O'Meara, John (1915–2003), academic, was born 18 February 1915 at Eyrecourt, Co. Galway, the elder of two sons of Patrick O'Meara, a small businessman from Ilaunmore on Lough Derg, and Mary O'Meara (née Donelan). The very early death of his father, at the end of 1915, and the troubled state of the country coloured his early years but he was to paint a warm portrait of his childhood in his gentle, elegant memoir, The singing masters (1990), written towards the end of his long life. After primary education in the local school, he was sent to Rockwell College in 1928. Planning to become a priest, he transferred to Garbally College, the minor seminary of his native diocese, Clonfert, in 1930. His academic ability and attraction to the ancient classics were quickly apparent and he remembered reading all the Odes of Horace four times during his last two years at school. During a retreat, he decided that his call was to the Society of Jesus rather than the diocese and he entered the Jesuit novitiate at Emo, Co. Laois, in October 1933. This was followed by four years at UCD, while living in Rathfarnham Castle. Here he studied Latin under Patrick Semple (1875–1954), whom he was later to succeed in the chair, and Greek under the redoubtable Michael Tierney (qv), with whom he would cross swords on several issues when his former patron had become president of the college.
A brilliant academic course led to the award of an MA and an NUI travelling studentship in 1939, but the outbreak of war encouraged his Jesuit superiors to send him first to philosophical studies in St Stanislaus College, Tullamore, Co. Offaly (known as 'Tullabeg' to the Jesuits), for two years, and then to teach in Clongowes Wood College, Co. Kildare, for a further year (1941–2). Although not over-impressed by the quality of philosophical teaching he encountered at Tullabeg, he began his first serious work on Neoplatonism there, when studying the Enneads of Plotinus, and he delighted in what he remembered as a life 'of study, good companionship and a common noble purpose' (Singing masters, 78). He retained a special affection for the Jesuits throughout his life.
In October 1942 he was finally able to embark on his studentship, which, owing to the war, he took up in Oxford rather than Berlin or Leipzig, as he might have wished. An inclination towards Platonism from his early years, stimulated by Michael Tierney's tuition, and a growing interest in the Irish ninth-century Platonising philosopher John Scottus Eriugena (qv), then largely neglected, led him to propose the topic 'Prolegomena to the Contra academicos of St Augustine' for his doctoral thesis. This was intended to allow him to explore both Augustine and Plotinus, along with Plotinus's disciple Porphyry. Partly, at least, because of the war, these were not, academically, the best of times in Oxford. Living in the Jesuit Campion Hall, he had to pursue his studies with a lack of adequate supervision and largely on his own. Later on, as professor, he tended to direct his students towards the great European centres of classical study in preference to Oxford or Cambridge. But he loved the enchantments of Oxford itself and the opportunities it afforded of being taught by the great German classicist Eduard Fraenkel and of encountering such memorable figures as Edwin Lutyens, Evelyn Waugh, a very elderly Hilaire Belloc, and the brilliant master of Campion Hall, Fr Martin D'Arcy, and his own bright, attractive personality and high intelligence enabled him to make the most of it.
From early in his years as a Jesuit student, he had struggled with issues of faith, and, as the challenge of priesthood drew nearer, the struggle became critical and the reassurance of superiors that this was a common experience no longer sufficed. In June 1945, having returned to Dublin, he decided to leave the order. For a time, gifted as he was with musical ability and a fine tenor voice, he wondered about embarking on a singing career. Meanwhile, he had begun working in the classics department at UCD and, with Michael Tierney's support, he obtained Semple's now vacant Latin chair, becoming professor at the early age of 33, in 1948. A year earlier he had married Odile de Barthès de Montfort from the Passy section of Paris, who was secretary to the French ambassador in Dublin at the time. They were to have one son, Dominique, who followed him into the classics, and two daughters, Caitríona and Odile.
The UCD appointment proved inspired and created a context in which he could exercise his wide range of abilities as teacher, scholar and administrator to the full. Handsome, urbane, witty and approachable, he quickly emerged as an excellent teacher, equally competent in dealing with Latin as language and as literature. He could adapt his teaching to the needs of the large numbers of students whose only interest in Latin was to fulfil the university requirements then in force by passing a preliminary examination in it, but his special gift was to be able to inspire and encourage those better equipped and more committed to the higher reaches of the subject.
Meanwhile, despite the demands of administering a relatively large department, his own scholarship was not neglected and he produced a steady stream of studies, editions, translations and reviews from the beginning of his tenure, which in time won him international recognition in his two chosen fields. He had been elected a member of the Royal Irish Academy in 1953 and, in time, would play a leading role in the Academy's Hiberno-Latin project. He represented Ireland on many overseas bodies, including the Fédération Internationale des Études Classiques. He was especially at home in French culture and his work with eminent French scholars duly won him inscription in the Légion d'honneur. His translations included not only Augustine's Against the academics (1950), on which he had written his doctoral thesis, and the third-century Greek Father of the Church Origen of Alexandria's On prayer and his Exhortation to martyrdom (1954), but also the Topography of Ireland (1951) of Giraldus Cambrensis (qv), and the The voyage of St Brendan (1976).
The main focus of his research always remained Augustine and Neoplatonism, but the interest he had developed in Eriugena came increasingly to the fore in later years and in 1970 he founded a society to promote Eriugena studies, in which he had long taken the lead. In Eriugena he saw a thinker who wrote in Latin but, remarkably for a ninth-century western European, knew Greek, and who had 'sought to reconcile the dominating, somewhat de-Platonised Augustinianism of the West with the Neoplatonised theology of the Greek Fathers' (Singing masters, 63). O'Meara's The young Augustine: the growth of St Augustine's mind up to his conversion (1954) became something of a classic on its subject and was later translated into French (1958) and reissued in paperback in 1980.
He took a keen interest in university politics, being elected to the UCD governing body (1956 and 1962) and to the senate of the National University of Ireland in 1962. By the time he ran unsuccessfully for the presidency of the college in 1964, following Michael Tierney's retirement, he had become a somewhat controversial figure in the eyes of some, owing to his views on such matters as the move of UCD to Belfield, which he opposed, and closer association with Trinity College, which he strongly espoused. In both instances, he was on the opposite side of the argument from Tierney. From early in his life, he had been a sceptic in relation to the revival of Irish: he was attracted to the language itself but viewed public policy in the light of what he saw as Ireland's enduring need to escape from cultural isolation. He was pragmatist enough to argue that Latin should cease to be required under university regulations, which, along with changes in the catholic church in the 1960s, had the effect of gradually reducing the hitherto large numbers in his department. Its larger impact may have been to contribute to the decline of Latin in the school curriculum, but this can hardly have been part of his purpose. He took a genuine interest in encouraging second-level teachers of classical subjects and was responsible for launching the Association of Classical Teachers in this cause. In all of these issues, his steely, combative side, not unfamiliar to his students, and his willingness to swim against the stream in the name of principle, whatever the cost to himself, was amply demonstrated.
Following retirement in 1984, he remained active in the studies to which he had devoted a significant part of his life, spending time in Princeton and other centres of excellence, as well as writing The singing masters, in which he displayed lyricism of vision and the felicity of his own style. The memoir deals only with his early life, ending with his departure from the Jesuits and marriage to Odile. There were many who regretted that no later volume followed. The year after it appeared, his colleagues produced a small Festschrift, From Augustine to Eriugena (1991), in his honour. This contains a comprehensive bibliography of his published work. He continued to keep in touch with and encourage his former students, offering friendship and advice as he had throughout his professorial career, up to the time of his death, which occurred unexpectedly in Dublin, after a minor operation, on 12 February 2003.