Sir John Pentland Mahaffy (1839-1919)

Prof. Brian Arkins of NUI Galway gave the IIHSA Inaugural in NUI Dublin on Friday October 8th 1999. The title of his address was "Mahaffy: Classicist and Philhellene".

Mahaffy in Greece

John Pentland Mahaffy, Professor of Ancient History at Trinity College, Dublin, and later Provost, was both a Classical scholar and a Philhellene.

Born in Switzerland, he took his BA from Trinity College, Dublin, in 1859 and became the first professor of ancient history in Dublin in 1869. His books include Prolegomena to Ancient History (1871), Greek Social Life from Homer to Menander (1874), History of Classical Greek Literature (1880) and Problems in Greek History. He was equally at home in his study of papyrii, producing the Flinders Petrie Papyrii (1891, etc) and The Empire of the Ptolemies (1895).

Mahaffy first went to Greece in 1875, when he was paid to accompany a Cambridge undergraduate named William Goulding. Mahaffy's excellent book, Rambles and Studies in Greece (which was in its seventh printing by 1913) was the result of this trip, but the board of Trinity was not amused: Mahaffy was severely censured for failing to indicate that he was being paid to go, and to make provision for teaching in his absence.

Mahaffy's Rambles is a lively, interesting book that involves the use of personal digressions, so that it constitutes what Albert Sitwell calls a 'discursion', a work that encompasses at the same time travel writing and personal reflections. Constant items in Rambles are the geography of Greece, Greek history, and Greek visual art.

In 1877, Mahaffy went to Greece again, accompanied this time by Oscar Wilde, who was now reading Classics at Magdalen College, Oxford.

Mahaffy's reason for taking Wilde to Greece was to prevent him converting to the Roman Catholic Church; viewing sites such as the Acropolis, Olympia, and Mycenae (where they saw Schliemann's newly found treasure) would serve to stress the superiority of pagan Greek things: "No. Oscar, we cannot let you become a Catholic but we will make you a good pagan instead".


Oscar Wilde in traditional Greek dress

As a letter to his wife indicates, Mahaffy succeeded in bringing out Wilde's devotion to Greek things: "We have taken Oscar Wilde with us, who has of course come round under the influence of the moment from Popery to Paganism".

Not so with another man who studied Classics at Trinity, and also went to Greece with Mahaffy, John Sullivan. rado replica sale Though he learned modern Greek and was a friend of the Greek Prime Minister Trikoupis, Sullivan became a Jesuit priest and is currently a candidate for beatification in Rome.

Brian Arkins

Prof. Brian Arkins has published a new edition of Mahaffy's Rambles and Studies in Greece.
(Rambles and Studies in Greece: The First Edition of 1876, with an Introduction and Commentary by Brian Arkins. Ulster Editions and Monographs 17, 2013.

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