Whitley Stokes (1830-1909)
Whitley Stokes was born in 1830 to a prominent Dublin medical family. His father, William Stokes, and his grandfather Whitley both held the Regius Professorship of Physic at Trinity College Dublin. It was a position that his younger brother Sir William Stokes would also hold. The Stokes family had diverse interests across several fields of study including Irish language and culture and were friends with the leading antiquarians and linguists of the day such as John O’Donovan, Samuel Ferguson and George Petrie. It is thus no surprise that Stokes remained a dedicated student of languages and comparative philology throughout his life, forming a strong friendship with the Tubingen-trained German philologist Rudolph Siegfried, who later became the first Professor of Sanskrit at TCD.
Rather than chose to study medicine, Stokes took a bachelors degree in arts from Trinity College Dublin, graduating in 1851. He then went on to train as a barrister at London’s Inner Temple and was called to the bar in 1855. Practicing law in London, Stokes became involved in a literary circle which included Robert Browning and Thomas Carlyle. Such acquaintances no doubt encouraged his own studies resulting in the publication of more than twenty critical reviews, several articles on the Irish language and his first book entitled Irish Glosses: a Mediaeval Tract on Latin Declension (Dublin, 1861). Stokes would eventually publish more than thirty books in and over 300 articles the field of Celtic studies during a career which lasted into the twentieth century.
Stokes growing reputation as a legal and linguistic scholar resulted in his appointment in 1862 to work in the legal administration of the south Indian Presidency of Madras. Initially assigned to work for the High Court of Madras, Stokes quickly gained promotion to acting Administrator General (1863-4) and a seat on the Legislative Council of the Governor General (1865). Promotion again followed, this time to the Secretary of the Legislative Department of the Indian Government and member of the Legislative Council from 1877 to 1882. These positions enabled Stokes to have a major influence on the codification and interpretation of Indian law. Already an established legal scholar before he left for India, Stokes utilised his knowledge of Sanskrit to compile and publishing codices of Indian law. These included the Hindu Law Books (1865); the three volume Acts of the Governor General in Council, 1834-76 (1876) as well as the highly influential Anglo-Indian Codes (1887). These legal studies, particularly the latter, provided much of the basis upon which law in British India was based. Stokes was reward for his efforts with a Companion of the Star of India (1877) and was made a Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire (1879) before retiring to England in 1882.
Despite his remarkable achievements in India, Stokes continued to pursue his work in the fields of Celtic studies and comparative philology. During both his time in India and after his retirement, Stokes remained a brilliant and formidable Celtic scholar who collaborated with continental European philologists, producing texts on Breton and Cornish as well as numerous critical reviews. Stokes married twice and had two sons and two daughters before his death in London in 1909.


For further reading see:
Georgina Clinton and Sinéad Sturgeon, ‘Whitley Stokes’ in Dictionary of Irish Biography.
Daibhi O Croinin, Whitley Stokes, 1830-1909: the lost Celtic notebooks rediscovered (Dublin, 2011).