Arbuckle, James (d. 1742), poet and essayist, came from Belfast. His parentage is unknown, but he may have been a nephew of the merchant James Arbuckle (d. March 1736), who was a lay elder in the Second Presbyterian congregation. His date of birth cannot be reliably determined, but there is evidence that the future nonsubscribing minister Thomas Drennan (qv) and the future Dublin bookseller John Smith (qv) were his friends from childhood. The three overlapped in their attendance at Glasgow University. Arbuckle's matriculation record is missing, but his closest associates completed the philosophy course as members of the class taught by Gershom Carmichael in the regent cycle 1716–19. He claimed the MA degree in print before the end of 1719 but graduated only in 1720. He continued into the divinity class, where his last traceable attendance was in March 1724. Some time after the end of the session he moved to Dublin, where Smith and perhaps Drennan had already preceded him, and where he attracted both literary and political patronage. He eventually found employment as a clerk in the Irish revenue service, holding concurrent appointments in the Quit Rent Office and as clerk of postages at the Custom House.
In his student days Arbuckle made his name as a verse writer with three lengthy pieces, all twenty or more pages long. The mock-heroic Snuff (1717) extolled the virtues of the popular stimulant and was later quoted in commercial advertising in Dublin. Glotta (1721), with its extended depictions of the Clyde valley and of college life, was reprinted in Dublin (1725) paired with Lord Hervey's Momimia to Philocles. His most significant piece, An epistle to . . . Thomas, earl of Hadington, on the death of Joseph Addison, Esq. (1719), shows the influence of Addison's work, from which Arbuckle would derive his use of classical models, his strong whig ideals, and his adoption of the essay form to mould manners, taste, and a sense of religion. The Epistle was published in Edinburgh, where he had contacts with the literary community, notably with the dialect poet Allan Ramsay. At least eleven items by Arbuckle, including translations, appeared in The Edinburgh miscellany (1720). By that time he was active in a Glasgow literary tavern club, the Trinamphorian club, considered subversive by the university. When he delivered a prologue at a student production of Rowe's tragic melodrama ‘Tamerlane’, he was almost expelled for contrasting the British ideal of liberty with the constraints under which the Dublin theatre had recently operated. The university principal thought it was an attack on himself in a comedy. In the end it was John Smith, not Arbuckle, who was expelled (1722), for his association with a campaign in which Francis Hutcheson (qv) had once been active, and in which Arbuckle was equally active. The campaign was to recover the students’ statutory right to elect their rector or magistrate, which had been suppressed by the university to prevent political demonstrations in the 1690s. Arbuckle and some other students who professed their adherence to the principles of the 3rd earl of Shaftesbury secured the support of Robert Molesworth (qv), 1st viscount, who planned to raise the matter in the British parliament. When mistaken intelligence of Molesworth's victory in the 1722 parliamentary election reached Glasgow, the students and sympathetic townspeople organised a bonfire outside the college bounds, and Smith intervened to prevent the university from putting it out. Smith and Arbuckle were on the liberal wing of Ulster presbyterianism at the height of the nonsubscription controversy, and the university did not wish to be seen to be giving them political encouragement. Undeterred, Arbuckle mounted a public campaign against fundraising activities in Glasgow by the supporters of a new orthodox congregation in Belfast over the winter 1722–3.
Having returned to Dublin after the failure of the 1722 election, Molesworth established a small literary and philosophical club under his roof, of which Hutcheson would become a member. When Arbuckle arrived (1724), Molesworth encouraged his talents, and Molesworth was probably the moving force behind the establishment shortly before his death of the Dublin Weekly Journal, of which Arbuckle was both editor and principal writer for two years (3 April 1725–25 March 1727). Hutcheson contributed his famous essays against Hobbes and Mandeville. The Dublin poet Samuel Boyse (qv) also briefly contributed, and Arbuckle was able to secure some posthumous poetry of Thomas Parnell (qv). Arbuckle's own essays, most of them in the form of pieces either to or from a pseudonymous character Hibernicus, show him, at his best, to be a more substantial moral thinker than his model, Addison. He drew his ideas in part from Molesworth and Shaftesbury, in part from classical sources of which he had a considerable repertoire. Whig politics are never far below the surface. All but two of the essays, letters and poems that appeared in this journal from different authors were collected and reprinted at London with some revisions as a two-volume Collection of letters and essays on several subjects (1729, reissued with index 1732 and retitled Hibernicus's letters), credited inaccurately to the rival Dublin Journal of George Faulkner (qv). Some of the essays, particularly those by Hutcheson, attracted favourable comment in the London Journal of the day, some of whose own associates, such as Hugh Boulter (qv), Ambrose Philips (qv), and Richard West, received ecclesiastical, legal or administrative postings to Ireland in the 1720s. It is hardly conceivable that Arbuckle was not acquainted with them, just as Hutcheson was.
In 1729 he initiated a new series of twice-weekly essays called The Tribune, which ran for twenty-one numbers (7 October–20 December 1729), but then failed. This too was republished in book form in London, in two parts, the second part including as makeweights some verses by Patrick Delany (qv) and William Dunkin (qv). Owing to a misreading of the title page to part 2, the Gentleman's Magazine in 1777 started a tradition of ascribing the journal to Delany that still survives in bibliographical reference sources, but contemporary testimony was unanimous that the work was Arbuckle's. The final essay is a witty satire on the philosophy of George Berkeley (qv), but many of the contributions address the failings of the Irish economy, to be solved by reversing the prevalent absenteeism of landowners and creating a better sense of common interest between Britain and Ireland. A poem inscribed to the Dublin Society (1737) pursues similar aims.
Arbuckle took an active part in the broadsheet culture of Dublin, targeting and being targeted by the tory Swiftians (see Woolley (1981) for bibliography). He also subscribed to the literary volumes emanating from Dublin publishers, regardless of political divisions. But Faulkner, who knew both parties, claimed that Jonathan Swift (qv) and Arbuckle were acquainted over a period of some years. Arbuckle, in a letter to Drennan of 18 April 1737, reported that Swift commended a patriotic essay that Arbuckle published in Faulker's journal (no copy has survived), and that Swift asked the author to call round. Drennan is indeed the only one of Arbuckle's early contacts with whom he is known to have remained in regular touch. For the rest, we have no evidence, and therefore we do not know if he continued to support the dissenting interest that was conspicuous in his student years. Some of the contributions to the Tribune adopt a church persona, but with a satirical edge. The names of the dedicatees of the two volumes of his Collection from the Dublin Weekly Journal – Richard Molesworth (qv), 3rd viscount, and James Forth, former parliamentarian and by then secretary to the revenue commissioners – suggest he had well placed contacts within the establishment to help him find employment. That he had remained in contact with the Molesworths is further confirmed by a tribute paid to his assistance in classical matters by Richard Molesworth's chaplain, Thomas Dawson, in a 1732 translation of Aeschines and Demosthenes, On the crown.
In 1735 Arbuckle was living in Crow St., in Dublin's theatreland. He was crippled from early childhood, for which he was heartlessly satirised, and, despite giving the appearance in his writings of being very much a ladies’ man, he seems to have remained a bachelor. He died on 17 January 1742, and was honoured with favourable tributes by all the Dublin papers. Older biographers confused him with James Arbuckle (d. 27 December 1746), MD, a Scots physician related by marriage to Hutcheson, who settled in Dublin about the same time. T. P. C. Kirkpatrick (qv), in a presentation to the Bibliographical Society of Ireland in 1939, showed that they are not connected.