Trench, Wilbraham Fitzjohn (1873–1939), academic, was born 22 February 1873 in Dublin, the only son of John Alfred Trench and his wife Janetta, eldest daughter of Wilbraham Taylor. He had four younger sisters, one of whom died in infancy. He was related to Richard Chenevix Trench (qv), who played a central role in inaugurating the Oxford English Dictionary and was archbishop of Dublin 1864–84. He entered TCD in 1891 and graduated in 1894 as senior moderator and gold medallist in modern literature. The following year he matriculated at Christ's College, Cambridge, graduating in 1898, his BA being awarded without examination, in recognition of original work submitted – a book-length study entitled ‘A mirror for magistrates: its origin and influence’, which was privately published in 1898. He received the MA degree from the University of Dublin in 1899 and later from Cambridge. In 1899 he was appointed professor of history, English literature, and mental science at Galway, retiring to Blessington, Co. Wicklow in 1912 at the youthful age of 39. This move was caused by his wife's poor health and by a desire to concentrate more on his academic research in the hope of succeeding Edward Dowden (qv) as professor of English literature at TCD. Dowden died in April 1913; Trench, though he had not completed his study of Hamlet, published it in June, and had it accepted for the D.Litt. degree. In November he was appointed to the chair, a position he retained until his death.
Trench was a particular favourite with students and in Galway he was a frequent contributor to the debating society. In 1906 he formulated a plan for the future of QCG which was quite similar to the settlement reached in 1908 with the foundation of the NUI. There were widespread fears that the proposals of James Bryce (qv), the then chief secretary, would lead to the closure of QCG. On 5 February 1907 Trench and Stephen Gwynn (qv), MP, organised a great public protest meeting in Galway. Bryce was replaced and his successor, Augustine Birrell (qv), introduced the 1908 act that saved the college.
In 1900 Trench became a founder member of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society; he was elected its first joint honorary secretary (1900–02) and the editor of its Journal (1900–08), to which he contributed several scholarly notes. He was president of the Society (1911–12), becoming vice-president in 1913, a position he retained until his death. In its obituary, the Journal concluded: ‘To him, more than to any other individual member perhaps, the Society is indebted for its present sound condition’ (xviii, 189).
Though describing himself as conservative politically, Trench was something of an economic and, to a certain extent, a cultural nationalist. The United Irishman of 22 December 1900 noted the establishment of a Celtic Literary Society in QCG and noted with satisfaction that Trench was ‘with the new idea’. He had read a paper on ‘English renderings of Celtic poetry’ before the Cambridge University English Society in 1897, but it was not published. He had an interest in the Irish language unusual for someone of his social class. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the Irish industrial movement and a zealous advocate of buying Irish goods. From 1907 to 1910, Trench (who was a founding member) was the president of the Galway Industrial Development Association that was set up in 1906, mainly through the efforts of Capt. John Shawe-Taylor (qv). Trench was centrally involved in organising the Fourth All-Ireland Industrial Conference and Exhibition held in Galway in 1908. In 1903, to facilitate small producers around Lough Corrib, he bought a boat that plied between Maam and Galway. Though subsidised by the congested districts board, the venture was unsuccessful and terminated in 1907. He also lost money in another failed venture to promote Irish industry, the Galway Granite Company. Trench was also a member of the executive committee of the Co. Galway Association for the Promotion of Temperance.
In 1904, when ‘Riders to the sea’ was first staged, Trench supplied J. M. Synge (qv) with samples of cloth for which Synge thanked him in a letter (Saddlemyer, 76–7). His relations with W. B. Yeats (qv) were not always so cordial. In his preface to Cuchulain of Muirthemne by Lady Gregory (qv), Yeats wrote that if ‘we but tell these stories to our children the Land will begin again to be a Holy Land, as it was before men gave their hearts to Greece and Rome and Judea’. Trench strongly disapproved of these sentiments and wrote to Lady Gregory on 15 May 1902: ‘this neo-paganism is a hateful thing, and Christ & his doctrine are as dear as life. . . . I have just cut the stupid Preface out of my copy & without it the book is perfect. If I give away some copies the Preface shall come out of them too.’ Lady Gregory replied vindicating Yeats (Kelly and Schuchard, 184, 188). Perhaps Trench got a measure of revenge when he succeeded Dowden, for among the disappointed hopefuls was William Butler Yeats. He also disapproved of Yeats's championing of James Joyce (qv): ‘J. Joyce rakes hell and the sewers for dirt to throw at the fair face of life, and for poison to make beauty shrivel and die’ (Catholic Bulletin, 837).
Trench's application for the Galway professorship included testimonials from Dowden, W. W. Skeat, (Sir) Israel Gollancz, and John Peile, master of Christ's College, Cambridge. Dowden described his study of A mirror for magistrates as a ‘valuable addition to our knowledge of Elizabethan literature’ and Skeat thought it an ‘admirable essay . . . which throws new light upon that valuable monument of our early dramatic literature, and assists us towards a better understanding of early sixteenth-century literature’ (Trench, application). Trench published two books – A mirror for magistrates: its origin and influence (1898, ‘printed for private circulation’) and Shakespeare's Hamlet: a new commentary with a chapter on first principles (1913) – and many pamphlets, essays, addresses, reviews, and articles of various kinds, including significant articles on Shakespeare and the renaissance in England, on Aristotle's Poetics, and on religious and theological topics. He wrote insightfully on Swift, vigorously defending his economic nationalism, and identifying himself with a lineage that also included Berkeley (qv), Samuel Madden (qv), and Isaac Butt (qv). His memorial lecture, Tom Moore (1934), was an important revaluation and vindication of both the poet and the poetry. He frequently published newspaper articles on Irish politics and especially on questions of industrial development. For a virtually complete listing of Trench's publications, see Foley and Bateman, 398–9, and Hayes, Sources: periodicals.
Trench died 14 July 1939 at Grianblath, Palmerston Park, Dublin. He married (29 December 1903) Mary Alicia (d. 3 February 1930), eldest daughter of Edward Cross of Hollywood, Co. Down (the Crosses were of Cork farming background). They had two sons, Patrick and Chalmers (‘Terry’), and two daughters, Sheela and Jean (‘Shamrock’).