Jonah Barrington (judge)

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For other Jonah Barringtons, see Jonah Barrington (disambiguation).
Jonah Barrington.

Sir Jonah Barrington (born at Knapton, Abbeyleix 1760; died at Versailles, France on 8 April 1834), was one of no fewer than sixteen children; six at least, and probably seven, were sons[1] of John Barrington, a landowner in County Laois.

An Irish lawyer, judge and politician, he is most notable for his amusing and popular memoirs of life in late 18th-century Ireland; for his opposition to the Act of Union in 1800; and for his removal from the judiciary by both Houses of the Parliament in 1830, still a unique event.[2]

Public life[edit]

Barrington was educated at Trinity College Dublin and was called to the Irish bar in 1788, taking silk in 1793. He was appointed an Admiralty court judge in 1798.

He joined the Irish Volunteers and supported the Irish Patriots in the early 1780s.[3] In the pre-1801 Parliament of Ireland he was MP for Tuam by purchase of the seat in 1790–97, and then MP for Clogher in 1798. He received a sinecure post worth £1,000p.a. in 1793, generally supporting Henry Grattan. He re-entered parliament in 1798 and voted against the Act of Union in 1799–1800, rejecting Lord Clare[disambiguation needed]'s offer of the solicitor-generalship in 1799. He later unsuccessfully contested a seat in the UK parliament for Dublin in 1802. His career as a judge led to a knighthood in 1807.

Barrington was a member of the Kildare Street Club in Dublin.[4]


Barrington moved to France in 1815 to escape his creditors, while still retaining his judgeship and salary. In 1830 a parliamentary commission recommended that he be removed from office, finding misappropriations of court funds in 1805, 1806 and 1810. Pursuant to a provision of the Act of Settlement of 1701, which sought to protect the independence of the judiciary, both Houses of the Parliament of the United Kingdom voted for an Address to King William IV praying for his removal, and the King duly dismissed Barringtom from office. By then, Barrington's first 1827 volume of memoirs had sold successfully, and they were republished and expanded (see below).

Barrington was the first judge removed from office under the Act of Settlement, and to this day, is the only judge in the United Kingdom to be so removed.

Duel with Richard Daly[edit]

According to one of his more spurious personal memoirs, On the 20th of March, 1780. Barrington travelled to Donnybrook to duel with a mister Richard Daly.

Daly had fought 16 duels in three years - three with swords and thirteen with pistols. Remarkably, he, and his opponents, had always escaped serious injury. Barrington had no pistols so he and his second, Richard Crosbie, had spent the previous night constructing a pair 'from old locks, stocks an barrels'.[5] At Donnybrook, Daly's second, Jack Patterson, a nephew of the Chief Justice, approached Crosbie, explained that it was all a mistake and asked that the two shake hands. Barrington was in favour, but Crosbie would have none of it. Taking out a duelling handbook, he pointed to rule No.7 - 'No apology can be received after the parties meet, without a fire.' Taking up their positions Barrington lost no time in pressing the trigger and Daly staggered back, put his hand to his chest, and cried 'I'm hit, Sir.' luckily, the ball had not penetrated but had driven part of a brooch slightly into his breast-bone. Barrington only then thought to enquire why duel was even taking place. This time the rule book noted: 'If a party challenged accepts the challenge without asking the reason for it, the challenger is never bound to divulge it afterwards'.


Barrington is most notable today for his memoirs that included scathing but humorous thumbnail portraits of contemporary Irish lawyers, judges and politicians during the last years of the Protestant Ascendancy. Personal sketches also includes vignettes on Irish people from every background. His works were reprinted with frequent additions and renamings as:

  • Historic Anecdotes and Secret Memoirs of the Legislative Union between Great Britain and Ireland (London: G. Robinson 1809);
repubished with a 2nd volume as: Historic Memoirs, Comprising Secret Records of the National Convention, the Rebellion, and the Union, with Delineations of the Principal Characters Connected with These Transactions, 2 vols. (London: R. Bentley & H. Colburn 1833 [1809–33])
3rd edn: ..with memoir of the author, an essay on Irish wit and humour, and notes and corrections by Townsend Young; 2 vols. (London: G. Routledge & Sons 1869)
4th edn. in 2 vols, (Glasgow & London: Cameron & Ferguson 1876);
  • Personal Sketches of his Own Times (3 vols. 1827–32): Vols. 1 & 2 (London: Henry Colburn 1827); Vol. 3 (London: Henry Colburn & R. Bentley 1832)
reissued as (George Birmingham, intro.): Recollections of Jonah Barrington (Dublin: Talbot; London: T. Fisher Unwin 1918);
  • Historic Memoirs of Ireland, 2 vols. (London: R. Bentley & H. Colburn 1833)
  • The Rise and Fall of the Irish Nation (Paris: G. G. Bennis 1833)
2nd edn. (Dublin: James Duffy 1853)

Political legacy[edit]

Barrington's comments on the Act of Union had a continuing resonance with the Young Ireland, Fenian and Irish Parliamentary Party movements, which hoped to re-establish "Grattan's parliament" in some way. In particular his Rise and Fall of the Irish Nation (1833) provided the basis for this romantic idealisation of Grattan's Parliament adopted by the Irish Parliamentary Party from the 1880s.

Criticism and literary resonance[edit]

Since his death Barrington's work has been quoted by a wide selection of editors, primarily following two themes; the political drama surrounding the Act of Union and the colourful nature of life in 1700s Ireland.

  • Frank O'Connor, ed., Book of Ireland (London: Fontana 1959 & edns.), was impressed by: "Merry Christmas, 1778" uninterrupted match of hard-going till the weather should break up ... hogshead of superior claret’ ... ‘the pipers plied their chants ... I shall never forget the attraction this novelty had for my youthful mind (p. 139); Sir Boyle Roche ... the most celebrated and entertaining anti-grammarian in the Irish Parliament (p. 183); on duelling Ough, thunder! ... how many holes did the villain want drilled in to his carcass? (p. 262); Crow Street theatre: immediately ... on being struck, he reeled, staggered, and fell very naturally, considering that it was his first death (p. 278).
  • Roy Foster: the racy Personal Sketches...confirmed him as the chief historian of the "half-mounted gentlemen" of Ireland.[6]
  • W. B. Yeats: Mrs French, in the first section of Yeats's poem The Tower, is a character from Barrington's Recollections, where it is used to illustrate mutual attachment between the Irish peasantry and their landlords.[7]
  • James Joyce: Tom Kernan makes reference to Barrington's Reminiscences (recte Recollections) in Ulysses: Must ask Ned Lambert to lend me those reminiscences of sir Jonah Barrington.[8]
  • John Mitchel quoted Barrington in his History of Ireland, concerning the approach to the 1798 rebellion: Mr Pitt counted on the expertness of the Irish Government to effect a premature explosion. Free quarters were now ordered, to irritate the Irish population; slow tortures were inflicted, under the pretence of forcing confessions; the people were goaded and driven to madness (p. 264).
  • A Dictionary of Irish Writers (1985), ed. Brian Cleeve & Ann Brady, lists his Historic Anecdotes and Secret Memoirs of the Legislative Union between Great Britain and Ireland (1809).[9]
  • A book of selections was published for the American market in 1967.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Barrington, Amy (1917). The Barringtons: A Family History. Dublin: Ponsonby & Gibbs. p. 386. 
  2. ^ Ricorso
  3. ^ Memoirs, chapter 7
  4. ^ Thomas Hay Sweet Escott, Club Makers and Club Members (1913), pp. 329–333
  5. ^ J.Barrington (1918), "Recollections of Jonah Barrington, Dublin
  6. ^ Roy Foster, Modern Ireland (London: Allen Lane 1988)at p.169.
  7. ^ See A. N. Jeffares, W B Yeats, A New Biography, 1988, p.276; Frank Tuohy, Yeats, 1976, p.189.
  8. ^ Ulysses, Random House Edn., p.241 (part of the 'Wandering Rocks' episode).
  9. ^ Cleeve B., & Brady A., A Dictionary of Irish Writers (Dublin: Lilliput 1985).
  10. ^ Hugh Staples, ed., The Ireland of Sir Jonah Barrington: Selections from His Personal Sketches (Washington: Catholic UP, 1967)