Ussher, Percy Arland (1899–1980), essayist and translator, was born 9 September 1899 at Battersea, London, son of Beverly Ussher, inspector of schools, and Emily Ussher (née Jebb). Educated at Abbotsholme School, Derbyshire, he had radical journals posted to him from Ireland, and so received news of the then newly formed Volunteers. He spent most of his childhood outside school at his family home at Cappoquin, Co. Waterford. To his parents' distress, he managed to attend only one term each at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) and St John's College, Cambridge, leaving both institutions without a formal degree. Precociously intelligent, he taught himself Irish, aided in part by occasional classes in the subject at Ring College, Co. Waterford. He translated the first published version of The midnight court (1926), by Brian Merriman (qv), with a preface by W. B. Yeats (qv). A tight, pacy work, it has a formal rhyming scheme capably matching the energy of the original. He acted as ‘Percy Ussher’ at the Gate Theatre in the early 1930s; his shyness often led him to smile on stage. His humour led him to apply to the Irish government in 1932 for the official position of hangman, arguing that he would be able to hear the last confessions of Irish-speakers, and demanding the right to keep the deceased's clothing. This last was a serious point, as his claim of poverty reflected his difficulties managing the family farm at Cappoquin in the economically difficult 1930s. He read and wrote privately at home and was visited there by Evelyn Waugh and Samuel Beckett (qv), who remained a correspondent into the 1960s. He meanwhile published two volumes of folk tales from the Déise Gaeltacht, Cainnt an tSean Shaoghail (1942) and Cursai an tSean Shaoghail (1942), both rendered from stories recorded from his ploughman, Tom Murray.
In 1944 he moved to Strand Road, Merrion, Dublin, as he claimed farming bored him. Writers and artists were frequent visitors, and Mervyn Wall (qv) remembered him as a quiet host who would listen intently before breaking into a braying laugh at his guests' quirks. His The face and mind of Ireland (1950) is an intellectual tour of his country's past and present that concentrates on what he perceived to have been the essential Irish character, a combination of irony with mysticism. Ussher's Three great Irishmen (1952), a study of James Joyce (qv), George Bernard Shaw (qv), and W. B. Yeats, ably places each writer in their social, as well as intellectual, contexts. Shaw especially is well rendered as a product of a protestant middle class who were effectively poor relations to the gentry. A regular contributor to the Dublin Magazine and The Bell, he had an interest in existentialist philosophy resulting in A journey through dread (1955), an account of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Sartre. Ussher's two hobbies were the keeping of cats and a journal published in two volumes as a record of his philosophical inquiry. He did not consider himself to be a true writer, because he was interested in ideas more than words. But his journals especially show evidence of a sharp mind able to express itself in perceptive epigrams and short reflections. A president of the Irish Academy of Letters for twelve years from the mid 1960s, he kept open house on Sunday evenings at his home in Green Road, Blackrock, into his old age. He died on 24 December 1980 in Dublin.
He married (1925) Emily Whitehead; they had one daughter, Henrietta. After the death of his first wife (1974), he married Margaret ‘Peg’ Keith (1976). He was a recipient of the Irish Academy of Letters' thirteenth Gregory Medal, and a likeness of his head cast in bronze stands in the library of the Royal Dublin Society (RDS) at Ballsbridge.
More information on this entry is available at the National Database of Irish-language biographies (Ainm.ie).