literary circles, and took an active part in the cultural life of the city. He helped to found the RIA in 1785, and in 1786 he was elected its first secretary. Preston contributed frequently to the Transactions of the academy, writing essays on topics such as lyric poetry, wit and humour, credulity, and the late eighteenth-century vogue for German drama. His essay ‘The natural advantages of Ireland’ (1796) won the academy prize of £50; it was published in the Transactions of 1802. In 1791 he was one of the founders of the Dublin Literary Society, of which he was appointed vice-president. He was a productive poet who contributed to various local Dublin periodicals; a collection of his verse was to have been published in 1781, but this was abandoned when the printer went bankrupt. In the early 1790s he focused his attention on drama and wrote a number of plays, including Offa and Ethelbert, based on Saxon history (published in 1791 but never staged); Messene freed, ‘performed for several nights with much interest’ in 1792 at the Crow Street Theatre, Dublin (Warburton et al., 1211); and Democratic rage; or, Louis the unfortunate, a tragedy, which proved the greatest success of his literary career. A tragedy founded on events in the French revolution, Democratic rage was produced in Dublin in 1793, and in its printed form ran through three editions in as many weeks. In this year Preston also published a two-volume collection of his poetry and plays, dedicated to his friend and patron Lord Charlemont. In a letter to Charlemont, Horace Walpole expressed his admiration for Preston's verse, though such praise was possibly diplomatic rather than sincere (Walpole, viii, 58). In 1803 Preston published The Argonautics, a translation into English verse of Argonautica, by Apollonius of Rhodes. A further collection of verse, Posthumous poems, was published by Preston's widow in 1809.
In 1789 Preston married Frances Dorothea Evans, a daughter of John Evans, who succeeded as the fifth Baron Carbery in 1804; they had seven children. It seems likely that Preston had another son, whom he commemorates in the poem ‘On the lamented death of William Preston, junior’ (Posthumous poems). This man, who died in India at the battle of Delhi in 1803, aged twenty, could not have been the product of Preston's marriage to Frances, and so was either illegitimate, or the issue of a former, undocumented marriage.
Preston died 2 February 1807 at home in Gloucester Street, Dublin, of miliary fever (also known as sweating sickness); reputedly he contracted this illness by sitting in on a trial in court in wet clothes for a day. Preston was initially interred in St Thomas's graveyard, Marlborough Street, Dublin. When a new street was built on this site in the 1920s, his remains were moved to Mount Jerome cemetery, Harold's Cross, Dublin. A likeness of Preston, an engraving by Henry Brocas (qv) after Charles Robertson (qv), is reproduced in the Posthumous poems. Letters from him to Robert Anderson are in the National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh, and a manuscript of his play ‘The adopted son’, a tragedy, is in the manuscript collection of the British Library, London.