Todhunter is the eldest son of Thomas Harvey Todhunter, a Quaker merchant of English origin. He is educated at Quaker schools, including Bootham School in York and in Mountmellick, County Laois. He starts work at his father’s offices in Dublin and London before continuing on to attend Trinity College, Dublin, where he studies medicine. While at Trinity, he wins the Vice-Chancellor’s prize for English Verse 1864, 1865 and 1866, and the Gold Medal of the Philosophical Society 1866 for an essay. He also clerks for William Stokes while studying. He receives his Bachelor of Medicine in 1867 and his Doctorate of Medicine degree in 1871.
In 1870, one year prior to receiving his Doctorate of Medicine, Todhunter becomes a Professor of English Literature at Alexandra College, Dublin. Four years later, he resigns from that position and travels to Egypt and several places in Europe. He marries Dora L. Digby in 1879. In 1881, he finally settles in London, where his home in Bedford Park, Chiswick is located in a small community of writers and artists, including William Butler Yeats. Informal “symposia” are held at his house about once a fortnight, when friends gather at his fireside to discuss poetry and philosophy. He is involved in the founding of the Irish Literary Society there.
Todhunter’s first volume is a collection of narrative and lyrical poems entitled Laurella (1876). Grace, tenderness, and melody mark these poems. In later years he does much stronger work under the influence of ancient Celtic literature, to the study of which he is led by the memorable rendering of the Cú Chulainn legend published in 1878 by Standish O’Grady. The Banshee and Other Poems (1888) and The Irish Bardic Tales (1896) contain the best of his work in poetry.
Three of Todhunter’s plays have been acted with success. One of them, The Black Cat (1893), produced by the Independent Theatre Society, a private club formed to forestall censorship by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, is a factor in the revival of the literary drama. However, it only receives one performance, on December 8, 1893 at the Opera Comique. His translation of Heinrich Heine‘s Buch der Lieder is perhaps the best complete English version of a work than which none more irresistibly attracts or more cruelly eludes the art of the translator. He is also author of a few brief prose works, including “The Life of Patrick Sarsfield, Earl of Lucan” and “A Study of Shelley.”
Todhunter dies on October 25, 1916 at his residence in Bedford Park.