Rolleston is the youngest child among three sons and a daughter of Charles Rolleston-Spunner, barrister and county court judge for Tipperary, and his wife Elizabeth, daughter of John Richards, judge and baron of the Court of Exchequer, Ireland. He attends St. Columba’s College, Rathfarnham, where he is head boy, and Trinity College Dublin (TCD), graduating with an MA in 1878. His literary ambitions first emerge at university, where he wins the vice-chancellor’s prize for English verse in 1876.
In 1879 Rolleston marries Edith Caroline, daughter of Rev. William de Burgh of Naas, County Kildare. She suffers from rheumatism, and this encourages the couple to live in Germany from 1879 to 1883. During this period he develops a fascination for German philosophy and literature and begins a correspondence with the American poet Walt Whitman, whose work he knows through Edward Dowden. In 1881 he offers to translate into German, with S. K. Knortz, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. This is published as Grashalme in 1889. In that year he also publishes a biography of the German philosopher Gotthold Lessing, and in 1892 delivers the Taylorian Lectures at the University of Oxford on this subject.
In the meantime Rolleston has returned to Ireland and co-founds the Dublin University Review (DUR) with Charles Hubert Oldham in February 1885. In March 1885, under their stewardship the DUR is the first to publish W. B. Yeats. The poetry of Katharine Tynan and the first English translations of Ivan Turgenev also appear in the magazine. He has a fondness for clubs and at this time is associated with the Contemporary Club, where he becomes friendly with fellow member Douglas Hyde, and the Young Ireland Society, where he is vice-president and a disciple of John O’Leary. He writes the dedication to O’Leary in Poems and ballads of Young Ireland (1888) and is encouraged by the older man in his editing of The prose writing of Thomas Davis (1890). Under O’Leary’s influence he flirts with Fenianism, perhaps even joining the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) for a time, and is strongly critical of the prominent involvement of Catholic clergy in the home rule movement.
After the demise of the DUR in December 1886 Rolleston moves to London, but remains involved in Irish literary activity. Although unenthusiastic in his assessment of The Wanderings of Oisín (1889), he is friendly with Yeats and they instigate the Rhymers’ Club (1890). He is a much better critic and organiser than poet, but contributes to The Book of the Rhymers’ Club (1892) and The Second Book of the Rhymers’ Club (1894). His work appears in a number of contemporary journals and anthologies and he has one collection published, Sea Spray (1909).
Rolleston is first secretary of the Irish Literary Society (1892) and attends the foundation of its sister organisation in Dublin, the National Literary Society. These societies are soon riven by a dispute for control between Yeats and Charles Gavan Duffy, centred on the political and literary agenda of the movement. Rolleston at least acquiesces in, if not actively contributes to, Yeats’s defeat. They remain on reasonable terms, but Yeats is resentful. Rolleston edits the famous anthology, Treasury of Irish Poetry (1900), with the Rev. Stopford Augustus Brooke, whose daughter, Maud, he had married in October 1897. They have four children. His first marriage also produces four children, and he is godfather to Robert Graves, whose father, Alfred Perceval Graves, is a friend.
In 1894 Rolleston returns to Dublin, becoming managing director and secretary of the Irish Industries Association (1894–7) and honorary secretary of the Arts and Crafts Society of Ireland (1898–1908). A central figure in the latter as an organiser, propagandist, and critic rather than a practitioner, lecturing regularly and editing the journal of the society, he seeks to integrate the arts and crafts revival with other contemporary developments, cooperating with the Congested Districts Board for Ireland to organise classes. He is a supporter of the co-operative movement of Horace Plunkett, and a member of the Recess Committee. On the foundation of the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction (DATI), he is employed by Plunkett and T. P. Gill as organiser of lectures (1900–05). In this capacity he manages the Irish historic collection at the St. Louis exhibition of 1904, and publicly supports Plunkett in his dispute with the DATI in 1908. Convinced that the development of Irish industry is central to national progress, he believes that the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) failed to offer a clear practical programme for Irish nationalism. By 1900, however, his own nationalism is tempered by a belief in the importance of the imperial connection, and he opposes the pro-Boer stance taken by many Irish nationalists. In later years he publishes pamphlets urging economic development as a means of quelling Irish demands for home rule.
Rolleston is a sporadic member of the Gaelic League, writing the lyrics for the ‘Deirdre cantata,’ which wins first prize at the first Feis Ceoil in Dublin in 1897. At one point he suggests the foundation of a separate Gaelic League for Protestants, and provokes controversy in 1896 by suggesting that scientific ideas cannot be represented in the Irish language. Later, he concedes that he is wrong. In 1909 he settles in London when offered the job of editor of the German language and literature section of The Times Literary Supplement, a position he holds until his death. He reinvolves himself in the Irish Literary Society and publishes a number of volumes based on Irish myth, including the influential Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race (1911), and Richard Wagner‘s Der Ring des Nibelungen. He is a founder of the India Society of London (1910). During the World War I he is librarian for the ministry of information and utilises his knowledge of Irish in the Obscure Languages section of the censor’s department.
Like many involved in cultural activities at this time Rolleston is satirised by George Moore in Hail and Farewell, but he remains very friendly with Moore, who dedicates the 1920 edition of Esther Waters to him. Rolleston dies suddenly on December 5, 1920 at his home in Hampstead, London. His widow donates many of his books to Cork Public Library.
(From: “Rolleston, Thomas William Hazen (T. W.)” contributed by William Murphy, Dictionary of Irish Biography, http://www.dib.ie)