Bailey, William Frederick (1857–1917), lawyer, public servant and littérateur, was born 9 February 1857 at Castletown Conyers, Co. Limerick, eldest of two sons and three daughters of Dr William Bailey, retired from the Royal Navy, and his wife Annie (née Harding) from Cherry Hill, Co. Cork. Through his mother, William F. Bailey was related to Rebecca Harding Davis (1831–1910) and Richard Harding Davis (1864–1916), both distinguished American novelists, and the latter also a celebrated war correspondent.
After education at home, Bailey entered TCD, graduating BA (1879). He was awarded a gold medal in history and political science, and was auditor and gold medallist in oratory of the College Historical Society. Admitted to King's Inns in 1878, he was called to the bar in 1881 and went on the Munster circuit. That same year, he was appointed Barrington lecturer in political economy at TCD, and later was examiner in English under the Intermediate Education Board. Appointed secretary to the royal commission on Irish public works in 1886, he became the next year a legal assistant commissioner under the Irish land acts. He travelled round the country gathering evidence for the proceedings of the commission, and came to be regarded as a leading authority on land tenure. Bailey gave evidence before the Morley select committee (1894) and the royal commission on the land acts (1898), and was appointed president of a committee studying their operation prior to the introduction of the land act of 1903; thereafter he was appointed land commissioner and subsequently estates commissioner.
Knowing so well the conditions within which Irish agriculture had to operate, he was an early supporter of the cooperative movement, and was honorary secretary (1882–95) and president (1902–04) of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland. Two papers of 1889 and 1890, presented to this society, dealt with forestry in Ireland, and are regarded as being among the earliest authoritative recommendations on the subject. Bailey, drawing on his knowledge of land law and of conditions in other European countries, made several suggestions designed to increase the amount of forested land and to stimulate forestry-based employment. In 1907 he was appointed a member of a departmental commission to enquire into forestry; its report in 1908 contained recommendations that cleared the way for the beginning of state forestry in Ireland. However, it was Bailey's own earlier suggestion, that the land commission should seek powers to enable it to acquire land to be planted with trees, which led eventually to a similar arrangement introduced in the 1928 Forestry Act passed in the dáil, and thus to large-scale re-afforestation schemes of the 1930s and later.
Bailey was elected MRIA (1904) and was a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. His publications included The law and practice relating to franchise and registration in Ireland (1885), Fiscal relations of the United Kingdom and Ireland (1886), Local and centralised government in Ireland (1888), Ireland since the famine (1903), and The Irish land acts (1917). He contributed articles to a variety of periodicals and edited several books of classic English poetry for use in schools. He was created CB (1906) and appointed to the Irish privy council (1909), one of the highest honours in the Irish establishment of the day.
A prominent figure in the social and cultural life of Dublin, and a notable host, he supported the Irish literary revival and was a patron and trustee of the Abbey Theatre, vice-president of the National Literary Society, and a governor of the National Gallery. He travelled widely and gave public lectures to various societies on his experiences; he was in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, the very day on which Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated. A book that he subsequently wrote, The Slavs of the war zone (1916), was one of his most successful. Bailey was one of the early golfing enthusiasts in Ireland and was the first president of the Castle Golf Club, Rathfarnham, Co. Dublin. He was also a keen photographer and cyclist, and in 1913 survived a motorcar crash in Scotland, in which the driver, a friend, was killed.
Bailey died 16 April 1917 at his home, 3 Earlsfort Terrace, Dublin; he had been ill for a short time. His friend George Moore (qv), not always a reliable source, remarked in an early version of A story-teller's holiday (1918) that Bailey died of a gunshot wound. If this was the case, the matter was hushed up; Dublin newspapers do not mention it in obituaries or report an inquest, and the cause of death on the death certificate is given as a lung abscess and haemorrhage. In a later edition of Moore's book, there is no mention of a gunshot.
In February 1904 it was announced that Commissioner Bailey and the Hon. Mary Massey (b. 1878), eldest daughter of Lionel Massey, 5th baron Clarina, were engaged to be married, but the marriage appears not to have taken place. In 1913 Mary Massey was associated with Louie Bennett (qv) and Julia Spring-Rice in the Irish Women's Franchise League, lobbying for women's suffrage. Bailey's will, disposing of an estate valued at over £18,000, made no mention of a wife, but did include a legacy of £250 to a Mrs Louisa Bapty, widow of Walter Bapty (d. 1915), for many years vicar choral in St Patrick's cathedral and alluded to by James Joyce (qv) in Ulysses, quoting a scurrilous Dublin rhyme which claimed that Bapty lost his voice when a furious cuckolded husband tried to throttle him.