I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

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Words At Will

Seamus O’Mahony
Was there ever an Irishman as sure of himself as John Pentland Mahaffy? He entered Trinity College Dublin in 1855 at the age of sixteen, and stayed there until he died, at eighty. He was a distinguished historian, classicist, Egyptologist, musician and philosopher. A talented linguist, he was also an accomplished cricketer, fisherman and shot. “Take me all round,” he remarked as a young don, “I am the best man in Trinity.” If his many books are now seldom read, he is still known as the mentor of Oscar Wilde and Oliver St John Gogarty. A man of towering social ambition, he moved easily in aristocratic circles, and was a famous talker and wit. His brilliant career peaked with a knighthood and the provostship of Trinity. Oscar Wilde entered Trinity in 1871, and was tutored by Mahaffy. The younger man idolised the charismatic don, who was his only close friend in college. Wilde was as gifted a classicist as Mahaffy, and had he stayed at Trinity would almost certainly have become a fellow. After three years at Trinity however, Wilde’s “immeasurable ambition” took him to Magdalen College, Oxford. More than twenty-five years later, in 1878, another gifted undergraduate, Oliver St John Gogarty, caught Mahaffy’s eye. Where Wilde was languid and camp, Gogarty was sporty and hearty, but shared with Wilde a love of classical literature, poetry and conversation. Gogarty studied medicine, taking more than ten years to qualify. (The “chronic” medical student was a stock figure in Irish universities up to the 1980s.) Trinity medical students in those days were required to take an arts degree also, and Gogarty shone as a poet, winning several college medals. He was lionised by senior dons, including Mahaffy, Tyrrell and Macran; and like Wilde, he idolised Mahaffy, maintaining a lifelong friendship. Mahaffy, Wilde and Gogarty had very different career trajectories. Mahaffy, deeply conservative, was a clergyman (as was common for Trinity fellows at that time), and won an international reputation for his scholarship. He is not known to have entertained a moment of doubt in his long life, and died age eighty, honoured and feted, a friend to kings. Wilde’s tragedy provided the template for future such lives consumed by fame. Gogarty, with his multiple job titles (surgeon, poet, athlete, senator, aviator) was a restless, energetic man who never quite excelled at any of these activities. All three men, however, were good at…

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