The French connection: Sir Jonah Barrington

Through the glass darkly

Dipping into the French/ffrench family archives recently, I came across the will of Henry French of Drumharsna, a ruined castle about halfway between Kiltartan and Ballindereeen, on the way to Gort. His father, also Patrick, inherited the Drumharsna estate from his father, whose main estate was nearby Cloghballymore (now a nursing home ).

The wife of Patrick French of Drumharsna was Catherine, one of the five daughters of Henry O'Brien, son of the wealthy and powerful Sir Donough O'Brien of Dromoland Castle, Co Clare. The O'Briens were one of the oldest and most important native Irish families in both the county and the country.

Two children were born to them: Henry, who never married, and Sibella, who married John Barrington of Knapton, near Abbeyleix, Co Laois. A total of 16 children were born to Sibella and John Barrington. The third son, Henry French Barrington, inherited the Drumharsna estate of his uncle and namesake, Henry French, who died childless in 1768.

Henry’s younger brother was the colourful Sir Jonah Barrington (1760-1834 ), who entered the Irish Parliament as a member for Tuam in 1790, holding the seat until 1798. During the two stormy final years of the Irish Parliament he represented Banagher. A vigorous opponent of the 1800 Act of Union, he resigned in protest at its passage. As the crown to his professional and political life, in 1807 he was knighted.

After this year, his fortunes took a turn for the worse, and to escape his many creditors he fled to France in 1815, where he lived for the rest of his life. Always resourceful, Barrington decided to write his memoirs, and in 1827 published Personal Sketches of His Own Time.

Barrington's memoirs open a delightful window onto late 18th century Ireland and give a vivid sense of the exuberantly feckless lifestyle of the gentry. They are also invaluable in their first-hand account of the personalities and events of this crucial period in Irish history. Barrington knew everyone, from the Duke of Wellington to Wolfe Tone. He was at Trinity with John Sheares who, with his brother Henry, supported the United Irishmen and both were executed in 1798.

In his memoirs, Sir Jonah recounts a tale about his grandfather, Patrick French, and Catherine, his grandmother. Barrington's story is told as an instance of "the extraordinary devotion of the lower to the higher orders in Ireland, in former times".

"My grandfather, Mr French, of County Galway, was a remarkably small, nice little man, but of an extremely irritable temperament. He was an excellent swordsman, and, as was often the case in that county, proud to excess.

"Some relics of feudal arrogance frequently set the neighbours and their adherents together by the ears: - my grandfather had conceived a contempt for, and antipathy to a Mr Dennis Bodkin, who, having an independent mind, entertained an equal aversion to the arrogance of my grandfather, and took every opportunity of irritating and opposing him.

"My grandmother, an O'Brien, was high and proud [and] disposed to be rather violent at times in her contempts and animosities, and entirely agreed with her husband in his detestation of Mr Dennis Bodkin.

"On some occasion or other, Mr Dennis had outdone his usual outdoings, and chagrined the squire and his lady most outrageously. A large company dined at my grandfather's, and my grandmother launched out in her abuse of Dennis, concluding her exordium by an hyperbole of hatred expressed, but not at all meant, in these words: - "I wish the fellow's ears were cut off! that might quiet him.

"It passed over as usual: the subject was changed, and all went on comfortably till supper; at which time, the old butler, Ned Regan (who had drank enough ) came in: - joy was in his eye; and whispering something to his mistress which she did not comprehend, he put a large snuff-box into her hand. Fancying it was some whim of her old domestic, she opened the box and shook out its contents: - when, lo! a considerable portion of a pair of bloody ears dropped on the table! - The horror and surprise of the company may be conceived: upon which old Ned exclaimed - "Sure, my lady, you wished that Dennis Bodkin's ears were cut off; so I told old Gahagan [the game-keeper], and he took a few boys with him, and brought back Dennis Bodkin's ears - and there they are; and I hope you are plazed, my lady!"

This extraordinary tale was used, over 150 years later, by W.B. Yeats in his long poem 'Meditations in Time of Civil War', in his 1928 volume The Tower.

Next week: A Royal link.

Barnaby ffrench


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