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[For those who follow the headers and categories, this biography can be counted amongst the second of the “Extracts from a Dissertation” series. Although this is the first contribution to Tychy to feature illustrations which were not produced in-house, there are so few illustrations of Dr. William Maginn on the internet that it was thought permissible to break one of the founding principles of this website. The first two illustrations were drawn by the Cork artist Daniel Maclise (1806-70) in the early 1830s. I think that the third illustration is by an artist named Sam Skillin – I’d be grateful for any further information about this image.]

Although within eighteenth and nineteenth century letters one often encounters intellectually capable young men who were instructed in Greek and Latin at the expense of their parish churches, the Irish-American journalist R. Shelton Mackenzie claims that Dr. William Maginn had mastered classical Greek and Latin, Hebrew, Sanskrit and Syriac, and “could speak and write German, Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and modern Greek… before he had reached the age of twenty five” (Miscellaneous, vol. 5: xiv). Miriam Thrall, Maginn’s twentieth century biographer, maintains that Maginn “lisped Latin in babyhood” and that, as an adult, he was familiar with languages such as Basque, Magyar, and Assyrian (166-8). Mackenzie attributes Maginn’s prodigious learning to the ambition of his father, a Cork schoolmaster, and he describes how the elder Maginn “commenced to cram his son with learning, almost from the time he could speak plain – straining the lad’s nervous system, as his feeble frame showed, at a sacrifice of his physique” (5: xxxv). Maginn consequently entered Trinity College, Dublin at the unprecedented age of eleven (Latane 63).

Although David Latane, who is presently writing a scholarly biography of Maginn, defends the elder Maginn as a “naturally tolerant man,” one doubts that Maginn had many happy memories of his childhood (63). Mackenzie cites a testimony by an acquaintance of the Maginn family which mentions that Maginn had “never liked teaching” because “he had so much of it in his youth” (xxxiv). After Maginn returned from university, he and his father established a new school, which Maginn inherited following his father’s death in 1819. It must have seemed that he would be forever incarcerated within the classrooms of his childhood, reciting the same lessons, but now leading them instead of following them. If Maginn “never liked teaching” (although he certainly enjoyed the company of children), by 1824, when he left Cork for London, he had worked as a teacher for thirteen years.

At a time when many of the most prominent Corksmen had their children educated in England, the hyper-educated young Maginn testified to the merits of an Irish (Protestant) education. Although one avoids depicting Maginn’s education as a product of the expansion of Cork – because it can be less symbolically attributed to his father’s desire to rear a walking advertisement for his own academy – Maginn’s education certainly chimed in with the city’s late eighteenth and early nineteenth century cultural renaissance (Latane 62). Mackenzie describes how the Cork of Maginn’s youth “obtained the name of “The Athens of Ireland,” and was highly distinguished for the energy and success with which its sons applied themselves to the cultivation of literature” (Miscellaneous vol. 5 xix). In his essay “Cork and Carnivalesque” (1998), the literary critic Terry Eagleton notes that in the early nineteenth century “Cork was a stronger literary centre than Belfast” and that the city was “slightly more active than Dublin in the publication of fiction” (159). As young men, Maginn and his friends met at the Cork Library, they were members of the Cork Philosophical and Literary Society, and they participated in the Society’s annual debating season. In 1825 a visiting Walter Scott remarked on the “bookishness” of Cork, and in his first letters to Maginn, William Blackwood hoped that “you and your friends” and “all your friends” would contribute to Blackwood’s, signifying that he anticipated mining the city for literary talent (Eagleton 159; 1820-21 130, 131).

Maginn’s educational feats equally furnished an incentive for his hatred of Whiggery. In 1802, the Whig Edinburgh Review agreed with the contention that “our great schools… devote too large a portion of time to Latin and Greek,” and it further proposed that the “present state of classical education cultivates the imagination a great deal too much, and other habits of mind a great deal too little” (Ogilvie 238). This call for a more practical education was significantly at odds with the spirit of the Maginns’ school.


Perhaps Maginn had the Whigs in mind when in 1819 he translated the old English ballad of Chevy Chase into “the universal language of Europe – Latin” (Miscellaneous vol. 1. 191). Whilst his youth was characterised by the disciplined acquisition of languages, as an adult he penned a libellous dismissal of the Edinburgh University mathematician John Leslie’s knowledge of Hebrew (1820), Latin translations of verses from John Grey’s The Beggar’s Opera (1830), and a scholarly treatise on whether Hannibal’s army had ever used gunpowder (1840). In his final years, Maginn put his mind to translating Homer’s epics into ballads, which Matthew Arnold praised as “clever and popular” and “vigorous and genuine”, if “not at all Homeric” (Arnold 43, 50). It is a bit rich for Mackenzie to conclude that Maginn’s “reputation, as a man of letters, is more traditional than actual,” when his own bungling editions of Maginn’s works excluded several notable essays and tales and did not serve his posthumous reputation very well; and yet Mackenzie is not entirely wrong to state that Maginn “literally wasted, on temporary enjoyments, the golden hours which might and should have been employed on some work worthy of his learning” (Miscellaneous vol. 5. cx) Maginn was far from a philistine – he once instructed the novelist Thackeray to daily put aside some time to read Homer – but he instead idled restlessly on conquered peaks of elite culture, or merely toyed with the fruits of his learning. His education conveyed a certain respectability, and some of his more egregious journalistic outrages may not have been tolerated in one without his educational achievements.

 Eagleton contends that in the writing of Corksmen such as Maginn, “the sidelined exact their vengeance on the dominant powers not by scrambling from margin to centre but by marginalising the centre itself, trifling with its forms, trivialising its knowledges and dismantling its canons” (180). Arnold suggests that Maginn popularised Homer by translating his epics into ballads – which may be interpreted as promoting rather than “marginalizing” or “trivialising” elite knowledge – and Maginn’s scholarly antics often expressed more affection for the “canons” of the centre than did the Whig educational reformers. Yet Eagleton may be right to detect a note of “vengeance” within Maginn’s writing: when he was a child it had been assumed that Maginn would play a prominent role in regional life, as a teacher or a churchman, and his father would in many respects have been dismayed with the results of his considerable labour.


Although Maginn would later portray Ireland as a sanctuary from modernity, his home city was far from old-fashioned or backward, and Maginn’s migration to London in 1824 may be itself interpreted as a flight from an aspirant modern bourgeoisie. Yet Eagleton proposes that Cork’s “civilisation” was waning by the early 1820s:

Many of Cork’s artists and writers of the early nineteenth century grew up in its golden age and reached early manhood just as the snake was sidling into the garden. It was not the only time that a civilisation had briefly, brilliantly flowered on the very threshold of its decline (164).

The historian Ian d’Alton’s Protestant Society and Politics in Cork 1812-1844 (1980) chronicles the lively struggle between urban Protestants, landed Whig Protestants, and Catholic merchants for control of the Cork Corporation, but this analysis overlooks the fact that these merchants and landowners were largely fiddling whilst the region burned. “… we are on the verge of a civil war,” Maginn reported to Blackwood in 1823 (Oliphant 389). Captain Rock, the pseudonymous champion of the agrarian poor, roamed at large in the South of Ireland between 1821 and 1824, and in February 1822, the British government suspended habeas corpus throughout the region, introduced curfews, and arrested and deported hundreds of people. A “special commission” hanged thirty-two men in Cork (Oliphant 382). By June, however, the South of Ireland was faced with widespread food shortages, and the historian Peter Berresford Ellis has estimated that 122,000 people were unable to feed themselves (“Rockite”). In these circumstances, the government was incapable of securing property, and between 1822 and 1824 Captain Rock perpetrated over three hundred attacks on rural estates (“Rockite”). Whilst the countryside starved, Cork was exporting a lot of the food which it had produced to England. Berresford Ellis notes that between 1728 and 1845 “the colonial landlord system in Ireland had produced twenty-eight artificial famines in which millions of Irish men, women and children had suffered death while their landlords sent off rich harvests and herds to the English markets” (“Rockite”)

Maginn initially termed the Rockite disturbances “silly,” but he commended the “good discipline” of the insurgents and the “gentleman-like” demeanour of their leader (Oliphant 383, 387). A year later his mood had changed, however, and he concluded, with bland savagery, that “the end will be that England will have to conquer the country again, which consummation I hope most devoutly to witness” (390). Maginn was dismayed that Irish Protestants were “woefully insulted,” but he appeared conscious of the impossibility of reconciling Ireland to colonial exploitation through military means (389). He would later acknowledge in Fraser’s Magazine that:

Military law and proscription cannot be enforced for ever. We may repel one wave but another would come. We may crush O’Connell, but twenty O’Connells would start from the earth, armed against us, to avenge his fall… (“Repeal” 11).

Eagleton contends that Maginn’s flight from Ireland “may have been inspired by personal self-advancement” but that it was equally “the bellicose response of a politically washed-up Protestantism to encroaching Catholic power” (167). Latane attributes Maginn’s migration to several factors, but he agrees that “the unrest in Munster was top of the list, especially once his marriage was planned to the daughter of a Church of Ireland clergyman” (67). Maginn visited Edinburgh in May 1820, and although he stayed for only a few weeks, one can imagine that it seemed a more attractive city than his native Cork, not least because it lacked the latter’s jittery and demoralised ruling class. He did not remain in Edinburgh, however, as he wished to settle the fortunes of the family school and supervise the instalment of his brother as schoolmaster. He married in 1824 – to the aforementioned clergyman’s daughter – and it seems curious that it was only after matrimony that Maginn abandoned his steady life as a schoolmaster and embarked upon a lively literary career in London. Yet Maginn was always rather above pecuniary questions, and despite the significant income which he eventually earned from journalism – which Thrall estimates to have been about a thousand pounds a year – he spent money carelessly and was eventually imprisoned for debt in 1841 (185). Something of Maginn went into Thackeray’s character Captain Shandon, who “drinks whilst his tradesman goes to jail and his family to ruin” (Pendennis 417). Shandon epitomises the force which Poe would term “perverseness” – despite being “the kindest of men,” he devotes his days to the prison tavern rather using his “genius” to support his suffering family (403).


In 1824, Maginn was certainly fleeing a city which was growing increasingly unpleasant for those of his social class, but he was equally trading the responsibilities of running a school and the wider political challenges which would confront Cork’s bourgeoisie, for a comparatively undemanding and irresponsible literary life. Although Mrs Oliphant’s shrill outpourings unfairly overlook the scholarship of Maginn’s final years, they convey something of his “perverse” irresponsibility in recounting how his “every promise ended in the mean and squalid misery of a nature fallen, fallen, fallen from its high estate” (363).

 Works Cited.

 Arnold, Matthew. On Translating Homer. Oxford: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts, 1861.

Berresford Ellis, Peter. “The Rockite Rebellion.” Irish Democrat. July 2004. 22 July 2008. <http://www.irishdemocrat.co.uk/anonn-is-anall/rockite-rebellion/&gt;

Blackwood, William. Draft Letter Book: 1820-21. Ms 30304. The National Library of Scotland. Edinburgh.

D’Alton, Ian. Protestant Society and Politics in Cork 1812-1844. Cork University Press: Cork, 1980.

Eagleton, Terry. Crazy John and the Bishop, and Other Essays on Irish Culture. Cork: Cork University Press, 1998.

Latane, David. “‘Perge, signifier’ – or, where did William Maginn stand?” Evangelicals and Catholics in Nineteenth Century Ireland. Ed. James H. Murphy. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2005

Maginn, William. The Miscellaneous Writings of the Late Dr. Maginn, Ed. by Dr. Ed. Dr. Robert Shelton Mackenzie.1855. 5 Vols. New York: Redfield; Michigan: University of Michigan Library, 2006.

—.“Repeal of the Union.” Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country. 3 (1831): 1-11.

Ogilive, Robert. “Latin for Yesterday.” Essays in the History of Publishing. Ed. Asa Briggs. London: Longman, 1974.

Oliphant, Margaret. Annals of a Publishing House: William Blackwood and His Sons: Their Magazine and Friends. 3 vols. Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1897.

Thackeray, William Makepeace. The History of Pendennis. London: Oxford University Press, 1864.

Thrall, Miriam. Rebellious Fraser’s. New York: Columbia University Press, 1934.