Thomson, George Derwent (Seoirse Mac Tomáis) (1903–87), classical scholar and writer, was born 19 August 1903 in West Dulwich, London, the eldest of a family of three sons and two daughters born to William Henry Thomson, an accountant, and his wife Minnie (née Clements). Inheriting an interest in Ireland from his maternal grandfather, an Ulsterman of Orange stock, and his mother, he attended Irish-language classes run by the Gaelic League in London while a pupil at Dulwich College (1916–22). Awarded a scholarship to King's College, Cambridge, in 1922, he read classics. On the advice of Robin Flower (qv) he continued his study of modern Irish on the Great Blasket Island, Co. Kerry, visiting the island in 1923 and making the acquaintance of the youthful Muiris Ó Súilleabháin (qv), and his grandfather, Daideo Eoghan Ó Súilleabháin, a gifted storyteller and an expert on Island lore. Tutored by Muiris in the Irish language, a close friendship ensued which had an important literary sequel.
Taking first class honours in parts I and II of the classical tripos at Cambridge, he went on to distinguish himself in Greek, specialising in ancient Greek literature and early Aegean civilisation. Awarded the prestigious Craven Scholarship in 1926, he spent the academic year 1926–7 at TCD working on his first book. Revisiting the Great Blasket in the summer of 1926, he urged Muiris Ó Súilleabháin to join the new Irish police force, An Garda Síochána, rather than emigrate to America. Thomson was a fellow of King's College (1927–31). In his Greek lyric metre (1929), he acknowledged his debt to his experience of Irish folk poetry on the Great Blasket. In 1929, while at TCD, working on his English edition of the Prometheus bound of Aeschylus, the playwright on whom he was to become an authority, he encouraged Muiris Ó Súilleabháin to write about his youth on the Great Blasket Island following the example of An tOileánach (1929) by Tomás Ó Criomhthain (qv).
Thomson had a remarkable command of the Irish language and taught classical Greek through Irish as a lecturer at University College, Galway (1931–4) – the first such appointment ever made. His twin projects of providing textbooks and studies on classical Greek for secondary and university levels, and of bringing university extension lectures to the people of the Gaeltachtaí, found favour with the then minister for finance, Ernest Blythe (qv). Thomson made a unique contribution to the Gaelic revival, bringing his mastery of Blasket Irish to bear on translations of Greek classics. These include: Breith báis ar eagnuidhe (1929) – an Irish translation of the Apologia, Crito and Phaedo of Plato, Alcéstis le hEurípidés (1932), Prométheus fé chuibhreach by Aeschylus (1933) – a translation of his English edition of Prometheus bound published in 1932 – and Tosnú na feallsúnachta (1935), a short history of Greek philosophy.
He edited the manuscript of Fiche bliain ag fás in cooperation with its author Muiris Ó Súilleabháin. Published in 1933 – with a dedication to Ernest Blythe in acknowledgment of his support for the Irish language – it was an instant success, as was Twenty years a-growing (1933), the English edition by Thomson and Moya Llewelyn Davies, which established the book's reputation internationally, and the translation as, perhaps, a work in itself. Appearing in the Golden Library and the Queen's Classics (a shortened version), in a Penguin edition, and in the World Classics Series of Oxford University Press, Twenty years a-growing was latterly an Oxford paperback, and has been translated into French, German, Czech and Japanese.
Resigning his post in UCG due to what he perceived as a lack of progress with his educational projects, particularly his extension lectures scheme, he resumed his fellowship at King's College. He married Katharine, daughter of Hugh Fraser Stewart, dean of chapel at Trinity College, Cambridge, and of Jesse Stewart, pupil and biographer of Jane Harrison, the great Greek scholar and authority, the same year. There were two daughters of the marriage, Elizabeth and Margaret, the latter becoming professor of modern Greek at Harvard University.
Appointed to the chair of Greek in the University of Birmingham in 1937, Thomson's major edition of the Oresteia of Aeschylus (1938), dedicated to Muiris Ó Súilleabháin, established him as one of the great Greek scholars of the century. His Irish translation of the Book of Common Prayer (Leabhar na nUrnaihi Cóchoiteanna), in collaboration with Osborn Bergin (qv), also appeared in 1938, and Mise Agaistín (The confessions of St Augustine), in collaboration with Pádraig Ó Fiannachta, in 1967.
Joining the Communist party of Great Britain in 1935, Thomson sought to reinterpret the legacy of ancient Greece in the light of Marxism in a series of studies in which he drew on his experience of the spoken language, literature, and society of the Great Blasket Island in the 1920s. These works include: Aeschylus and Athens (1941), a Marxist study of the social origins of drama, Marxism and poetry (1945), his monumental The prehistoric Aegean (1949), and The human essence (1974).
On retiring from the chair of Greek at Birmingham University in 1970 Thomson prepared a second edition of Fiche bliain ag fás (1976), which had been out of print since 1941. His essay on the Blasket Island writers, and their cultural background, An Blascaod a bhí (1977), appeared in an expanded English version, The Blasket that was, in 1982, and in an emended and enlarged edition of that book, Island home (1988), the preface of which was written by Thomson in 1987, the year of his death in Birmingham. It includes a memoir by Tim Enright, an incident omitted from Twenty years a-growing (‘The sorrowful cliff’), Thomson's photographs of the Blasket Island and its people, some dating to 1923, and the original drawings by Muiris Ó Súilleabháin to accompany his manuscript of Fiche bliain ag fás. In 1986 Thomson presented the original manuscript of Fiche bliain ag fás to the NLI. Irish translations of the Iliad Book I (1988), the Idyll XV of Theocritus (1988), and the Symposium of Plato (1998–9), probably dating from the 1930s, appeared posthumously, as did Hóiméar sa Bhlascaod: The Blasket Homer (1999), a commemorative cassette-recording of two lectures – in Irish and English – on analogies between Homer and the writings of the Blasket authors, which was broadcast on Irish radio in the 1970s.
Thomson received many honours and distinctions, including membership of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences (1960) and a volume of essays for his sixtieth birthday published by Charles University, Prague (1963). Greece honoured him, too, not least for his English translation of The twelve lays of the gypsy (1969) by the nationalist poet Kostís Palamás. A member of the Greek Writers' Association since 1962, he was conferred with an honorary doctorate by the University of Thessalonica in 1979. A full bibliography of his works for the period 1929–63 is published in GERAS/Geras (Prague, 1963). Thomson died 3 February 1987 at his home in Moseley, Birmingham, survived by his wife.