Stephen MacKenna (1872-1934)

[occas. Stiefán MacEnna; pseud. Martin Daly]; b. 15 Jan. in Liverpool; son of ex-Indian Army officer (d.1883); supported by maiden aunts; brilliant classics student at school but failed to matriculate in English for London University; worked as bank clerk in Dublin, living on with his aunts; issued English translation of The Imitation of Christ (1896); became journalist, at first in London and afterwards in Paris, 1896-1907, working for an English Catholic paper; becoming a close friend of J. M. Synge in bohemian Paris days, and meeting John O’Leary and Maud Gonne; friendships also with AE and James Stephens; met Armenians and Greek exiles in Paris, and fought for Greeks against Turkey in the international brigade, spring 1897, returning to Paris in the autumn without having engaged in combat;
m. Mary Bray, an American, 1902; became continental representative of The New York World, possibly after visit to New York; enjoyed prosperous period as journalist covering Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 and the revolution in St. Petersburg, 1905]; visited Tolstoy; encountered Creuzer’s trans. of Plotinus and espoused doctrine of Plotinus (‘It seems to me that I must be born for him, and that somehow, some day, I must have nobly translated him’); resigned NY World post in 1907, returning to Dublin via London, 1908; became lead writer for Freeman’s Journal, 1908, and wrote a favourable review of Yeats there; issued first piece of translation as On Beauty (Bullen 1908), being Enneads, 1.8;
received offer of subsidy from Ernest Debenham, an admirer of his Plotinus translation, Jan. 1912; initially demurred but accepted when an advance on publication was offered by Philip Lee Warner of Medici Society, acting for Debenham; counted a brilliant talker; Gaelic League and language revival activist, and friend of Arthur Griffith; the literary group gathering at his home in Dublin on Saturdays included J. M. Hone, Edmund Curtis, Osborn Bergin, Padraic Colum, Thomas MacDonagh and Seumas O’Sullivan; volunteered at the GPO in 1916 but sent home for reasons of health by Patrick Pearse; published an elegy for the leaders, ‘‘Memories of the Dead in Easter Week’’, as Martin Daly; moved to London in disillusionment after the Treaty and his wife’s death, 1923; lived in ill-health and received support from Ernest Debenham;
his translation of the Enneads of Plotinus, the fruit of a life-long dedication to the neo-Platonic philosopher, appeared between 1917 and 1930; d. 8 March 1934; Journals and Letters, ed. with a memoir by E. R. Dodds and preface by Padraic Colum (1936); numerous letters from J. M. Synge to MacKenna are quoted in Edward Synge’s memoir of the playwright; a chalk portrait by Leo Mezner was presented to the National Gallery of Ireland by J. M. Hone, 1934, while another with Lord Ashbourne and (poss.) Dominick Spring Rice is held in the Gallery. DIB DIH IF DIL FDA OCIL WJM
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  • [trans.] trans., Plotinus [...] with Porphyry’s Life of Plotinus, and the Preller-Ritter extracts , forming a conspectus of the Plotinian system, 5 vols. [Library of Philosophical Translations] (London & Boston: The Medici Society Ltd. 1917-30), [details].
  • The Essence of Plotinus: Extracts from the Six Enneads and Porphyry’s Life of Plotinus, based on the translation by Stephen MacKenna; with an appendix giving some of the most important Platonic and Aristotelian sources on which Plotinus drew, and an annotated bibliography compiled by Grace H. Turnbull; foreword by W. R. Inge (NY: OUP 1934), xx, 303pp. [details]
  • Journals and Letters, ed. E. R. Dodds, with a memoir by Dodds [pp.1-89] and a preface by Padraic Colum [pp.xi-xvii] (London: Constable; NY: W. Morrow 1936), 330pp.
  • Plotinus’s Enneads, ed. John Dillon [Penguin Classics] (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1991).
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Bibliograhical details
MacKenna’s Plotinus [Phil. Translation series]: Plotinus on the Beautiful, Being the Sixth Treatise of the First Ennead (1908, Stratford-Upon-Avon: Shakespeare Head Press 1908), 25pp., and Do. (1914), 30pp.; Plotinus: The Ethical Treatises: being the Treatises of the First Ennead with Porphyry’s life of Plotinus and the Preller-Ritter extracts forming a conspectus of the Plotinian system (London: P. L. Warner [publisher to the Medici society, Ltd.] 1917), 158pp.; Plotinus, Psychic and Physical Treatises, Comprising the Second and Third Enneads (London: P. L. Warner [publisher to the Medici society, Ltd.] 1921), vvi, 246pp.; Plotinus: On the Nature of the Soul, Being the Fourth Ennead (London & Boston: The Medici Society 1924). 3, 158pp.; Plotinus: The Divine Mind, being the Treatises of the Fifth Ennead (London: Medici Society, 1926), 4, 101, [2]pp.; Plotinus: On the One and Good : being the treatises of the sixth Ennead; translated from the Greek by Stephen Mackenna and B.S. Page (London: Medici Society 1930), 4, 253 [1]pp.

The Essence of Plotinus: Extracts from the Six Enneads and Porphyry’s Life of Plotinus, based on the translation by Stephen Mackenna; with an appendix giving some of the most important Platonic and Aristotelian sources on which Plotinus drew, and an annotated bibliography compiled by Grace H. Turnbull; foreword by W.R. Inge (NY: OUP 1934), xx, 303pp.; Do . [2nd printing] (OUP 1962); Do., with a foreword by E. R. Dodds and an introduction by Paul Henry [4th edn., rev. by B. S. Page] (London: Faber & Faber 1969), lxx, 638pp.. and Do . [rep. of the 1934 edn.] (Conn: Greenwood Press 1976), xx, 303pp.

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Liam Ó Rinn, Mo Chara Stiofán (Baile Átha Cliath: Ófig an tSoláthair 1939) [biography]; Nicholas Grene and Anne Saddlemyer, ‘Stephen MacKenna on Synge: A Lost Memoir,’ Irish University Review (Autumn 1982); Anne Saddlemyer, ‘Synge to MacKenna: The Mature Years’, in Robin Skelton and David R. Clark, eds., Irish Renaissance (Dublin: Dolmen 1965), pp.65-79, [prev. printed under same title in ‘Irish Gathering’, Massachussetts Review (Winter 1964), pp.279-96].

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W. B. Yeats, ‘worthy at its best to take its place among the masterpieces of English prose’ while E. R. Dodds, ‘one of the very few great translations of our day’. Note also Yeats’s gratitude to MacKenna, for ‘words spoken not only to my ear, but for my ear’ by ‘a young man who had lately joined our Society ... now well known amongst scholars for his distinguished translations of Plotinus’ (Autobiographies, 1955, p.230.) Further: ‘Molly tells me that Synge went to see Stephen McKenna and his wife before going into hospital and said goodbye with ‘You will never see me again’. (‘Death of Synge’, XVI; Autobiogs., p.511.)

Richard Kain, Dublin in the Age of William Butler Yeats and James Joyce (Oklahoma UP 1962; Newton Abbot: David Charles 1972): ‘Most brilliant of all Dublin talkers seems to have been the jojurnalist and self-taught classicist Stephen MacKenna. The astonishing variety of his conversation is still remembered, ranging in subject from poetry to politics - he had reported the abortive Russian Revolution of 1904-1905 - and in tone from the splendor and dignity of Yeats to the gay fantasy of James Stephens.’ (p.69.) Further: ‘[...] Stephen MacKenna, despite his sorow at the moral collapse of his country in “the troubles”, exclaimed in a letter of Christmas Eve 1923, that, whatever can be said against the Irish, “by heavens we’re eloquent: the beautiful words are a joy, and what is more remarkable still is the sense of conversation ... an expquisite art, practised with love and fury, and warmly appreciated,”which one finds in people of all ages. In England, on the other hand, during seven months he had heard “never a fresh phrase, never a newly coined combinatino of pleasnt sound such as I hear all day around me in my own Dundrum.”’ (p.154.)

W. B. Stanford, Ireland and the Classical Tradition (IAP 1976; 1984), Stephen MacKenna, Plotinus - he projected an Irish version Pindar in view of the Gaelic quality he detected in it. Further: Stephen MacKenna, b. 1872; fought for the Greeks against the Turks in 1897; aged thirty-five, he turned to Plotinus and neo-Platonism; translated the Enneads, a lengthy Greek work containing great difficulties of text, language and thought; after agonising difficulties and delays, completed his work in 1930. Stanford quotes 22 lines of prose translation from Enneads, 6, 9, 9, ‘The soul in its nature loves God and longs to be at one with Him in the noble love of a daughter for a noble father ...’ [198]. Further, Stephen MacKenna, strong Irish nationalist, fought briefly in Thessaly in 1897; prevented from continuing the struggle in Crete after the Greek defeat. Bibl., MacKenna first published a translation of the sixth treatise of the first Ennead, On the Beautiful, in 1908, then five vols. translation all six Enneads (1917-1930), the fifth vol. being shared with BS Page; further eds. appeared after his death in 1956 and 1962.

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Oracle of Apollo” [1]: ‘Where Minos and Rhadamanthus dwell, great brethren of the gold race of mighty Zeus; where dwell the just Achaeus, and Plato, consecrated power, and stately Pythagoras and all else that form the Choir of Immortal Love, there where the heart is every lifted in joyous festival. (Life of Plotinus, Vol. 1 [Porphyry, p.23]; quoted in T. R. Henn, The Lonely Tower: Studies in the Poetry of W. B. Yeats, London: Methuen 1950, 1965, p.140.)

Oracle of Apollo” [2]: ‘O Blessed One, you have fought your many fights; now crowned with unfailing life, your days are with the Ever-Holy. [...] Rejoicing Muses, let us stay our song and the subtle windings of our dance; thus much I could but tell, to my golden lyre, of Plotinus, the hallowed soul.’ Porphyry’s comment: ‘Thus far the Oracle recounts what Plotinus accomplished and to what heights he attained while still in the body: emancipated from the body, we are told how he entered the celestial circle where all is friendship, tender delight, happiness, and loving union with God, where Minos and Rhadamantus and Aeacus, the sons of God, are enthroned as judges of souls - not however to hold him to judgement but as welcoming him to their consort to which are bidden spirits pleasing to the Gods - Plato, Pythagoras, and all the people of the Choir of Immortal Love, there where the blessed sprits have their birth-home and live in days made happy by the Gods.’ (In Plotinus, 22-24; rev. edn. 1946, p.16; quoted [at greater length] in A. N. Jeffares, New Commentary on the Poems of W. B. Yeats, 1984, pp.322.)

Plotinus (Ennead IV, 3.5, II:13): ‘But what place is left for the particular souls, yours and mine and another’s? / May we suppose the Soul to be appropriated on the lower ranges to some individual, but to belong on the higher to that other sphere? / At this there would be a Socrates as long as Socrates’ soul remained in body; but Socrates ceases to exist, precisely on attainment of the highest. / Now nothing of Real Being is ever annulled. / In the Supreme, the Intellectual-Principles are not annulled, for in their differentiation there is no bodily partition, no passing of each separate phase into a distinct unity; every such phase remains in full possession of that identical being. It is exactly so with the souls. / By their succession they are linked to the several Intellectua lPrinciples, for they are the expression, the Logos, of the Intellectual-Principles, of which they are the unfolding; brevity has opened but to multiplicity; by that point of their being which least belongs to the partial order, they are attached each to its own Intellectual original: they have already chosen the way of division; but to the extreme they cannot go; thus they keep, at once, identification and difference; each soul is permanently a unity (a self) and yet all are, in their total, one being. / Thus the gist of the matter is established: one soul the source of all; those others, as a many founded in that one, are, on the analogy of the Intellectual-Principle, at once divided and undivided; that Soul which abides in the Supreme is the one expression or Logos of the Intellectual-Principle, and from it spring other Reason-Principles, partial but immaterial, exactly as in the differentiation of the Supreme.’ (Quoted in Kathleen Raine, ‘Hades Wrapped in Cloud’, Yeats and the Occult, ed. George Mills Harper, London: Macmillan 1976, pp.103-04.)

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On the Nature of the Soul ([being the] Fourth Ennead, iv. 3, 11): ‘I think, therefore, that those ardent sages, who sought to secure the presence of divine beings by the erection of shrines and statues, showed insight into the nature of the All; they perceived that, though this Soul is everywhere tractable, its presence will be secured all the more readily when an appropriate receptacle is elaborated, a place especially capable of receiving some portion or phase of it, something reproducing it, and serving like a mirror to catch an image of it. (Quoted in T. R. Henn, “A Vision and the Interpretation of History”, in The Lonely Tower: Studies in the Poetry of W. B. Yeats (London: Methuen 1950, rev. edn. 1965) [Chap. 12], p.206.)

Journal: ‘For years I played foolishly with “the Phrase”, seeing the bubble “self esteem” even if only I might anyhow please myself with a yell and a flare and a fit of ribald glee, now only I begin to know that it is not “The Phrase” that counts to any good, it is “La Phrase”. Hence, the orderly suave and gracious setting of the true mood is the clear meaning. This is the anatomy of style as anatomy is the beginning of medicine and of surgery, of painting and of sculpture. The glory is to come later, if it ever comes, as a man must first be sober before he can become a saint, and learn to behave himself before he climbs into the pulpit.’ (Journal, writing in 1908; ed. E. R. Dodds, 1936; quoted by Austin Clarke; see The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, Vol. 3, p.496.),

W. B. Yeats: ‘Another little encouragement, Yeats, a friend tells me, came to London, glided into a bookshop and dreamily asked for the new Plotinus, began to read there than then, and read on and on till he’d finished (he really has a colossal brain, you know), and now is preaching Plotinus to all his train of attendant Duchesses. He told my friend that he intended to give the winter in Dublin to Plotinus.’ (Journal; quoted in W. B. Stanford, Ireland and the Classical Tradition IAP 1976; 1984 edn., p.97.)

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Seamus Deane, gen. ed., The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (Derry: Field Day 1991), Vol. 3, p.155 ftn. [ded. of Thomas MacGreevy’s ‘Aodh Ruadh Ó Domhnaill’ to ‘Stiefán MacEnna’]; also FDA3, 495-97, excerpt from Austin Clarke’s memoir of MacKenna in A Penny in the Clouds (1968), Chp. 3: ‘In the army of scholarship MacKenna was destined to fight to the end as an irregular’ [Clarke quotes E. R. Dodds’s Memoir, see infra]; ‘In his translation, he set himself against what he called wittily “the Verral-Jebb-pesudo[sic]-granddays-of-yore-is-a-sham’ [and see note, seq.]; ‘Once, in writing to him, I addressed it to Stephen McKenna, Esq.,. In reply I got an indignant postcard informing me that he spelled his name with a ‘Mac’ not with the Kaffir ‘M’ or ‘M.K.’ From its rhythmic sentence-run, it was clear that the same postcard had been dashed off and dropped into a pillarbox many times’; I regarded Stephen MacKenna as my literary father, but he was a difficult parent and I did not always venture to visit him, for his moods were uncertain.’ Clarke also reports that he spoke Irish ‘fluently and in a Dublin way. Once I listed for half an hour while Mrs. Alice Stopford Green, the historian, and he conversed so eagerly that it became a living language to me. Later he taught Irish to James Stephens, and to his enthusiasm and help we owe Reincarnations [1918]’; also 501. Note also 496, bibl. Stephen MacKenna, Journals and Letters, ed. with a memoir by E. R. Dodds and a preface by Padraic Colum, pp.xi-xvii (NY: W. Morrow 1936). See also FDA3 492: by introducing Clarke to the history of Celtic-Romanesque Ireland, MacKenna gave Clarke’s poetry a focus that Thomas MacDonagh never achieved [Terence Brown, ed.].

Booksellers & Libraries: Hyland Catalogue (1997) lists Dermotts Rampant (1931) [not in Brown or Clarke]. Belfast Central Public Library holds Journals and Letters (1936).


J. M. Synge exchanged letters with Stephen McKenna, criticising the latter’s orthodox assertions about the purity of Ireland, a country ‘blessedly unripe’ for plays dealing with sexual passion. ( Letters, ed. Saddlemyer, Vol. 1 (1983), p. 75.)

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