MacCarthy, Denis Florence (1817–82), Young Irelander, poet, and translator, was born 26 May 1817 at 24 Lower Sackville St., Dublin, the only son of John MacCarthy (d. 1857), a catholic woollen merchant with premises on Eden Quay, Dublin, and Sarah MacCarthy (née Courtney) (d. 1845). After attending a private school in Dublin, he entered Maynooth College to study for the priesthood, but discovered he had no vocation, and in 1834 enrolled at TCD, becoming a member of the circle of Thomas Davis (qv) centred on the College Historical Society. He entered the King's Inns, Dublin (1841), and Gray's Inn, London (1842), and was called to the bar (1846). He never practised law, preferring instead to pursue a literary career. His earliest work, a poem dedicated to the memory of Shelley, was published in the Dublin Weekly Satirist in October 1834, and he contributed regularly to the paper for the next two years. He was a prolific contributor of prose and verse to a variety of Irish journals, including the Dublin Evening Packet, Dublin University Magazine, Irish Catholic Magazine, Irish Monthly, and, most significantly, the Nation. His first contribution to the Nation, ‘Proclamation songs’, appeared on 14 October 1843, and over the next five years he established himself as one of the paper's leading poets, writing under a variety of pseudonyms, including ‘Desmond’, ‘Vig’, ‘Trifolium', ‘Antonio’, and ‘S.E.Y.’. Several of his poems were included in the anthology The spirit of the Nation (1844). In 1846 he edited The book of Irish ballads (dedicated to his friend Samuel Ferguson (qv)) and The poets and dramatists of Ireland for the Nation's Library of Ireland series, writing substantial introductions to both.
Much of his poetry was based on historical research, notably ‘The foray of Con O'Donnell’ (1847) (based on an entry in the translation by Owen Connellan (qv) of the Annals of the Four Masters), ‘The voyage of St Brendan’ (1848), and ‘Ferdiah’ (an ambitious epic drawn from the Táin Bó Cuailgne). Poems such as ‘The pillar towers of Ireland’ and ‘The bell-founder’ stressed the cultural achievements of early Irish civilisation. His antiquarian research led to a regular correspondence with the Celticist John O'Donovan (qv) from 1845, and during the 1850s he wrote to the government seeking a state pension for O'Donovan. MacCarthy had a particular love for the poetry of Shelley, and wrote a series of articles on the poet for the Nation that were attacked by catholic critics for failing to condemn Shelley's atheism.
A member of the Repeal Association and the elite ’82 Club (1844), he admired and respected Daniel O'Connell (qv), but was closer in age and outlook to the Young Irelanders. Witty and affable, MacCarthy was a popular figure, and in August 1844 rambled through the south of Ireland visiting places of natural and historical interest with John O'Hagan (qv) and Charles Gavan Duffy (qv), both of whom became lifelong friends. An advocate of religiously mixed education, he supported the colleges bill (1845), and seceded from the Repeal Association with the Young Irelanders in July 1846. He was a founder member of the Young Ireland Irish Confederation in January 1847, and was appointed to its committee of public instruction, but rarely attended. According to Duffy, his attachment to Young Ireland was more personal than political. He supported Irish independence and wrote some rousingly nationalistic verse, but tended to shy away from the rough and tumble of political life and played no part in the rising of 1848.
MacCarthy resumed writing for the Nation when it was relaunched in 1849 and produced several volumes of poetry, the first of which, Ballads, poems and lyrics (1850), included translations from French, German, Spanish, and Italian. Subsequent publications include An ode on the death of the earl of Belfast (1855), The bell-founder and other poems (1857) (reissued as Irish legends and lyrics (1858)), Under glimpses and other poems (1857), and his elegies to mark the centenaries of O'Connell (1875) and Thomas Moore (qv) (1879). A devout catholic, he regularly wrote religious poetry and prose for the Irish Monthly in the 1870s. At the height of his fame MacCarthy was popularly regarded as one of Ireland's foremost poets, and was often referred to as the poet laureate of Ireland. His best work has a tuneful, flowing lyricism, but much of it is marred by facile rhyme and nationalist cliché, and has not aged well.
Through his readings of Shelley's translation of El mágico prodigioso MacCarthy became interested in the work of the Spanish playwright Calderón (1600–81). He set about translating Calderón's work, assiduously seeking out manuscripts in continental libraries to clarify the Spanish text, and published the Dramas of Calderón (1853), Love the greatest enchantment (1861), The two lovers of heaven (1870), and Calderón's dramas (1873). His highly regarded translations managed the difficult task of reproducing the Spanish assonant rhyme in English, and did much to stimulate interest in Calderón's work among English-speakers. MacCarthy's poetry and translations had many admirers abroad, and his article in the DNB was written by Ramsay MacDonald, the future British prime minister.
After spending the winter of 1852–3 in Rome, MacCarthy returned to Dublin to accept an offer from J. H. Newman (qv) of the professorship of English literature in the newly established Catholic University. However, he found the position irksome and resigned after three months. He moved to the Continent in 1864 because of the poor health of some of his children, and lived in Spain and Italy, becoming acquainted with the American poet Longfellow in Rome in 1868. In 1871 he settled in London, attracted primarily by its excellent research libraries. Although an enthusiastic collector of books, particularly on Spanish literature, Ireland, and Shelley, he usually sold his library on moving house, and then began collecting again. In 1872 he published Shelley's early life, which attempted to redress hostile accounts of the poet's visit to Ireland in 1812. Elected MRIA (1853), he was granted a civil list pension of £100 (1871). In 1881 the Spanish Real Academia awarded him a medal struck in honour of Calderón's bicentenary.
During his final illness he returned to Dublin, settling at 7 Herbert Terrace, Blackrock, and died there 7 April 1882. He was buried in Glasnevin cemetery. His memorial committee included Cardinals Newman and Edward McCabe (qv) (a lifelong friend), Thomas (Lord) O'Hagan (qv), Gavan Duffy, T. D. Sullivan (qv), and the poets Aubrey de Vere (qv) and Sir Samuel Ferguson. The committee financed the publication of his Poems (1882), edited by his eldest son, John (d. 1926?), a minor poet living in London, and commissioned a bust by Thomas Farrell (qv) which was displayed in the City Hall in Dublin.
With his wife Elizabeth (née Donnelly; d. 1874) MacCarthy had nine children, six of whom predeceased him; his daughter Mary Stanislaus MacCarthy (qv) was a Dominican nun, and his youngest son, Brendan, was private secretary to John O'Hagan at the Irish Land Commission and a medical inspector with the Local Government Board.