Magee, William Kirkpatrick (‘John Eglinton’) (1868–1961), essayist, was born 16 January 1868 in Dublin, second of three sons of Hamilton Magee, presbyterian minister and superintendent of the Dublin city mission, and Emily Clare Magee (née Kirkpatrick). He attended the High School, Dublin, with W. B. Yeats (qv), before attending TCD. He twice won the vice-chancellor's prize for English verse (1889, 1890) and graduated BA (1890).
Two essays on the remnant (1894), his first book publication, is Old Testament prophecy for the new world as it calls its readers to follow their poetic conscience and assume partial divinity. The shade of Walt Whitman passes through the text, but Magee's sense of the mystic is unusual for a revival writer of the 1890s in that it owes more, as Ernest Boyd (qv) suggested, to Wordsworth than to the then influential theosophist, Madame Blavatsky. He worked in the NLI as assistant librarian from 1898 but always felt unhappy in a position to which he did not feel himself to be suited temperamentally. Ironically he is now most often remembered for his conversation with Stephen Dedalus and others on the subject of ‘Hamlet’ in the ‘Scylla and Charybdis’ episode of Ulysses by James Joyce (qv). His metropolitan sense of Irish culture led him to a controversy on Irish drama stage-managed by Yeats in the Dublin Daily Express, the results of which were published as Literary ideals in Ireland (1899). But Yeats did intend that he be the great critic of the literary revival, and published Some essays and passages by John Eglinton (1905) to advertise his talents. Magee meanwhile edited the literary journal Dana with Frederick Ryan (qv) for twelve issues (1904–5). Though he later ruefully regretted their refusal to publish an essay by Joyce that was to form part of Portrait of the artist as a young man, they did include work from Padraic Colum (qv), Oliver St John Gogarty (qv), George Moore (qv), and George Russell (qv) in the journal. Bards and saints (1906) ranges from a treatise on the publication of the first Irish-language Old Testament to an appreciation of the Brian Merriman (qv) poem ‘The midnight court’ in translation. Quietly polemical throughout, his main point is to renegotiate the terms of the Irish revival and posit English as the first language necessary to contemporary literature. Anglo-Irish essays (1917), containing work mainly reprinted from the New Statesman, argues that, since hybridity of culture is a typically modern condition, the Anglo-Irish are true Europeans because they inhabit a combined space beyond the limitations of Celt and Saxon. He imagines, like Standish James O'Grady (qv) before him, an Ireland rejuvenated by its gentry. This is a brave flourish in the midst of a world war and but a year after the Easter rising. It was to prove a false hope and he retired from his library post to leave Ireland for Prestatyn, Wales, in 1922, unwilling to live in an independent Ireland.
He was supported there by visits from George Moore, whom he first met after an introduction by Lady Gregory (qv) in 1898. The first volume of Hail and farewell (1914) records Moore's impression of a lonely man with a rare gift of speech, whom Moore describes as an Emerson or Thoreau of the suburbs. Moore contracted work for his friend, including a 1925 translation of Letters from George Moore to Edouard Dujardin 1886–1922 (1929), to supplement his modest pension. Moore encouraged the diffident writer to collect his essays in book form: Irish literary portraits (1935) is a collection of reflections on Edward Dowden (qv), Joyce, Moore, Russell, and Yeats, reprinted from the Dial and Life and Letters. Magee was occasionally puzzled by the personalities he encountered; his opinions of Joyce are the most admirably quixotic, with Stephen Dedalus his hero of Ulysses. He was Moore's literary executor and official biographer but only ever managed to write A memoir of AE (1937), a just account of Russell's long and varied life. There is a sense of distance in his treatment of Russell's later career that suggests the degree to which he himself was isolated from the central movements of the literary revival. Certainly the autobiographical fragment contained in poems collected from his early career, Confidential, or take it or leave it (1951), suggests the transcendental imagination of a solitary. He was awarded an honorary D.Litt. (Dubl.) in 1952.
In 1920 he married Marie O'Leary who was then an assistant librarian in the NLI; they had one son. The family left Prestatyn in 1929 for Bournemouth, where he died on 9 May 1961.