Todhunter, John (1839–1916), poet, playwright, and physician, was born 30 December 1839 at 19 Sir John Rogerson's Quay, Dublin, elder son of Thomas Harvey Todhunter, merchant, and Hannah Todhunter (née Harvey), a native of Limerick city. His paternal grandfather, also John Todhunter, a Dublin timber-and-grain merchant, was the son of a ship's captain from Cumberland. He bore relationship to the Harvey family on both the maternal and paternal sides: the scientist William Henry Harvey (qv) was his mother's brother, while the physician and naturalist Joshua Reuben Harvey (qv) was married to his father's sister (whose mother was a Harvey). He was educated at quaker schools in Mountmellick, Co. Laois, and Bootham, York. Apprenticed at 16, he worked for the Dublin firms of Bewley's and Pim's, both tea-and-sugar importers, before entering TCD in 1861 and studying medicine (BA (1866), MB (1867), M.Chir. (1868), MD (1871)). He won numerous college prizes for prose and poetry writing; during his college career his poems first appeared in print, in Kottabos and the Cornhill Magazine. After completing his studies in Paris and Vienna, he returned to Dublin (1870–74), where he was lecturer on English literature at Alexandra college and practised medicine at Cork St. fever hospital.
His essay The theory of the beautiful (1872) was received favourably in Britain and Germany. Resigning from his Dublin appointments, he travelled extensively for several years before settling in London as a man of letters of independent means. His first volume of poems, Laurella, appeared in 1876, followed by the dramatic poem Alcestis (1878). His stage play ‘Helena in Troas’ (1886) had Herbert and Maud Beerbohm Tree in the leading roles. Living in London at Bedford Park, Chiswick, he was a neighbour and friend of John Butler Yeats (qv) and his family. Although his subjects were chiefly classical and his early work evidenced no Irish interest, under the influence of the writings of Standish James O'Grady (qv) he became inspired by the mythical history of Ireland. This new interest was reflected in such collections as The banshee and other poems (1888) – which contains his most commonly anthologised poem, ‘Aghadoe’ – Three Irish bardic tales (1896), and the posthumous From the land of dreams (1918). A leading figure in the early period of the Irish literary revival, he was a member of the Rhymers' Club and a founder with William Butler Yeats (qv) in 1892 of the Irish Literary Society. His most successful play, ‘A Sicilian idyll’ (1890, published 1891), was a pastoral romance that Yeats encouraged him to write. Its performance occasioned the meeting of Yeats and the actress Florence Farr, who enjoyed her first important success as the female lead. Todhunter's next play, ‘The black cat’ (1893), was one of the first Ibsen-influenced plays produced in Britain. In 1894 Farr as manager of the Avenue Theatre produced his ponderous pastoral ‘A comedy of sighs’ along with Yeats's first staged play, ‘The land of heart's desire’. Jeered by audiences expecting the venue's customary music-hall fare, after a disastrous fortnight's run – recounted erroneously, if graphically, by Yeats as a single catastrophic evening – Todhunter's offering was replaced on the bill by ‘Arms and the man’, which proved the first stage success of George Bernard Shaw (qv).
Todhunter translated Heinrich Heine's Book of songs (1907), and published A study of Shelley (1880) – the poet who was the prevailing influence on his early work – and a Life of Patrick Sarsfield, earl of Lucan (1895). Among several works published posthumously were his Essays (1920) and Selected poems (1929). Though the young Yeats was impressed by Todhunter's poems and plays on Irish themes, in later life he felt that he had overrated him, and ascribed to him a dilettantish temper without artistic or intellectual focus: ‘If he had liked anything strongly he might have been a famous man . . . but with him every book was a new planting, and not a new bud on an old bough’ (Yeats, 78). Nevertheless, Todhunter played a key role in alerting Yeats to the possibilities of poetic drama. He married first (1870) Katherine Ball of Dublin, who died in childbirth less than a year later; there is no reference to the baby having survived. He married secondly (1879) Dora Louisa Digby of Dublin, an ardent feminist whom he had met while she was a student at Alexandra college. He died at his London residence, ‘Orchardcroft’, Bedford Park, on 25 October 1916; his remains were cremated at Golder's Green.