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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 the same thing: talking. And not just any old talk. All preferred to give their performances in the houses of the rich and titled, for their talk was not conversation; it was as carefully crafted as any stand-up performance of our time. The purpose of their talk was to entertain and show off, and neither purpose is to be scorned.

Mahaffy’s enemies dismissed him as a snob and a social climber, but even if this is true he was a supremely successful social climber, and viewed himself as the aristocrats’ equal not their flunkey. Wilde’s biographer Hesketh Pearson was cutting: “The Anglo-Irish are a curiously snobbish people, and Mahaffy was a prime specimen of his kind. He was an out-and-out social snob: that is he would rather have sat down to a bad meal with a stupid aristocrat than to a good meal with an intelligent tradesman … He loved a lord, adored a duke, and would have worshipped a prince.” Another wit remarked that “he only lifted his eyes from Homer to look at an invitation from the nobility.” Mahaffy believed there were three classes: the gentry, the business people and the lower classes. Although the son of a clergyman, he regarded himself as a gentleman, belonging “to that class of lesser landed gentry which has furnished the Empire with many brilliant servants”. He was a frequent guest at the viceregal lodge and the Royal Hospital at Kilmainham, residence of the commander of British forces in Ireland. He befriended many aristocrats, including royals such as Prince Edward of Saxe-Weimar, to whom he dedicated Sketches from a tour through Holland and Germany. Through Prince Edward, he became friendly with Princess Mary of Teck, future consort of George V. Later in life, Mahaffyian phrases such as “my friend the king of Greece” became famous in Dublin. He was inordinately proud of gifts given to him by royals, the most famous of which was a fox-terrier given him by the Greek monarch. Gogarty celebrated the gift in a verse entitled Threnody on the Death of Diogenes the Doctor’s Dog, a parody of Swinburne’s Atalanta in Calydon.

When I wambled awound
In the gwound that was Gweece
I was given that hound
By the King’s little niece,
And had rather be fined e’er I found
him to gaze on
His saddest surcease.

Snobbery, as Alan Bennett has written, is an amiable vice. Walter Starkie, another Trinity protégé, was forgiving of Mahaffy: “He wore his snobbery with such grace that it became an adornment to his personality and, besides, he would continually make fun of his own foibles.” Mahaffy’s biographers, WB Stanford and RB McDowell, pointed out that he may have loved a lord, but there were practical reasons for this: “Good talk, good shooting and good cellars were not to be despised. Brilliancy came before blood. A Lord was expected to be worthy of his title.” His defenders have even claimed that aristocrats sought him more than he sought them. Lord Fitzwilliam, given the task of entertaining Gladstone, called on Mahaffy for help, knowing that the Grand Old Man was a devoted classicist, and sure enough, the two Hellenists hit it off. Even Edward VII called him to Windsor Castle to lubricate the Kaiser’s visit in 1907. Mahaffy, who was born in Switzerland, was a fluent German speaker, and charmed the Kaiser. It didn’t always go so swimmingly with royalty: when Queen Victoria visited Dublin in 1900, Mahaffy was presented to her. He attempted some ingratiating small talk: “Madam, I met your grandson (the Kaiser) lately.” The Queen turned away and asked her entourage: “Who is that man?” Mahaffy brushed the incident off by remarking that Victoria had “the manners of a badly-educated washerwoman”. (He would have been an ideal subject for the parodist Craig Brown).

Mahaffy robustly defended his social climbing in his own Principles of the art of conversation: “The man or woman that succeeds among social superiors is not the timid or modest person, afraid to contradict, and ever ready to assent to what is said, but rather the free and independent intellect that suggests subjects, makes bold criticisms, and in fact introduces a bright and free tone into a company which is perhaps somewhat dull from its grandeur or even its extreme respectability.” In other words, the lords would have had no time for a toady, and the begrudgers are motivated only by envy.

Although Mahaffy was a proud Anglo-Irishman (“Those splendid mongrels”), he had little sympathy with Gaelic culture and attempts to revive the language. He thought that “Celtic” had no educational value or philological interest, and that revival of the Irish language would result in “provincialism”. He did concede, however, that Irish could be useful for communicating with ghillies when shooting or fishing in the West of Ireland: “I have often found a few words very serviceable.” He engaged in a prolonged and undignified spat with Douglas Hyde and the Gaelic League. George Moore joined in the dispute, and launched a venomous attack on Mahaffy, accusing him of being an ignoramus and a “squireen”. He repeated an anecdote (probably untrue) about Mahaffy and Lord Randolph Churchill. The latter, on a visit to Dublin, mislaid his coat. “Never mind,” said Churchill, “my little dog, Mahaffy, has it in his mouth, and he will bring it to me presently.” Mahaffy ignored this provocation, and Moore later regretted his indiscretion.

Mahaffy spent many a weekend in the great houses, and famously remarked that his favourite food was “woodcock pie shot by lords”. Speaking to a student from Belfast, Mahaffy asked: “Where is that near? I’ve never had occasion to go there. There aren’t any gentlemen’s houses in that neighbourhood.” Nevertheless, he could be critical of the Irish gentry: “the pompous absurdity of the Irish squire”. In an article in 1882, he complained that they were idle and philistine: “it is now an exception to find a good library in any country house”.

Lecturing to the young ladies of Alexandra College in 1869, Mahaffy spoke about Richard Whately, quondam archbishop of Dublin and famous wit: “A few years ago every good joke, however originated, used, in Dublin, to attach itself to the late Archbishop.” A similar fate was to befall Mahaffy. His best witticisms were unprepared repartee. Asked by an early campaigner for women’s suffrage as to the difference between a man and a woman, Mahaffy replied: “Madam, I can’t conceive.” Wilde called him “a really great talker in a certain way”, and Gogarty went even further: “the finest talker in Europe”. So famous was Mahaffy for talking, that he was induced to write a short monograph on the subject, dedicated, appropriately enough, “To my silent friends”. In this book, The Principles, Mahaffy listed the qualities of a good conversationalist: (1) physical (a sweet tone of voice, absence of local accent, absence of tricks and catchwords); (2) mental (knowledge, quickness); (3) moral (modesty, simplicity, unselfishness, sympathy, tact). Mahaffy lacked many of these qualities: he had a lisp, and was unable to pronounce his “r”s; English friends spoke of his “brogue”. He could never be accused of modesty. Sympathy and tact were not noted Mahaffyian virtues: when he was told Provost Traill was ill, he replied: “nothing trivial, I hope.” Knowledge and quickness he had in abundance, apart from an almost complete (and wilful) ignorance of modern science. Although he professed to admire those who were “promoters of conversation”, he was not skilled in this way himself. Walter Starkie gave a picture of his style: “As Dr Mahaffy believed that the sine qua non of good conversation was to establish equality among the members of a convivial party, he always tried to do so when he took his place at dinner. His smile, his slight touch of well-bred jocularity, his condescending dignity were all calculated to put the rest of the company at their ease. Nevertheless his commanding presence, his flat hair combed straight down both sides of his noble head, his open collar, and white clerical tie, at the outset overawed the guests …” Quite why “flat hair” should be intimidating is not clear. Gogarty likened Mahaffy’s efforts at inclusivity to a hawk contemplating a brace of blackbirds. Augustus John met Mahaffy at Gogarty’s house in Connemara, Renvyle, and found that the great talker was not especially interested in listening: Mahaffy “displayed his accomplishment of an evening in a series of long, instructive and highly entertaining monologues which even Gogarty, try as he might, was unable to interrupt”. So, whatever he may have written, conversation for Mahaffy meant he talked and others listened.

Mahaffy was not a typical clergyman, and opinions vary as to his religious convictions. (He famously defined an Irish atheist as “one who wishes to God he could believe in God”). When asked by a stranger whether he was a clergyman, Mahaffy replied: “Yes, but not in any offensive sense of the term.” His obituarist for The Daily Telegraph observed: “If he had lived in England he would have looked like what is called a squarson – the man who divided his time between sport and the duties to his church and to his congregation.” Surprisingly, he was a poor preacher. Mahaffy himself wondered “why men of far inferior ability can preach so much better than I”. His cousin, Margaret Stokes, replied: “Because, John, you have no gospel.” Typically, Mahaffy turned this deficiency to his advantage by writing a treatise, The decay of modern preaching.

After Wilde left Trinity, he maintained cordial relations with Mahaffy, accompanying him on a trip to Greece in 1877. They encountered the king of Greece, famously a friend of Mahaffy’s, who found himself corrected by the Anglo-Irish don: “I am afraid Your Majesty is labouring under a misapprehension. These tunnels are not catacombs. The Greeks were never so barbarous. They are entrances to silver mines. Plato, for all we know, may be a profiteer.” Not a useful lesson for an impressionable young man like Wilde, thought Gogarty: “it did little good for any humility a youth should have”. The king seems to have taken his lecture with good humour, as later that year he conferred Mahaffy with the gold cross of the Order of the Redeemer.

Relations between Wilde and Mahaffy cooled somewhat after Wilde wrote a disobliging (and anonymous) review of Mahaffy’s Greek life and thought for the Pall Mall Gazette. Wilde later reviewed The principles of the art of conversation for the same magazine in 1887, and damned Mahaffy with faint praise. The tone was patronising, “not that of one scholar castigating another”, wrote Mahaffy’s biographers, “but more like that of someone trying to be kind to a less gifted friend”. Wilde wrote: “a clever little book … a social guide without which no debutante or dandy should even dream of going out to dine. It fascinates in spite of its form and pleases in spite of its pedantry, and is the nearest approach, that we know of, in modern literature to meeting Aristotle at afternoon tea.” Wilde concluded: “The only thing to be regretted in the volume is the arid and jejune character of the style. If Mr Mahaffy would only write as he talks, his book would be much pleasanter reading.”

What Mahaffy thought of this review we don’t know. In the early 1890s he travelled to London to see one of Wilde’s plays and wrote to congratulate him. Wilde replied: “My dear Mahaffy, I am so pleased you like the play, and thank you for your charming letter, all the more flattering to me as it comes not merely from one to whom I owe so much personally, from my first and best teacher, from the scholar who showed me how to love Greek things.” After Wilde’s disgrace, Mahaffy could not bear to even mention his name.

Wilde did not take his conversational technique directly from Mahaffy – too pompous, too bombastic. He may, as one Trinity don remarked, have taken a degree of superciliousness from Mahaffy, along with the desire to shock and show off. Insolence was a key element of Wilde’s talk, and he somehow managed to insult the English without offending them. Wilde had learned to talk at his parents’ dinner table (where figures like Mahaffy were frequent guests), and later at Trinity. By the time he arrived at Oxford, he had matured into an irresistible talker, and found a willing audience among his fellow students. He soon realised that his incredible social ambition would best be serviced by his talk: “To get into society nowadays one has either to feed people or shock people – that is all.” Soon his skill as an entertainer opened the doors of the very best houses to him. He lost his Irish brogue at Oxford, and worked hard at his talk. His “conversation” was in reality a series of carefully-rehearsed set pieces, but he was bright enough to extemporise around these. He took good care of his voice and studied diction. Having set himself up as a sort of Victorian popstar (famous enough to be lampooned by Gilbert & Sullivan), he toured America, where his catchphrases (“do you yearn?”) entered common usage, and he socialised with the likes of the Vanderbilts. Later he attempted to conquer Paris, sending copies of his poems to all the famous French writers and celebrities, whom he pursued relentlessly. Some, like Edmond de Goncourt, were not impressed: “Dined with the de Nittis with the English poet Oscar Wilde, an individual of doubtful sex who talks like a third-rate actor, and tells some tall stories, but gave an amusing picture of a town in Texas.” Léon Daudet was similarly underwhelmed: “Wilde attracted and repelled; he told stories deliciously but his conversation soon tired one. He emanated uneasiness … his voice was at once pallid and fat, the words came tumbling out of his frightful slack mouth and when he had finished he would roar with laughter like a fat, satisfied, gossipy woman, and order an exotic drink …”

Although he may have failed in Paris, Wilde was lionised by the English aristocracy: hostesses sent out printed invitations “to meet Mr Oscar Wilde”. Ostensibly referring to the character Lord Henry Wotton in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde described his own conversational style: “ He played with the idea and grew wilful; tossed it into the air and transformed it, let it escape and recaptured it, made it iridescent with fancy, and winged it with paradox … He was brilliant, fantastic, irresponsible. He charmed his listeners out of themselves and they followed his pipe laughing.” Yeats met Wilde and was entranced: “the impression of superficiality that I think all of Wilde’s listeners have recorded came from the perfect rounding of his sentences and from the deliberation that made it possible. That very impression helped him, as the effect of metre, or of the antithetical prose of the seventeenth century, which is itself a true metre, helped its writers, for he could pass without incongruity from some unforeseen, swift stroke of wit to elaborate reverie.” Asked later whether Wilde was a snob, Yeats replied: “No, I would not say that: England is a strange country to the Irish. To Wilde the aristocrats of England were like the nobles of Bagdad.”

Soon Wilde was referring to “my divine friend, the Duchess of Westminster”. He amused his hosts with literary games, such as one recalled by Lady Desborough, “in which the players had to compose an imaginary letter from a woman thanking a man for flowers when she wasn’t quite certain whether he had sent them or not”. One gets the impression that Wilde’s social life was organised like that of a stand-up comedian on tour. Occasionally, the performance exhausted him: in one telling anecdote, Wilde had spent the weekend at the country retreat of a duke, and predictably dazzled the company with his talk. He left on Monday morning, but missed his train, and was obliged to return to the great house. When he arrived back, he was silent, spent; he had talked himself out, and this unscheduled return was not part of the script. “The exhibition hours of the Duke were over,” said Wilde, “and it was a charnel house – the bones of the skeleton rattled; the ghosts gibbered and moaned. Time remained motionless. I was haunted. I could never go there again.”

The old chestnut about Wilde – that he put his talent into his work, and his genius into his life ‑ would appear to be true. Ada Leverson, Wilde’s “Sphinx”, wrote in her memoir The importance of being Oscar that he was quicker in repartee and conversation than he was in writing. His biographer Philippe Jullian wrote: “… but these fables lost much of their charm, when he wrote them down; they lacked the richness of his voice, the pauses, in fact all the effects that only an incomparable actor can produce”.

If only the Irish knew how to listen and the English knew how to talk, lamented Wilde. An American, James McNeill Whistler, was the only one who consistently bested him. Wilde’s “conversations” with Whistler were in reality a type of joust between two famous wits, rather than a meeting of minds. The only motive was one-upmanship. Whistler, even more vain than Wilde, published a record of their exchanges, which he called The gentle art of making enemies.

Wilde’s insolence and charm cured his aristocratic hosts temporarily of their boredom, but they showed him no mercy following his disgrace. Wilde was a member of the exclusive “Crabbet” club (limited in number to twenty-one): one member, Wilfrid Blunt, confided to his diary: “he was, without exception, the most brilliant talker I have ever come across, the most ready, the most witty, the most audacious. Nobody could pretend to outshine him, or even to shine at all in his company …” Later, he writes: “… overpowering them each in turn with his wit, and making shrewd fun of Asquith, his host that day, who only a few months later, as Home Secretary, was prosecuting him on the notorious criminal charge which sent him to hard labour in prison.”

Wilde’s posthumous republican reputation (based mainly on his essay The soul of man under socialism) seems preposterous given his relentless courtship of aristocrats. Gogarty, however, was candid about his regard for aristocrats: “Every Irishman loves an aristocrat. In all the sagas of Erin there is not the name of a commoner mentioned, even the charioteers were noblemen. Let my critics digest that. Anyway, I dearly love a lord and I think I can analyse the reason: he stands for an established order of things: for a household of continuance with the obligations of its tradition’s concern. There is the knowledge that they, like Kings, seldom have any selfish or personal interest in mundane affairs. Their axes were ground long ago. They can be trusted not to lower others in order to gain height themselves. Long ago, ‘they bared them right doughtily’, and stock raisers as we are, we Irish believe in good blood.”

Gogarty’s mother, although widowed young, had regular “at homes”, as did “Speranza”, Wilde’s mother, many years before. It was at one such at home that Gogarty first met Yeats. Regular exposure to sophisticated company at home during childhood and adolescence must have given Wilde and Gogarty a measure of confidence. After the Act of Union in 1800, the Anglo-Irish aristocrats abandoned their Dublin houses, which were taken over by the professional classes, who became the new elite. Both Gogarty and Wilde were the sons of doctors. This Dublin professional society was famous for its musical evenings and salons, and talk, always talk. Gogarty appears to have spent an idyllic youth at Trinity. Paying little attention to his medical studies, he was taken up by the senior fellows, as well as the much older George Moore, with whom he developed a close friendship. Although Gogarty wrote serious lyric poetry, he was more famous for his limericks and scurrilous doggerel, which did the rounds in Dublin. Like Wilde, he had a taste for the low life, and was a regular in the Kips, Dublin’s red light district. Gogarty was an “arch mocker”, but his derision was forgiven because of its wit. How did a gregarious medical student enchant the senior Trinity fellows and the famous novelist? “Æ” (George Russell) was equally fascinated: “I had long hoped to meet the author of the witty verses and scandalous sayings that circulated the city. Then one night I met Gogarty at George Moore’s, before the war. He was then an undergraduate at Trinity, and when he came into the room, Moore had the rare experience of being out-talked in his own house. There was no subject his wit would not illuminate … we had been questioning about the round Towers, whether they were Christian or pre-Christian, and Gogarty ended our controversy by a sentence, ‘of course they were pre-Christian; no parish priest could get through the doorways’.”

“Two dactyls tripping and sunny like the Buck himself,” says Buck Mulligan in the opening chapter of Ulysses. Padraic Colum told Gogarty’s biographer, Ulick O’Connor, that Buck Mulligan’s interjections “are as right as could be – not only the words but the pace of the words”. Colum remembered Gogarty’s conversation for “its sudden shifts and inexplicable transitions, its copious quotations of poetry, along with frequent plain statements of practical issues”.

The favourite of the dons, Moore and Yeats, it is not surprising that his mind was not always focused on his medical studies: “Life is so short and art so long that there is no time to lose. Inspiration comes to him who keeps the roomiest apartments for leisure in his mind. One cannot bind the two hands of Apollo. It is an awful nuisance having to distract oneself so much in making money, when one may never put money making as an end in itself.” I suspect that even as an undergraduate, Gogarty was aware of spreading himself too thin. He spent a year at Oxford, with the sole purpose of winning the Newdigate prize for poetry, which Wilde had won in 1878. Mahaffy used his contacts to secure a place for Gogarty. He failed to win the Newdigate, but, like Wilde, he made a name for himself as a talker.

He finally graduated in medicine after ten years, and following what would appear to contemporary hospital doctors as a notably short period of postgraduate training (less than a year) in ear, nose and throat surgery in Vienna, he set himself up as a specialist in Dublin. Having launched himself professionally, he began to move in country house society. He became friendly with titled folk, including Lady Fingall, Lady Leslie, the Earl of Granard and Lord Dunsany. He revelled in having aristocratic patients: “I have a Duchess coming from London, and I’ll settle her snout for a century (a hundred guineas),” he boasted to an impecunious actor whom he treated without charge.

Literary Dublin in the years running up to the First World War was famous for its salons: “Æ” and Yeats held regular evenings, and Gogarty had his evening on Fridays. Regulars at Gogarty’s Fridays included Yeats, Griffith and Moore. Every evening after work, between five and seven, Gogarty joined a group of friends (mainly doctors and lawyers) at the Bailey restaurant. Ulick O’Connor’s biography recounts some of the bons mots spun at the Bailey, but they strike me as laboured and heavily dependent on puns and classical allusion. In a way, it didn’t matter: it was his charm and joie de vivre that amused his friends. Like Wilde, his wit had what has been called a “fire-cracker” quality: each mot igniting the next one. Not everyone was entranced: Augustus John (who had been so impressed by Mahaffy’s talk), after listening to Gogarty hold the stage for over three hours, threw a bowl of nuts in his face simply to shut him up.

After an attempt on his life by anti-Treaty gunmen in 1923, Gogarty moved briefly to London, and like Wilde before him, launched himself as a conversationalist in fashionable society. Like Wilde, he was championed by titled ladies, such as Lady Lavery, Lady Cunard, Lady Leonfield, Lady Colefax and Lady Ottoline Morrell. Like Wilde, he weekended at the great houses, and dined with the Duke of Connaught and Lord Birkenhead (FE Smith). Asked by Birkenhead why Mahaffy with all his fame and reputation had chosen to stay in Dublin, Gogarty replied: “He was Provost. He was knighted. What Fellow in Oxford can be knighted without being benighted first?” Only once did he come unstuck in London: Gogarty and Bernard Shaw were both invited to dinner by Lady Asquith. Shaw, inevitably, also had a reputation as a talker, and Gogarty carefully planned his opening remark: “I believe it was an attribute of great artists that their own immortality was apparent to them during their lifetime.” He had prepared several illustrative examples, but was cut short by Shaw who asked: “What about Marie Corelli gliding down the Avon in a gondola with her parasol?” The encounter has the flavour of the Monty Python sketch of Wilde, Whistler and Shaw trying to outdo each other’s witticisms for the entertainment of the Prince of Wales.

Gogarty did not tarry long in London, and back in Dublin was an energetic gatherer of “worthies” for the Tailteann Games (gold medal for poetry: O. StJ. Gogarty), and could be relied upon, like Mahaffy before him, to amuse distinguished visitors to the viceregal lodge, when summoned by the new governor-general, Tim Healy. In the senate, he was a good speaker, whose main purpose was to goad de Valera and Fianna Fáil. He had little sympathy for the Gaelic, God-fearing Free State. The deaths of Arthur Griffith (to whom he was especially close) and Michael Collins hit him hard, and after losing a famous libel action brought against him by one Henry Morris Sinclair, who believed he had been defamed in Gogarty’s As I was Going Down Sackville Street, he left Dublin for America. He was nearly sixty, and returned to Ireland thereafter only for occasional visits. For all the grand gestures (the dedication of swans to the goddess of the Liffey, the brandishing of hundred pound notes given as fees by titled patients), for all the heartiness, Gogarty was, I think, a melancholy man. His delicate, lyric verse is at odds with the persona of Buck Mulligan, the showy composer of Rabelaisian limericks.

Sometime in the late 1940s, in a bar in New York city, Gogarty was entertaining a group of friends with one of his well-polished stories. Just as he was about to come to the point, a young man put a coin into the juke box, silencing him. The man who was poet, surgeon, athlete, senator and aviator, the protégé of Mahaffy, Tyrrell and Macran, the soulmate of Griffith, Collins, Moore and Yeats could not bear it: “Oh dear God in heaven, that I should find myself thousands of miles from home, at the mercy of every retarded son of a bitch, who has a nickel to drop in that bloody illuminated coal-scuttle.” Gogarty died in New York in 1957. Wilde, too, found himself at the end far from home, jeered and taunted by students on the streets of Paris. Only Mahaffy was able to conclude his life with dignity. He became Provost of Trinity in 1914 and was knighted in 1918. He died a year later, aged eighty, two weeks after suffering a stroke. He never retired.

The days of the great talker are over: dominating conversation is now regarded as unforgivably greedy, regardless of the quality of the talk. Attention span is more limited than it was, and the notion of a single individual – no matter how gifted ‑ holding forth at great length now seems to belong to another era. To the modern sensibility there is also something mildly distasteful about the three middle class clever boys singing for their supper in the drawing rooms and the country houses. Gogarty and the juke box is an apt metaphor for the end of the era.

Of the three, Mahaffy is the most sympathetic. His snobbery was amiable, and his talk was the gushing overflow of a first-rate mind. He was his own man. He believed the Anglo-Irish intellect to be superior to the English in its flexibility and versatility. He was typically Irish in his love of a good scrap – the “Donnybrook fair” quality ‑ and his tendency to exaggerate. Wilde’s talk, though brilliant, had a whiff of desperation, of trying too hard: it was the vehicle for the fame and notoriety which, along with his passion for a young aristocrat, eventually ruined him. Gogarty’s career demonstrates all the dangers of being a Renaissance Man in a post-Renaissance era. Mahaffy, in the end, was not outshone by his pupils.

And what about “private” conversation? Alain de Botton has suggested reinventing the dinner party by steering talk away from property prices and schools, and “putting as much preparation into the conversation as the food”. Topics such as “how should we prepare for death?” and “what are we truly afraid of?” might be more illuminating than the weather. A good conversationalist, he says, should display the virtues of “humility, candour and vulnerability”. Mahaffy, Wilde and Gogarty would have been appalled. They might have admired Plato’s Symposium but would never have dreamed of emulating his seriousness of purpose: their act was a one-man show, notably devoid of “humility, candour and vulnerability”.

Seamus O’Mahony is a consultant physician and a regular contributor to the Dublin Review of Books.



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