Steele, William (1820–98), headmaster and Church of Ireland clergyman, was born on 26 April 1820. He studied at TCD (1838–44), where he repeatedly took first-class honours, gained a senior moderatorship in ethics and logic, and graduated MA (1856), DD (1874), and LLB and LLD (1878). (The last were honorary degrees, conferred in recognition of his achievements at Portora.) In 1847 Steele married Sarah Elly Haughton (1825–1906), a cousin of Samuel Haughton (qv); they had three sons. After serving as an anglican curate at Cottesmore, Rutland (1844–52), and as a master at Raphoe Royal School (1852–5), Steele became headmaster of Raphoe on 19 April 1855. He rapidly gained a high reputation, and in May 1857 was appointed headmaster of the Royal School at Enniskillen; it was Steele who officially named it Portora, though it was widely called this locally. He admitted catholic pupils, and was proud of one who subsequently became a professor at St Macartan's College.
At Enniskillen, Steele oversaw a considerable increase in the number of pupils (assisted by the improved travel facilities provided by the growing rail network) and constructed additional dormitories at his own expense. He was regarded as a fine classical scholar and had considerable success in preparing pupils for the Trinity College entrance examinations. Like many contemporary Irish headmasters, Steele complained about the increasing tendency for the Irish elite to send their children to English rather than Irish public schools; meanwhile, there were complaints in Enniskillen about his preference for upper-class boarders over locally recruited day pupils, and about the classics-oriented curriculum. Steele attempted to establish a subsidiary school in the town for day boys so that Portora could be reserved for boarders, but this enterprise was abandoned in the face of local protests. In 1866 Steele's eldest son, Frederick, was accidentally drowned in Lough Erne; Steele never quite recovered from this tragedy.
In 1873 Steele became rector of the Church of Ireland parish of Devenish; the modern parish church, the construction of which he oversaw, is located at Monea, north-west of Enniskillen to the south of Lough Erne. The adjustments required by disestablishment were difficult for this relatively poor parish, since there were few resident gentry, and the tenure of the previous rector had been marred by financial problems and litigation between rector and curates. Steele accepted the appointment only at the request of the archbishop of Armagh, Marcus Gervais Beresford (qv), and for many years visited the parish only to take the Sunday service, while his curate (a post held successively by two of his sons) handled most of the routine work. There were some tensions in the parish (as elsewhere in the Church of Ireland at this period) caused by the mildly high-church preferences of the Steeles and lay suspicions of creeping ritualism. (Ernie Elliott's description of Steele as an evangelical is overstated.) In the 1880s Steele devoted a larger proportion of his time to the parish, but did not take up residence there until his retirement from Portora in 1891. He strongly supported the Orange Order and the temperance movement, and tried to promote non-alcoholic Orange soirées as an alternative to dancing – an activity which he discountenanced. These methods of evangelisation were copied from the local Wesleyan methodists, whose zeal he admired. He was also an outspoken opponent of home rule and addressed local meetings on the subject. From 1874 Steele served as a chaplain to successive lords lieutenant.
Steele's most distinguished pupil was Oscar Wilde (qv), who in later years recalled with amusement Steele's exhortation that if he worked hard he might do as well as his brother Willie Wilde (qv). Steele believed in treating the boys leniently, and was consequently very popular with them; some inspectors (including J. P. Mahaffy (qv)) complained that school discipline suffered as a result. From 1880 the number of pupils declined considerably; the school temporarily ceased to receive boarders in 1885 and virtually collapsed in the late 1880s. This reflected Steele's age and declining powers, as well as a dispute over local education facilities for catholics, which led on Steele's retirement to the division of the school endowments between catholic and protestant boards. Numbers revived when Steele appointed a new assistant master in 1890. Steele retired as headmaster of Portora on 22 June 1891 and died 23 September 1898 from cardiac illness at Levally, Enniskillen.
Of his three sons, two followed their father into the Church of Ireland ministry in Fermanagh: John Haughton Steele (1850–1920) served as his father's curate at Devenish (1874–83) and became rector of Derryvore and chaplain to the 4th earl of Erne (1883–1910), before converting to the Church of Rome and entering its priesthood in 1912. William Babington Steele (1865–1953) was curate (1892–8) then rector (1898–1945) of Devenish. Both engaged in antiquarian research. John published Genealogy of the earls of Erne (1910) and William compiled The parish of Devenish, County Fermanagh: materials for its history (1937).
Steele is a significant figure in the history of Irish education as the founder of Portora's reputation as the ‘Irish Eton’; his standing is reflected in his having been invited to testify on school conditions in Ireland before the royal commission on endowed schools (1881). As a churchman he played a prominent role in the response of the Fermanagh Church of Ireland elite to the crises of the later nineteenth century. He was remembered by his pupils as ‘a great Christian divine, an excellent administrator, just and fearless in his dealings, an admirable teacher of many subjects, but especially of the Greek and Latin languages’. The assembly hall at Portora is named after him.