A.D. Godley, the Oxford fellow born in Ashfield, Co Cavan. Photo: Courtesy of Magdalen College Oxford Libraries and Archives

Part 1: A. D. Godley, Doyen of Magdalen College, Oxford

In this week's Times Past column, historian Jonathan Smyth brings you the first in a two-part series on the story of Dr Alfred Denis Godley who worked at Magdalen College, Oxford...

Did you know that one of Oxford’s most famous university figures was born in Ashfield, Co. Cavan. Alfred Denis Godley, a distinguished classical scholar and poet, was born on January22, 1856, the son of Rev James Godley and his wife Eliza La Touche, Ashfield Glebe. The baptismal register at Ashfield Church noted that Alfred was baptised on February 24, 1856. His career later led to his appointment as ‘Public Orator’ of Magdalen College, Oxford, a role that required him to compose citations in Latin for those in receipt of honorary degrees, including some very famous novelists.

The Rev James Godley married Eliza La Touche on February 24, 1852 at Delgany Church, Co Wicklow. He was educated at Trinity College Dublin and Trinity College Oxford and was ordained as a deacon for the Diocese of Kilmore (C of I) in 1845, thereafter he was Rector of Ashfield from 1849 to 1861, after which he was Rector of Lavey and from 1866 to 1904 he served as Rector of Carrigallen, Co. Leitrim.

Aside, from Alfred Denis who was the Godley’s second-born, the other children baptised at Ashfield were John Charles Godley, born February 4, 1854; Charlotte Maude Godley, born August 15, 1863 (who became a writer under the name of Maude Godley); Francis Clements Godley, born March 8, 1858 (he became a Lieut’.-Colonel with the Nottinghamshire and Derby Regiment and ninety-first Infantry Brigade, fighting in the Sikkim Expedition, the Boer War and World War One and later appointed Member of the Royal Victorian Order and attained the position of ‘Honorary Brigadier-General’); and the youngest child was John Cornwallis Godley, born February 9, 1861 (he became the Director of Public Instruction in Punjab from 1907 to 1917, and was honoured with the Order of the Star of India).

The Godley siblings were first cousins of the first Baron Kilbracken, Sir Arthur Godley, and were cousins of General Sir Alexander John Godley who commanded New Zealand’s Expeditionary Forces from 1914 to 1919.

The Godley family had strong literary genes, and Maude like Alfred had no shortage of talent when it came to writing. Her most famous work appears in her book ‘In the Land of Breffne’ published by Elkin Matthews of London in 1925. The book looks back at Ireland and especially the Cavan area during olden days, through a series articles which first appeared in English magazines. Having lived for over 50 years in Ireland, she eventually moved to London where according to ‘Burke’s Peerage’ she died in March 1946. This newspaper published an account of her bequests on August 17, 1946, which read as follows: ‘In the goods of Charlotte Maude Godley, late of Carrigallen, in the County of Leitrim , spinster, deceased, notice is hereby given pursuant to the statute 30 and 31 Vic. Cap. 54, that the above-named Charlotte Maude Godley, deceased, by her Will dated 16th November 1942, made the following charitable bequests namely: £1000 to the Representative Church Body of the Church of Ireland in trust for the Parish of Carrigallen in the Diocese of Kilmore, for the augmentation of the Stipend of Rector of Carrigallen, or in the event of there being no Rector then of the Curate-in-Charge of the Parish of Carrigallen in accordance with the provisions of the Bishop Elliott Scheme’. Maude Godley was also published in ‘The Spectator’ and ‘The Irish Booklover’.

Alfred goes to Oxford

Alfred Denis, or A.D. Godley as he was known in literary circles, had been sent to Tilney Basset’s preparatory school, Dublin, before settling into student life at Harrow and Balliol College, Oxford. According to an entry in the ‘Dictionary of Irish Biography’, by David Murphy, Alfred’s capabilities in the field of classical scholarship won him several prizes amongst them were the Gaisford prize for his Greek verse and the Craven scholarship, which led to his appointment as the classical master of Bradfield College, Berkshire, in 1879.

Bradfield College is celebrated for its production of Greek plays, often performed outdoors in its famous outdoor amphitheatre. Four years later, he made a return to Oxford as a ‘tutor and fellow of Magdalen College’ where he remained from 1883 to 1912. In 1894, A.D. and Miss Amy Hope Cay were married.

David Murphy points out that ‘Godley enjoyed renown as a writer of satiric verse and prose’, contributing to the ‘Oxford Magazine’, a publication of which he became editor and in 1892 he published his first book of verse, ‘Verses to Order’, followed by books such as ‘Fifty Poems’; ‘Reliquiae; Second Strings’; and ‘The Casual Ward’. As a researcher, Godley published works of high academic scholarship on topics such as ‘Oxford in the Eighteenth Century’; and ‘Socrates and Athenian Society in His Age’. Other notable works which were edited and published by Godley, include ‘volumes’ of poetry by the Irish poet and lyricist, Thomas Moore.

At Oxford University he was appointed deputy Public orator and, in 1910, he became Public Orator, a role which called for him to compose Latin citations for recipients of ‘honorary degrees’ and he famously composed one for the novelist Thomas Hardy who was presented by Oxford with an Honorary D. Litt. in 1920. Godley’s verse is celebrated for its humour, a good example is his macaronic poem (mixed language poem), ‘Motor Bus’, a composition which the motorcar hating poet Sir John Betjeman would have approved.


by A.D. Godley

What is this that roareth thus?

Can it be a Motor Bus?

Yes, the smell and hideous hum

Indicat Motorem Bum!

Implet in the Corn and High

Terror me Motoris Bi:

Bo Motori clamitabo

Ne Motore caedar a Bo--

Dative be or Ablative

So thou only let us live:

Whither shall thy victims flee?

Spare us, spare us, Motor Be!

Thus I sang; and still and still anigh

Came in hordes Motores Bi,

Et complebat omne forum

Copia Motorum Borum.

How shall wretches live like us

Cincti Bis Motoribus?

Domine, defende nos

Contra hos Motores Bos!


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