Stephen MacKenna (1872–1934), a linguist and writer of Irish descent, was an important translator into English of Plotinus, a major philosopher of the later Roman Empire. MacKenna’s prose style was widely admired, and he introduced Plotinian philosophy to a new generation of readers.
MacKenna was descended, through his father, Captain Stephen Joseph MacKenna (a writer of adventure stories), from three long-established Irish Catholic families. He also had family connections to a tradition of Ascendancy politics. The family lived in Liverpool and he and his brother were educated in Catholic schools. It was there that he first acquired a knowledge of Classical Greek. He failed, however, to pass the university entrance examination. After a brief period as a novice in a religious order he became a clerk in the Munster and Leinster Bank. He then obtained a job as a reporter for a London newspaper, and in 1896 progressed to a post as Paris correspondent for a Catholic journal. In London he collected books, joined the Irish Literary Society and became a member of Young Ireland, a revolutionary group.
In Paris he was friends with the Irish exiles there; he then joined the Greek forces as a volunteer in the Greco-Turkish War of 1897. This enabled him to acquire a command of colloquial Greek. His service was brief, and he returned first to Paris, then to London, and afterwards went on to Dublin. After a brief stay in New York, where he lived in poverty, he returned to Paris. He then obtained a job as European foreign correspondent with Joseph Pulitzer, reporting from as far afield as Russia and Hungary.
Around this time he married Marie Bray, American-born and French-educated, and an accomplished pianist. They had the same cultural and political interests.
In the early 1900s MacKenna began to revise the Greek he had learned at school and to perfect his command of it. He expressed an interest in translating the works of the Greek philosopher Plotinus, whose concept of a transcendent “One”, prior to all other realities, he found fascinating. He resigned from his job as a correspondent for Pulitzer, but continued to write for the Freeman’s Journal, an Irish nationalist paper. In the meantime he published a translation of the first volume of Plotinus, Ennead 1.
MacKenna had already begun to acquire the rudiments of the Irish language. He and Marie had attended Gaelic League classes in London. In Dublin he did administrative work for the League and was keen to expand its activities. His house in Dublin was a centre of League activity, with enthusiasts meeting there once a week. His friend Piaras Béaslaí later testified that MacKenna learned to speak the language with reasonable fluency. MacKenna had a high opinion of the capabilities of the language: "A man could do anything in Irish, say and express anything, and do it with an exquisite beauty of sound". He regretted that he had come to the language too late to use it as a medium of written expression: " I consider it the flaw and sin of my life that I didn't twenty years ago give myself body and soul to the Gaelic [i.e. Irish] to become a writer in it…”
The outbreak of war in 1914 he saw as being disastrous for all sides. The Easter Rebellion by militant Irish nationalists in Dublin in 1916 took him and many others by surprise, though he was sympathetic to nationalist aims. He particularly mourned for his friend and neighbour The O'Rahilly, wounded by machine gun fire in Moore Street and left to die over two days.
Both he and Marie suffered from failing health. Marie died in 1923, and MacKenna moved to England to increase his chances of recovery. He continued to translate and publish the work of Plotinus, with B.S. Page being a collaborator on the last volume. By this time he had privately rejected Catholicism. His investigation of other philosophies and religious traditions drew him back to Plotinus and the intuitive perception of the visible world as an expression of something other than itself, the result of a “divine mind at work (or at play) in the universe”.
His income was greatly reduced, and his last years were spent in a small cottage in Cornwall. He died in a London hospital in 1934.
- Archived recording of a 1956 talk by Béaslaí about MacKenna on RTÉ Radio (Raidió na Gaeltachta): “Piaras Béaslaí ag caint ar Stiofán Mac Éanna sa bhliain 1956”: 20150831_rteraidion-siulachscealach-silachscal_c20839806_20839808_232_drm_ (1).
- Quoted in Dodds, p. 37.
- Quoted in Dodds, p. 37.
- Dodds, pp. 65-66
- Quoted in Dodds, p. 69.
- Joyce, James. Ulysses. Sylvia Beach, 1922: chapter 9, p. 112.
Journal and Letters of Stephen MacKenna, edited with a memoir by E.R. Dodds. London: Constable & Company Ltd, 1936 
The Six Enneads By Plotinus, Written 250 A.C.E., Translated by Stephen Mackenna and B. S. Page: The Internet Classics Archive, http://classics.mit.edu/Plotinus/enneads.html