Barney Williams (actor)
From the New York Public Library Digital Gallery
August 30, 1824
|Died||April 25, 1876
New York City
|Occupation||Actor-Comedian, Irish Clog Dancer|
Barney Williams (August 20, 1824 – April 25, 1876), was an Irish-American actor-comedian popular over the mid decades of the 19th century. He was probably best remembered by audiences of the day for playing Ragged Pat in J. A. Amherst's drama Ireland as it is and the title role in Samuel Lover's comic opera Rory O'More. Throughout the greater part of his career he was billed along with his wife, the former Maria Pray, as Mr. and Mrs. Barney Williams.
Bernard O'Flaherty was born in 1824 at Cork, Ireland to Michael and Mary O’Flaherty. In 1831 his family immigrated to America where his father would become a New York City policeman. As a boy Williams ran errands, sold newspapers, worked at a printer’s office and at some point began performing bit parts at New York’s Franklin Theatre. On one night in 1836 he was given the opportunity to play a speaking rôle in The Ice Witch that came available after actor Alonzo Williams suddenly fell ill. As a result of his performance, Williams became a regular cast member of the theatre’s troupe performing under the stage name Barney Williams. 
Barney’s first big hit (c. 1840) was as Pat Rooney in The Omnibus (Williams: p. 69). This play was written by his mentor Tyrone Powers probably around 1833. Maria made her stage debut at the Chatham Theatre - as a member of the corps de ballet, in the first production of a burlesque entitled “New York Assurance,” which was a travesty on “London Assurance.” See Clapp: p. 386; and Players: p. 387. Barney is also credited as introducing Irish clog dancing to America.
In 1843 Barney played the role of Jerry Murphy in Bumpology at the Chatham theatre in New York. In these days Williams played in several roles in the Tyrone Powers repertory, including Paddy O’Rafferty in Born to Good Luck, and Terry O’Rourke in The Irish Tutor. In 1844, Barney was a member of a company owned by P.T. Barnum called a “Moral Lecture Room”. By 1845, at age twenty-two, Williams was manager of Vauxhall Garden, NY, located at LaFayette Street in New York. This area later became known as The Bowery.
For several seasons Williams was a popular blackface comedian touring in minstrel shows [Kentucky Minstrels] before embarking in 1846 on a long career as an Irish comedian. On November 24, 1849 Williams married actress Maria Pray (1828-1911), the widow of actor, Charles Mestayer who died the previous year. She was the daughter of William Pray, an actor who perished in a New York theatre fire, and a sister of Malvina Florence, actress wife of the well-known actor, William J. Florence.
After marrying, Barney shed his roles in the negro minstrelsy genre.
In 1850 Barney and new wife Maria appear at National Theatre in New York, in the title roles of The Irish Boy and Yankee Girl . August 18 (1853), the Williams’ commenced an engagement at Niblo’s Garden in New York, appearing in Ireland As It Is. August 25, the couple produced their new drama, Shandy McGuire. Both in lead roles.
As a team, Williams and Pray would find the greatest successes of their careers beginning  with long runs at San Francisco’s Metropolitan Theatre - they also performed in Sacramento, Marysville, Stockton, Grass Valley, and Nevada. The couple set sail for London, June 7, 1855 where they p[performed at the Adelphi Theatre in London. The latter engagement led to a four-year tour of Europe performing in plays such as Rory O'More among others. Williams often played Irish characters to Pray's Yankee in performances that on four occasions were attended by Queen Victoria. From 1856-1857 the Williams' performed at The Adelphi. According to the London Times they performed the following: Bobbing Around, Polly, Won’t You Try Me, Oh?, and My Own Mary Anne. Some of their more popular performances were Ireland As it Is, Barney the Baron and Our Gal. On July 24, 1856 Barney and Maria performed for the Royal family, and again in February 1857. While in the U.K., the couple toured Dublin, Cork, Belfast, Limerick, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham.
The Williams's returned to New York in October 1859. On October 17, 1859, they appeared at Niblo’s Garden playing in Born to Good Luck, An Hour in Seville, and in Latest from New York. This engagement lasted 36 nights.
The two starred in annual tours throughout most of the 1860s before Williams was given the opportunity to manage (1867-1868) Wallack's Broadway Theatre. In the 1860s they most performed in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington and New York. By 1863 they were playing in Washington, D.C., performing The Fairy Circle in Grover theatre in February. On February 26 they performed at Grover’s for Abraham Lincoln. In October 1863 Barney performed for the Union troops of the 47th New York Infantry Volunteer Infantry as they sailed down the Hudson, as mentioned by Private Miles O’Reilly. Barney and Maria appear at Niblo’s Garden in New York in Irish and Yankee Life and The Connie Soogah, December 1864. Barney may have sang The Bowld Soldier Song for the Irish Brigade of the 63rd New York Volunteers in 1864.
Maria debuted on French stage, April 23, 1867; she appeared in the French Theatre in New York acting the part of Caesarine Clapier in the vaudeville of “Le Marly dans du Coon.” Barney and Maria appeared in The Emerald Ring at the Broadway Theatre in New York, April 5, 1869. On April 28, 1869, Barney played the last night the theatre was open in Ireland As It Was as Ragged Pat. Barney and Maria began an engagement in Connie Soogah, or the Jolly Peddler on September 21, 1874 at Booth’s Theatre in New York. In December 1875 Barney performed – perhaps for last time – at Booth’s theatre, The Coonie Soogah and The Fairy Circle.
Barney died in New York City as a result of a stroke while in his 51st year (1876). Over his career Williams’ success was such that he became one of the wealthiest actors of his day, leaving behind an estate considered to be in the neighborhood of $400,000.
Williams’ funeral service was held at St. Stephen’s Roman Catholic Church on the morning of April 28, 1876. Listed among his pallbearers were General John C. Frémont, Judge John R. Brady and actors Lester Wallack and John Brougham. Williams’ remains were interred at the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. He was survived by his wife, daughter Marie and three sisters.
Over on the other side of the cemetery, on Battle Hill, from which the bay and the city can be viewed, sleeps Barney Williams, almost the first actor in the line of Irish comedy. His monument is a rich and costly one, of the Gothic order. It is adorned with a marble bust of the comedian. On the base of the monument is the name "Bernard Flaherty," which was the real name of Barney Williams. This plot is kept in splendid order by the actor's widow, still a handsome woman, whose snowy hair seems like a crown upon her shapely head. Historic Long Island, 1902, Rufus Rockwell Wilson
Maria's last performance was in 1877, performing a week's engagement at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. Maria Pray Williams died in 1911 in New York City.
- Mason, James - The History of the Year 1876, 1876, p. 295 accessed 1.28.2013
- Printer’s Ink, November 27, 1901, p. 16 accessed 1.27.2013
- Phelps, H. P. - The Players of a Century, 1890, p.245
- Note: Birth year sometimes listed as 1823 - Hill, Thomas Edie - Hill's Album of Biography and Art - 1888; p.295 accessed 2.25.2013
- 1850 U.S. Census, Bernard O’Flaherty, actor-Ancestry.com
- Derby, George, White, James Terry - The National Cyclopedia of American Biography, Vol. 5, 1897, p. 440
- Mrs. Barney Williams Dead-The New York Times, May 7, 1911, p. 11
- The Will of Barney Williams-The New York Times, May 5, 1876, p.10
- The Dead Comedian-The New York Times, April 28, 1876, p. 7
- Barney Williams, Find a Grave Memorial accessed 1.27.2013
- Wilson, Rufus Rockwell - Historic Long Island, 1902, p. 327
- New York Public Library (Lincoln Center) - has several original plays related to Barney and Maria Williams.
- New York Public Library (Lincoln Center) - shows what images of Barney and Maria are in the NYPL archives.
- Barney Images Private Collection several period images, including CDVs, of Barney & Maria from a private collection (Flickr).
- The Life and Career of Irish Songster Barney Williams, a ScribD publication by Kraig W. McNutt