A Compendium of Irish Biography/Wills, James

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Wills, James, D.D., a poet and biographer, was born at Willsgrove, in the County of Roscommon, 1st January 1790. He was educated at Dr. Miller's school at Blackrock, County of Dublin, and by private tutors, and entered Trinity College in 1809. There he formed friendships that continued in after life, with such men as Sir William Hamilton, Professor MacCullagh, Charles Wolfe, and Professor Anster. He entered at the Middle Temple, where he completed his studies for the law, but ultimately took orders. After holding a sinecure vicarage, he was in 1849 appointed to the parish of Kilmacow, near Waterford, and in 1860 to the living of Attanagh. Dr. Wills's literary career commenced with contributions to Blackwood and other magazines. From 1822 to 1838 he resided in Dublin, being for some time editor of the University Magazine, and one of its most frequent contributors. He also wrote for the Dublin Penny Journal, and assisted the Rev. Caesar Otway in starting the Irish Quarterly Review. Dr. Wills's most important literary production was his Lives of Illustrious and Distinguished Irishmen, of which use has often been made in the preparation of this Compendium. This work, for which he received £1,000, was published in 12 parts or 6 volumes, between 1839 and 1845, and went through more than one edition. The 513 lives contained in the book are arranged in chronological order, and embody a "History of Ireland in the lives of Irishmen." It is embellished with a series of copperplate portraits. Lord-Chancellor Ball in a review of the work in the University Magazine, says: "It is the first, and such is its excellence that we should not be surprised were it the last, attempt to supply a desideratum in our literature. Commencing from the earliest period (the first life is that of Ollamh Fodia, who is supposed to have lived before the Christian era), it gives, in chronological order, a sketch of the life, the deeds, or the writings of every man deserving biographical notice, who can be considered, either from birth, residence, or any other circumstance, an Irishman. The memoirs are written with great liveliness and spirit, and in every way are marked with the impress of a highly thoughtful and original mind. The biographies are arranged in series, according as the characters are principally remarkable for their political, or ecclesiastical, or literary and scientific career, and these series again are arranged by certain epochs. Prefixed to each epoch is a dissertation on its peculiar aims, tendencies, and general characteristics. Perhaps these dissertations are the most valuable portion of the whole work. Calm judgment, subtle analysis of the motives and the external developments of every age, a philosophical freedom from passion and prejudice, rarely attained and still more rarely combined with a firm adherence to right principles, are especially observable." As a theologian Dr. Wills is best known as the author of The Philosophy of Unbelief. In 1855 and 1856, as Donnellan Lecturer to the University of Dublin, he delivered a course of lectures on the "Antecedent Probabilities of Christianity," As a poet, and one of no mean pretensions, he is best known by The Universe, once impudently claimed by Dr. Maturin. His powers of metaphysical analysis were shown in his papers on the "Spontaneous Association of Ideas," read before the Royal Irish Academy. Dr. Wills died at Attanagh, in November 1868, aged 78, and was buried in its quiet churchyard. He was a man of proud and quick temper, joined with great gentleness and warmth of affection. His photograph, and a memoir from which this notice has been condensed, will be found in the University Magazine for October 1875. The dramatic power which he possessed in no small degree has been inherited by his son, William G. Wills (also known as an artist), author of the dramas of Charles I. and Medea, and other works. [1] [2]

  1. Dublin University Magazine. Dublin, 1833–'77.
  2. Manuscript and Special Information, and Current Periodicals.