George Huxley obituary: Classics professor with a passion for his subject was devoted to Ireland

Huxley finally became an Irish citizen in 2018 at the age of 86, having spent a good part of his life teaching here

Born: September 23rd, 1932

Died: November 30th, 2022

Professor George Leonard Huxley, who has died aged 90, was an adjunct professor at the Department of Ancient Classics and the Department of Mathematics at the National University of Ireland at Maynooth (now Maynooth University). Huxley was also an honorary professor of classics at Trinity College Dublin for a time and a Professor of Greek at Queen’s University Belfast for more than 20 years. He held honorary doctorates from all three universities.

The academic and scholar, who grew up in England and lived in Belfast for more than 20 years, later returned to live in England. Despite having Church Enstone, Oxfordshire, as his permanent address, Huxley continued to spend a lot of time in Ireland and in 2018 he became one of the oldest people to become an Irish citizen. An ardent critic of Brexit, he said at that time: “Certainly my desire to be an Irish citizen was greatly increased by the follies of Brexit. But I am very fond of Ireland and the Irish. I am devoted to Ireland.”


Huxley who was extremely well liked by both colleagues and students, continued to deliver annual lectures at Maynooth University as adjunct chair of classics, into his 80s. He was also an active member of the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) since the early 1970s. A prolific writer, he wrote hundreds of journal articles. His books include Achaeans and the Hittites (1960), The Early Ionians (1966), On Aristotle and Greek Society (1979) and Homer and the Travellers (1988). Hermathena, a Festschrift in the Classics Journal at TCD, was published in 2006.

George Huxley was one of two children of Leonard Huxley, a physicist and academic who was vice chancellor at the Australian National University in Canberra for a time; and historian Molly Huxley (nee Copeland). His sister, Margot Huxley, also went on to become an academic in urban planning and geography. He was a distant cousin of the writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley.

Huxley spent his early years in Leicester while his father lectured in physics at University College Leicester. Following his secondary school education, he attended Magdalen College, Oxford. There he studied classical philology, the study of the Greek and Latin languages through ancient Greek and Roman civilisations. From 1955-1961, he was a fellow of the All Souls College in Oxford.

In 1956, he was appointed assistant director of the British School in Athens for two academic years. During this time, he did a study of Early Greek chronology and history and in particular the historical development of the Greek epic poetry.

He also took part in the excavations at Knossos on the island of Crete. After two stints as a visiting lecturer at Harvard University, he returned to Greece to direct excavations at Kastri on the island of Kythera for three seasons from 1962-1965. His findings, which were published with the esteemed English archaeologist and academic Nicholas Coldstream, established connections between Crete and the Greek mainland in the Bronze Age. These links were later confirmed in subsequent excavations.

Huxley maintained a close connection with Kythera throughout his life and in 2018 he took part in a documentary on the archaeology of Kythera, directed by Greek filmmaker Giorgos Didymiotis. His last visit there was in 2022.

Capacity for friendship

Huxley married archaeologist and author Davina Best in 1957, whom he met on an excavation in Crete. The couple went on to have three daughters.

From 1962-1983, Huxley taught Greek at Queen’s University Belfast, during which time the family lived in south Belfast. Dr Maureen Alden, classics scholar and former lecturer in Greek at Queen’s, said that Huxley had an extraordinary capacity for friendship. “He had so many friends. He could be quite formal and had immaculate manners but he was extremely warm,” she said.

At the time, he wrote long, impassioned letters to English and Irish newspapers, including The Irish Times, decrying the decision of the authorities at Queen’s

In 1963, Huxley founded the Hibernian Hellenists, a biennial lecture series that brought together emerging and seasoned classics scholars in the North and the Republic. The meetings, which continued for 50 years, became a major event for classicists in all the universities on the island of Ireland and beyond. Huxley was also the main driver of the Irish Institute of Hellenic Studies at Athens, which allows students to travel to Greece to do fieldwork there.

Along with other academics, Huxley was vociferously opposed to the closure of a number of the arts and humanities departments, including Greek, Latin and Classical Studies, at Queen’s in the late 1990s and early 2000s. At the time, he wrote long, impassioned letters to English and Irish newspapers, including The Irish Times, decrying the decision of the authorities at Queen’s. In his early days in Belfast, he also lobbied for better housing for Catholics.

In 1984, Huxley was chairman of the organising committee for the VIII International Congress of Classical Studies in Dublin. That same year, he was elected senior vice-president of the Federation Internationale des Societes d’Etudes Classique, the organising body of this congress.

As well as having a model railway in his garden, he regularly brought family members to find old railway tracks and abandoned signal boxes

From 1986-1989, he served as director of the Gennadius Library at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens which is one of the most important libraries in Greece. He became honorary professor of Greek at TCD in 1989 and in 1999, he was appointed honorary professor of the Classical Association of Ireland.

During their long marriage, the Huxleys did a lot of travelling, particularly in Central Asia, Iran, China and India. Huxley’s other great hobby was railways. As well as having a model railway in his garden, he regularly brought family members to find old railway tracks and abandoned signal boxes. He also had an encyclopedic knowledge of historical engines held in museums.

In 2008, Huxley donated his professional and personal papers to the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. This includes extensive correspondence with academics and organisations including the RIA, the Classical Association of Ireland and the Society of Antiquities of London. A convert to Catholicism from Anglicanism at the age of 21, he was a practising Catholic throughout his long life.

George Huxley is survived by his daughters, Harriet, Sophia and Corinna, his grandchildren, Frances, Patrick and Natasha, great-grandchild Harry, and his sister Margot. His wife, Davina, predeceased him in December 2020.