Coffey, Hugh Diarmid James (1888–1964), author and public servant, was born 24 December 1888 in Dublin, the only child of George Coffey (qv) (d. 1916) and his wife Jane Sophia Frances (d. 1921), daughter of Sir George Burdett L'Estrange. The family, who lived at 5 Harcourt Terrace, Dublin, were at the centre of Dublin literary society and were close friends of – among others – George Russell (qv) and Douglas Hyde (qv). Baptised a catholic, Coffey was brought up a protestant and educated at St Stephen's Green School, Dublin (1899–1905), TCD (1905–10), and King's Inns (1909–12). Graduating BA (1910) as senior moderator in history and political science, he was called to the bar in Michaelmas 1912.
Untroubled by work at the bar, he wrote the well-received historical narrative O'Neill and Ormond 1641–53 (1914). A crew member of the Kelpie, (which offloaded arms at Kilcoole, Co. Wicklow, 1 August 1914), he later joined the staff of the National Volunteers as secretary to Col. Cotter, and subsequently (1914–16) to Col. Maurice Moore (qv). Although not involved in the 1916 rising, he feared arrest for his involvement with the Volunteers and his known Sinn Féin sympathies. In June 1916 Coffey, a keen language revivalist, commenced work on the authorised biography of Hyde. Douglas Hyde: An Craoibhín Aoibhinn (1917) was a compact and uncritical study of Hyde, lacking any significant analytical content.
A member of the secretariat of the Irish convention (1917–18), he was one of the ‘two Irishmen’ (the other being Francis Cruise O'Brien (qv)) who wrote Proposals for an Irish settlement, being a draft bill for the government of Ireland (1917). Advocating a scheme of dominion home rule, Coffey lost his position on the secretariat by deliberately avoiding the loyal toast.
After he was appointed assistant to Florence Marks, librarian of the Co-operative Reference Library, one of his tasks was the editing of Better Business, an economic quarterly (1917–21). In 1920 he visited Italy, Yugoslavia, and Rumania to report on the economic conditions of the co-operative movement in those countries. His findings were published as The Co-operative movement in Jugoslavia and Rumania after the war 1914–18 (1921) by the Carnegie endowment for international peace. On the withdrawal of the Carnegie grant from the Co-operative Reference Library in April 1921, Coffey spent time living and working at Raheen, Co. Clare, the home of his friend Edward MacLysaght (qv), whom he had met through the Dublin Arts Club and who was at that time using Raheen as the basis for a co-operative experiment.
A delegate and secretary at the Irish Race Congress in Paris 1922, Coffey worked for the dáil department of publicity, spreading pro-treaty propaganda in the counties of Mayo, Sligo, Galway, and Clare. Between October 1922 and January 1923 he served as a lieutenant in the national army, during which time he captained a patrol boat on the River Shannon and, according to Terence de Vere White (qv), brought a conditional offer of reprieve to Erskine Childers (qv) on the eve of his execution. Coffey had put up Erskine Childers in his own home for the nine-month duration of the Irish convention.
Attached to the oireachtas staff, he was second assistant clerk of the seanad (15 January 1923–6 April 1925), senior oireachtas clerk (7 April 1925–8 March 1926), and assistant clerk of the seanad (9 March 1926–30 September 1936). In December 1926, after complaints from some senators, Lord Glenavy (qv) told him that ‘he had been very foolish in the way he had advertised his easy job by being constantly seen about the streets during office hours’ (quoted in papers of Senator James G. Douglas (qv)). Suitably contrite, Coffey retained his job, though the minister for finance, Ernest Blythe (qv), agreed to transfer him to a post such as librarian or curator when a vacancy arose. In 1935 Coffey wrote to Joseph Connolly (qv) with suggestions for a new second chamber, which Connolly forwarded to Éamon de Valera (qv), keeping the writer's identity secret.
On 1 October 1936 Coffey was appointed assistant keeper of the PROI, where he discouraged the proliferation of red tape. In 1938 he wrote Douglas Hyde: president of Ireland, a revision of his earlier biography. A member (1949–64) of the Irish Manuscripts Commission, he concentrated on the manuscript material in King's Inns. He was also MRIA (1951) and a member of the Dublin University Club. He retired from the PROI on 24 June 1956 and was succeeded by Margaret Griffith (d. 2001). In addition to the above publications he also wrote the DNB entries for Lord Glenavy and Douglas Hyde.
An agnostic, he was 6 ft 3 in. (1.9 m) in height, less than ten stone (63.5 kg) in weight, and bearded before the age of thirty. To Terence de Vere White, Coffey looked like ‘a composite photograph of the Bloomsbury group’ and was ‘the gentlest-mannered man’ he had ever met. Much liked, he had an extensive repertoire of comic verse, and treated pomposity of any kind with gentle mockery. Best man at the wedding of Liam Price (qv) and Dorothy Stopford (qv), he was appointed an honorary member of the St John's Ambulance in 1922 for bravery during the Troubles. He died 7 July 1964 in a nursing home, leaving an estate valued at £6,840.
He married first (17 April 1918) the painter Cesca Trench (qv) (‘Sadhbh Trinseach’), third daughter of the Rev. Herbert Francis Chenevix Trench, MA, vicar of St Peter's in Thanet, Kent. Robert Barton (qv) was best man. She died six months later, on 30 October 1918. On 15 August 1929 he married her cousin Sheela Wilbraham Fitzjohn (who after Coffey's death married Erwin Strunz), elder daughter of Professor Wilbraham Fitzjohn Trench (qv). They had one son and two daughters. In 1949 the family moved from Dún Laoghaire to farm Glendarragh, Newtownmountkennedy, Co. Wicklow. Sarah Purser (qv) painted portraits of Coffey in 1891 and 1909, both of which are in private collections (1996).