Stokes, Whitley (1830–1909), lawyer and Celtic scholar, was born 28 February 1830 in Dublin, the eldest son of Dr William Stokes (qv), heart specialist, and his wife, Mary, daughter of John Black of Glasgow. The Stokes children were raised in a family steeped in Celtic culture and tradition. Their grandfather, Whitley Stokes (qv), was a renowned Irish language scholar and a friend of Theobald Wolfe Tone (qv), while their father was a respected antiquary. Irish writers and scholars, such as George Petrie (qv), John O'Donovan (qv), Sir Samuel Ferguson (qv), and Eugene O'Curry (qv), were regular guests at the Stokes household, and this potent cultural atmosphere permanently influenced Whitley's intellectual interests, as well as those of his younger sister, the noted archaeologist, artist, and illustrator Margaret McNair Stokes (qv). There were at least two other siblings: Sir William Stokes (qv) (1839–1900) (who followed his father into medicine) and Elizabeth Stokes, who married John Maxwell of Butlerstown Castle.
Whitley briefly attended St Columba's College, near Dublin, in the winter of 1845 before entering TCD in March 1846, where he studied mathematics. While at Trinity he pursued his interest in Gaelic language and literature, helped and influenced by his friend Rudolf Thomas Siegfried (d. 1863), a philologist from Tübingen who later became professor of Sanskrit and comparative philology at Trinity. Though Stokes took lessons in modern Irish he was unable to master its pronounciation, and his interest in the language was principally as an academic subject for comparative philology. After graduating in 1851 he moved to London to study law, entering the Inner Temple in October 1851. He was called to the English bar in 1855 and practised as an equity draftsman and conveyancer in London until 1862. Meanwhile he maintained his literary interests, contributing anonymous reviews and articles to the London press and socialising with artists and writers such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Robert and Elizabeth Browning, and William Allingham (qv).
The publication of John Caspar Zeuss's Grammatica Celtica (1853) fostered Stokes's passion for comparative philology, and in 1859 he began his prolific publications on Celtic scholarship with the well-received ‘Irish glosses from a MS. in Trinity College Dublin’. His first book, Irish glosses: a medieval tract on Latin declension (1860), was awarded a gold medal by the RIA. At the same time he began publishing on law (A treatise on the liens of legal practitioners, 1860; Powers of attorney, 1861), and in 1862 he travelled to India, where he became prominent in legal administration. He worked in Madras as a reporter to the high court and acting administrator-general (1863–4), and was subsequently appointed to the governor-general's legislative council (1865) and to the legislative department of the government of India (1865–77). He was law member of the council of the governor-general (1877–82), during which time he was appointed president of the Indian law commission (1879). His study of Sanskrit enabled him to produce Hindu law books (1865), and he drafted much of the codes of civil and criminal procedure (Anglo-Indian codes, 2 vols, 1887), as well as producing several other works on Indian statutes. After being made CSI (1877) and CIE (1879), he left India in 1882 and settled in England.
Stokes's reputation in Celtic studies meanwhile had developed apace; he continued to publish on the subject while in India (notably Three Middle-Irish homilies on the lives of Saints Patrick, Brigit, and Columba, 1877; Togail Troí, 1881), and he fully devoted himself fully to Celtic studies upon his return to England. He edited and translated Bethu Phátraic as The tripartite life of St Patrick (2 vols, 1887), including an extensive hagiography on source material, and published Lives of saints from the book of Lismore (1890) from a fifteenth-century manuscript. Later works include The eulogy of Columba (1899), Da Derga's hostel (1901), and The martyrology of Oengus (1905). In all, he published some 300 articles and more than thirty books on Celtic studies, many of which were heavily annotated editions which made accessible for the first time ancient and obscure texts in old and medieval Irish. With John Strachan (qv) he collaborated to produce the massive compilation of continental and old Irish glosses entitled Thesaurus palaeohibernicus (1901–3, repr. 1975). He worked in a cosmopolitan academic context, collaborating with the German scholars Kuno Meyer (qv) (with whom he founded the journal Archiv für celtische Lexikographie, 1898–1907), Ernst Windisch (qv) (co-editor of the series Irische Texte), and Adalbert Bezzenberger (Urkeltischer Sprachschatz, 1894), and publishing studies of other Celtic languages, notably Cornish and Breton (A Cornish glossary, 1868; Old Breton glosses, 1879; The Breton glosses at Orleans, 1880, among others). However, he was a fierce critic of scholars in the same field, and his savage reviews became notorious. His irascibility was possibly exacerbated by a relentless work-rate, which also frequently strained his health.
Stokes received many academic honours in the course of his distinguished literary career. He was nominated a founder fellow of the British Academy, a foreign associate of the Institute of France, and an honorary fellow of Jesus College, Oxford. Awarded an honorary LLD by TCD (1868) and Edinburgh, and a DCL from Oxford, he was also an honorary member of the German Oriental Society. In 1865 he married Mary, daughter of Colonel Bazely of the Bengal artillery; they had two sons and two daughters. His second wife was Elizabeth Temple (d. 1901), whom he married in 1884. He died 13 April 1909 at his home, 15 Grenville Place, Kensington, London, and was buried three days later in Paddington cemetery, Willesden Lane, London.
In 1910 Stokes's daughters presented his extensive library (including an archive of his own work) to University College, London. Other archives are in Dublin at the NLI, the RIA, and TCD, and in the British Library, London. There are several likenesses of Stokes: a portrait signed ‘CMB’ (Trinity College), a marble bust (Jesus College, Oxford), and a photograph in Best, Whitley Stokes.