Bodkin, Matthias McDonnell (1849–1933), journalist and lawyer, was born in October 1849 at Tuam, Co. Galway, younger son among five children of Thomas Bodkin (c.1799–1886), doctor and FRCSI, and Maria Bodkin (née McDonnell; c.1818–1873), a native of Westport, Co. Mayo. Educated by the Christian Brothers in Tuam and by the Jesuits at St Stanislaus College, Tullabeg, King's Co. (Offaly), he went on to the Catholic University in Dublin to study classics. Quickly abandoning this endeavour, he joined the Freeman's Journal as a junior reporter and remained there until 1880. Meanwhile, he also studied law, was called to the Irish bar (1877), and began a moderately successful career as a lawyer. He later became a QC (1894).
The lure of journalism, however, was for him very strong. In 1881 C. S. Parnell (qv) established a weekly newspaper, United Ireland, with William O'Brien (qv) as editor. O'Brien persuaded Bodkin to write for it part-time; and, when O'Brien was imprisoned under Balfour's crimes act in November 1887, Bodkin took over as acting editor. He retained that position until the Parnell ‘split’, his duties leaving him little time to devote to the law. At the outset of the ‘split’, acting on instructions from O'Brien (who was in America evading a further jail sentence), Bodkin steered United Ireland into the anti-Parnell camp – at which point Parnell exerted his authority over the paper, personally breaking into its offices with some associates and ejecting Bodkin by force (10 December 1890). An attempt by anti-Parnellites, led by T. M. Healy (qv), MP, to reoccupy the offices failed. Undeterred, Bodkin – using the Irish Catholic's printing facilities – brought out a daily anti-Parnell organ, ‘Suppressed’ United Ireland (13, 15, & 16 December 1890). After Parnell got an injunction prohibiting that title, he replaced it with Insuppressible (17 December 1890–24 January 1891). Insuppressible collapsed when O'Brien, embarrassed by its intemperate criticism of Parnell, withdrew his support.
The anti-Parnellites soon launched a proper daily newspaper, the National Press (7 March 1891), of which Bodkin was chief leader writer. This eventually merged with the Freeman's Journal under the latter's more venerable title (March 1892). Bodkin continued to write for the merged paper until elected anti-Parnell MP for Roscommon North in the 1892 general election. Having no independent means, he had been reluctant to stand for parliament and stepped down after only one term (1892–5). He then returned to the Freeman staff and was chief leader writer up to his appointment as county court judge for Clare (7 November 1907). In this period, he combined journalism with occasional legal work and was also a director of Todd, Burns & Co., the Dublin drapery store.
His appointment to the bench was part of the new Liberal government's strategy of involving nationalists in the governance of Ireland in anticipation of home rule. It was a controversial appointment – not least because Bodkin, as a former MP, had taken the Irish party's pledge against holding office and had himself previously denounced another former Irish MP, Arthur O'Connor, for accepting an English judgeship. Moreover, his qualifications were suspect, for he had not seriously practised law since the 1880s. This led to a court challenge by Alexander Sullivan (qv) 1871–1959 – afterwards the last serjeant-at-law in Ireland – to the validity of his appointment (January 1908), though the case ultimately fizzled out. As a judge, he distinguished himself in February 1921 by reading in open court a statement of his criminal injury awards arising from actions by crown forces, notably in Lahinch, Ennistymon, and Miltown Malbay in September 1920. He concluded by saying: ‘Law and order cannot be restored or maintained by . . . a competition in crime.’ Asquith and the archbishop of Canterbury both referred to this statement in parliament when criticising the government's record in Ireland. He retired on the introduction of the Free State court system (1924) and died at his home, 52 Upper Mount St., Dublin, on 7 June 1933.
In addition to ‘press, bar and parliament’ (to quote the subtitle of his autobiography, Recollections of an Irish judge (1914)), there was a fourth strand in Bodkin's career: he was the author of many popular books, among which White magic (1897) was a fictional account of his early years. His Famous Irish trials (1918) has been reissued (1997). Best known during his lifetime were his stories about detectives Paul Beck and Dora Myrl; these imitated the Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but are of less quality. Bodkin's surviving literary manuscripts are in the NLI, which also holds a collection of miscellaneous letters to him and his wife; the NAI has additional relevant material, mainly family correspondence.
Bodkin married (1885) Arabella Norman (c.1854–1931), daughter of Francis Norman, solicitor, of Dublin, and Margaret Norman (née Adrian; c.1820–1883). They had two sons and four daughters, of whom the eldest, Thomas Patrick Bodkin (qv), was director of the NGI 1927–35. Their youngest daughter, Emma Bodkin (1892–1973), was one of the first women chartered accountants in Ireland. Two other daughters became Carmelite nuns. The youngest of the family, also Matthias McDonnell Bodkin (1896–1973), was a Jesuit priest and author. Born 26 June 1896 in Dublin and educated at Belvedere College and Clongowes Wood College, he entered the Jesuit noviciate in 1914 and was ordained 1932. For many years a teacher in Clongowes, Mungret College, and Belvedere, he served as a Royal Navy chaplain during the second world war in Derry and for a brief period in the Pacific on board HMS Anson. Afterwards, his eyesight failing, he undertook mainly retreat work and counselling. He died 2 November 1973 at Milltown Park, Dublin. Like his father, he was a prolific writer – largely on religious themes, but also of adventure stories for boys. His most substantial book, a life of fellow-Jesuit Fr John Sullivan (qv) (The port of tears (1954)), did much to spread Fr Sullivan's reputation for sanctity. So as to differentiate his own from his father's work, Fr Bodkin never used his second Christian name.
A full bibliography of the Matthias McDonnell Bodkins père et fils is to be found in Alan Denson, Thomas Bodkin: a bio-bibliographical survey, with a bibliographical survey of his family (1966).