- Born 26 February 1839 near Vevey, Switzerland
- Died 30 April 1919 Provost's House, Trinity College, Dublin (Dublin University)
- Educated Privately by his father, Dublin University
- Occupation University Academic finishing as Provost of Trinity College, Dublin.
- Debut 11 September 1867 v I Zingari at Vice Regal Ground Phoenix Park, Dublin
- Cap Number 42
- Style Left-hand bat, right arm underarm medium pace
- Teams Dublin University, Stoics, Na Shuler
John Mahaffy was a competent cricketer, but was much better known for his academic prowess and for his reputation as a wit, brilliant talker, and raconteur. As a cricketer, he was a good batsman at club level, who often opened the innings and a slow underarm bowler, at his best in conditions others disliked, a wet ball and a slippery surface. In a brief obituary in the 1920 Wisden, the Almanack's Editor Sydney Pardon wrote that Mahaffy was described as "A good bat, hits well to leg: a first rate medium pace bowler, distinguished for hard work".
He spent the first twelve years of his life in continental Europe, his father being chaplain to various British expatriate communities. When the family returned to Ireland, they lived in Co Monaghan. The young Mahaffy was educated at home, but was by no means isolated. Years later, he spoke of playing cricket at St Columba's College, in the foothills of the Dublin / Wicklow mountains, on several occasions, as a visiting schoolboy.
He entered Dublin University in 1855 and was a member of the XI from 1856 to 1867, normally opening the batting. He shone as a bowler in 1866, taking 40 wickets for the University at 5.82. He subsequently played for the Stoics, a club formed in 1868, of the University's former payers. Another member of both XIs was Anthony Traill, who also played for Ireland, but only in odds matches. He was destined to become Mahaffy's bitter academic rival in a power struggle worthy of a CP Snow or Colin Dexter novel.
Mahaffy, who always retained links with the Club, had several good performances for Past and Present XIs, for example making 52 v WG Grace's XI in 1876, having, four years earlier, in company with the Club's professional Jesse Richards, almost bowled them to a sensational victory over the All England XI. Needing only 42, the visitors were 0-4 and 1-5, before some hitting by Martin McIntyre saw them home.
Between 1860 and 1867 Mahaffy played five times for Ireland, though his figures on this site include only the I Zingari match of 1867, as the others involved teams of more than 11 players a side. In all matches his figures as a batsman are far from impressive. He managed only 27 runs at an average of 3 with a top score of 8. In his defence it should be said that many individual scores in these matches were low, not just by Irish batsmen. Further he had, in the matches v the All England XI to play against the best bowlers of the day.
Those who took his wicket included the great left arm fast roundarmer Edgar Willsher, who disposed of Mahaffy in all four innings that they opposed each other in and RC Tinley, originally a fast roundarmer also, but by the time he played in Ireland, one of the best slow underarmers. As a bowler, against the professionals, Mahaffy secured the wicket of the great Nottinghamshire batsman Richard Daft, stumped for 16 at Coburg Gardens in 1861. In all matches for Ireland he had 15 wickets at 5.33.
Mahaffy's most famous match was the 12-a-side fixture v IZ in 1866. This was played at the Vice Regal Ground, which had been specially reopened for the match. The wicket was "frightful". Rough and underprepared in any case, it was made worse by appalling weather. Gale force winds blew in heavy showers, turning the wicket into a virtual quagmire. Mahaffy, a late replacement, was the hero of the match, which Ireland, dismissing IZ for paltry scores of 33 and 42, won by 155 runs. The conditions were made for him and, mostly in tandem with an Army officer Christopher Oldfield, he bowled unchanged to record match figures of 13-34. His first innings analysis was 30.3 - 23 - 16 - 9. In the second, when Oldfield took 5, he recorded 24 - 12 - 18 - 4. Even allowing for 4 ball overs and conditions in which there should have probably have been no cricket played these were remarkable figures.
In somewhat similar conditions in 1874, he was again to destroy the visitors: this time playing for the Vice Regal XVI. The home side was captained by the Lord Lieutenant, the Duke of Abercorn. When the rains came, he took shelter. Mahaffy took charge. "I love rain," he said, "I am going to take 5 wickets." He did and IZ were routed. Away from cricket, he was an expert fly fisherman and a member of the Irish shooting team.
His academic interests centered first on Philosophy and then Ancient History, of which he became the first Professor. Some of his writings are still in vogue today, but critics saw him as being too versatile and over prone to error and controversy. He was an ordained Church of Ireland clergyman though, "Never," he said," in any aggressive sense." His main aim was to become the Provost. Here, for non Irish readers, it should be stated that the University was, and is, unicollegiate. Hence the post of Provost of Trinity College was akin to that of Vice Chancellor of the University.
It was also one of great political importance. When it fell vacant in 1904, there was general surprise that the dour Co Antrim Mathematician Traill was appointed rather than Mahaffy. The former was seen as more politically reliable. Mahaffy was no nationalist despising the Gaelic revival and having little time for the Celtic Irish, but, an admirer of 18th century figures such as Henry Grattan and Edmund Burke, he was equally dismissive of the Ulster Unionists who secured their man's appointment. Mahaffy's acerbic wit won him laughter but few friends in the corridors of power. When Traill died in 1914, Mahaffy was appointed, "Ten years too late, "he declared.
He was, however, in charge during the Easter Rising of 1916, and his knighthood had much to do with his contribution to the role the University, because of its strategic position, played in the outcome. In 1917, he was a member of the Irish Convention, a Government inspired attempt to find a solution to the Irish Question. He favoured Swiss style federalism, with autonomy for Ulster.
Mahaffy, who was happily married for over 50 years, spent much time on the continent. He was a frequent guest of the Greek Royal Family and regarded most of the Crowned Heads of Europe as his friends. Queen Victoria ignored him but others, including the Kaiser, cultivated his company. He retained his cricket interest, as late as 1908 he was in the nets in College Park advising the Irish team how to play the Philadelphian bowlers. The great swing bowler Bart King, who in fact played in the match only as a batsman, happened by and watched him bat.
"If I was bowling to you sir," said Bart, "I would need but one fielder." "Where?" asked Mahaffy, unwisely."Twenty yards behind the stumps to collect the bails!"
For once the great talker was speechless.
I very much hope that this tale is true but it may well be apocryphal as it closely resembles an incident in which King was involved in a club match in Philadelphia. The Reverend Professor Provost Sir John Pentland Mahaffy died in office. It would, no doubt, have given him pleasure to know that his grandson, Fijian born John Pentland Tiaora Mahaffy, became a first class cricketer. A prominent bat on the London club cricket circuit, who survived sharing a flat with EW Swanton, he had one match for MCC in 1934. Appropriately this was v Ireland in College Park. Unfortunately his batting, at representative level, mirrored his grandfather's.
A detailed account of Mahaffy's academic life may be found in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Those who seek more are referred to Mahaffy: Portrait of an Anglo-Irishman by two Trinity academics, classicist WB Stanford and historian RB McDowell, the latter an eccentric to leave even his subject in the shade!
As stated above a brief obituary appeared in Wisden 1920. No doubt he would have been pleased to know that he was obituarised in the Almanack while Traill was not!"
Edward Liddle, October 2007, updated November 2014