John Pentland Mahaffy

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The Rev. Sir John Pentland Mahaffy GBE CVO (26 February 1839 – 30 April 1919) was an Irish classicist and polymathic scholar.


Education and interests

He was born near Vevey in Switzerland on 26 February 1839, receiving his early education privately in Switzerland and Germany, and later and more formally at Trinity College, Dublin. As an undergraduate, he became President of the University Philosophical Society. As an academic Mahaffy held a Trinity professorship of ancient history and eventually became Provost. He was a distinguished classicist and Egyptologist as well as a Doctor of Music. He wrote the music for the Grace in chapel. Mahaffy, a man of great versatility, published numerous works across a range of subjects, some of which, especially those dealing with the 'Silver Age' of Greece, became standard authorities. His versatility was not confined to academia: he shot and played cricket for Ireland, and claimed to know the pedigree of every racehorse in Ulster. He was also an expert fly fisherman.

Famous wit

He was regarded as one of Dublin's great curmudgeons and also one of its greatest wits. When aspiring to be Provost of Trinity College, upon hearing that the incumbent was ill, he is said to have remarked, "Nothing trivial, I hope?" In his academic years, he was acquainted with TCD undergraduate Oscar Wilde, with whom he discussed homosexuality in ancient Greece, and Wilde described him as his "first and greatest teacher". Like his protégés, Wilde and Oliver Gogarty, Mahaffy was a brilliant conversationalist, coming out with such gems as “in Ireland the inevitable never happens and the unexpected constantly occurs.” When asked, by an over-zealous advocate of women’s rights, what the difference was between a man and a woman he replied, “I can’t conceive.” He is also reputed to have said, “James Joyce is a living argument in favour of my contention that it was a mistake to establish a separate university for the aborigines of this island – for the corner boys who spit into the Liffey.”

Curmudgeon though he could undoubtedly be, Mahaffy was also capable of great and spontaneous kindness, as is evident from the instance of the schoolboy whom Mahaffy came upon near the Hill of Howth, where the boy was reading Greek. Mahaffy asked him about his studies, later lent him books to assist him, and eventually saw to it that the young man was admitted free of charge to read Classics at Trinity, Dublin.

Mahaffy's brilliant, polymathic, eccentric life, suffused with wit, snobbery and real erudition, would be much less well known than it is today, were it not for the tireless endeavours of Dr R. B. McDowell, former Junior Dean of Trinity, Dublin. He has become widely known throughout international Academe for his inexhaustible fund of anecdotes of Mahaffy, and in 1971, jointly with Professor W. B. Stanford of Trinity, he published Mahaffy : a Biography of an Anglo-Irishman (Routledge & Kegan Paul).

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