Barber (Barbor), Mary (c.1685–1755), poet, was probably born in Ireland. The facts of her life are uncertain and little is known of her apart from references in the writings of her contemporaries. She married Rupert Barber, a woollen-draper of Werburgh St., Dublin. She began writing poetry ‘to form the minds of my children’ (Barber, xvii) but responding to the distress of an officer's widow and her blind child, she wrote ‘The widow Gordon's petition’ (1724) and elicited the aid of Lady Carteret, wife of the lord lieutenant, who became her patron. Introduced to Patrick Delany (qv) and later to Jonathan Swift (qv), she became their friend and protégée and they corrected her verse.
She became a member of Swift's ‘female senate’, which included Laetitia Pilkington (qv) and Constantia Grierson (qv); known as ‘Sapphira’, Barber was considered by Swift to be the most gifted of the group. Though she claimed ‘that a woman steps out of her province whenever she presumes to write for the press’ (Barber, xvii), she decided to publish her poetry. In 1730 encouraged by Swift and laden with introductions to his aristocratic and literary friends, including John Gay (1685–1732) and Alexander Pope (1684–1744), she travelled to England seeking subscribers for the publication of her poetry. By asking Pope to correct her poetry, she irritated Swift, who believed there was ‘a great combat between her modesty and her ambition’ (Swift, iii, 479). She visited London, Tunbridge Wells (where she published poems anonymously in Tunbrigialia (1730)), and Bath, where she planned to settle, though plans for her husband to transfer his business there were never realised. She moved in fashionable society and met Mary Pendarves (Delany) (qv) who became her lifelong friend, and who is often mentioned in Barber's correspondence.
In 1731 Barber was implicated in a public scandal when three letters to Queen Caroline on the distresses of Ireland were published, supposedly by Swift (the first over Swift's forged signature). These referred to Mrs Barber as ‘the best female poet of this or perhaps any age’ (Swift, v, 259). This was possibly an ill-judged attempt by Barber to gain the queen's support. Delany exonerated her, and Swift either discounted her role in the affair or forgave her.
In 1733, returning to London from Dublin, she conveyed six of Swift's poems to Matthew Pilkington (qv) to arrange for their publication. On Pilkington's testimony, she was arrested (January 1734) for her role in the publication of Swift's supposedly subversive Epistle to a lady (November 1733). Imprisoned for nearly two weeks, she was released on bail, subject to her regular appearance at the court of king's bench. Her trial was twice postponed before the serious criminal charge of sedition was dropped (27 May 1735). Barber apparently did not communicate her troubles even to Swift's close friends.
Swift and Pope worked assiduously on her behalf, and after much delay Poems on several occasions was published in 1735 (despite its imprint of 1734) in a handsome quarto edition, priced at one guinea (£1.05), with 918 subscribers: a list of unprecedented length for that period. It included the prime minister, Robert Walpole (1676–1745), and many members of the literary and social elite. A separate edition in octavo was issued in 1735, and the remaining subscription copies were reissued (1736) with a new title page by Samuel Richardson (1689–1761).
In the vanguard of writings by women authors published by subscription, it was dedicated to John Boyle, Lord Orrery (qv), and included a preface by Barber and a commendatory letter by Swift: he wrote of her wit, good sense, and humility, and praised her poems for containing something new and useful – the reproof of some vice, the recommendation of some virtue. Her poems were well received in England and Ireland. Swift described her as ‘the best poetess of both kingdoms’ (Swift, iv, 186) and wrote to Alexander Pope that ‘for a woman’ she ‘had a sort of genius’ (ibid., iii, 479). Not all her contemporaries or later critics would agree: Laetitia Pilkington found Barber's poems dull, though improved by the corrections of Delany's so-called senatus consultum. Barber's collection included poems by her friends and her son Con.
Unpretentious, often amusing and self-mocking, her poems reflect her responses to everyday life and to her experiences of motherhood, and are frequently addressed to her many friends and patrons. This did not deter her from attacking the hypocrisy of the rich, as in ‘An unanswerable apology for the rich’. Several of her poems appeared – usually anonymously – in miscellanies and magazines, including the Gentleman's Magazine. A selection was included in Poems by eminent ladies (1755) and Bernard Tucker edited The poetry of Mary Barber, 1690–1757 (1992). A bibliography of her work is given in Elias (1998), 265–6.
She published her poems partly to raise money, but despite the number of illustrious subscribers, the manner in which subscriptions were solicited and the circumstances of the eighteenth-century book trade suggest that the anticipated proceeds from her Poems were never realised. Suffering from gout, she was unable to support her family (she had planned to let lodgings or sell Irish linen), and with her husband unwell and possibly unemployed, in 1736 she requested and received from Swift the proceeds from the London publication of his manuscript ‘A complete collection of genteel and ingenious conversation’ (since better known as Polite conversation). He was always willing to help her and bequeathed her a gold medal he had been given by Queen Anne.
She returned to Dublin and by 1744 was living in Glasnevin, near the home of the Delanys, but not in the happiest circumstances: Mary Delany caustically referred to her husband who ‘drinks his claret, smokes his pipe, and cares not a pin for his family, who if they had not met with better friends than himself, might have starved’ (Delany, iii, 327–8). Barber suffered from a ‘disturbed mind’ (Delany, iii, 220–21) and constant and debilitating gout and was cared for by her son, Con. She died 14 June 1755 in Dublin, predeceasing her husband; they had at least nine children, though only three sons and one daughter survived to adulthood.
Constantine Barber (c.1712–83), her eldest surviving son, entered TCD (1729) and graduated BA (1734), MB and MD (1742) from Dublin University, where he served as the king's professor of materia medica and pharmacy (1749–83). He was elected fellow (1747), president (1754, 1764, 1769), and hon. fellow (1782) of the RCPI. He died 13 March 1783. Her younger son, Rupert Barber (qv), a miniature painter and engraver, married a niece of Patrick Delany.