Barlow, James William (1826–1913), historian and writer, was born 21 October 1826 in Co. Dublin, eldest son of the Rev. William Barlow and Catherine Barlow (née Disney). He was marked by his mother’s unhappiness: as a young woman she had been in love with William Rowan Hamilton (qv), the mathematician, but had been forced to marry her brother-in-law, William Barlow. She attempted to commit suicide in 1848 before dying prematurely in 1853.
Educated at Wakefield grammar school in Yorkshire, James Barlow began in 1842 a lifetime in TCD, becoming senior moderator and fellowship prizeman, BA (1847), junior fellow (1850), and MA (1852). Like most fellows at the time, Barlow took holy orders but came to question the orthodoxy that sinners were doomed to eternal torment. He may have been troubled by the thought that his mother was suffering such punishment for having attempted suicide and for having lost her faith. In his sermons he critiqued the doctrine of hell, describing it as a serious obstacle to the acceptance of Christianity by modern minds. After the archbishop of Dublin rebuked him in 1859 for heterodoxy, Barlow never again officiated as a clergyman. In 1865 he committed his views to print by publishing the essay Eternal punishment and eternal death, wherein he sought to demonstrate an insuperable contradiction between a just God and the existence of hell. He argued that sinners were punished by being barred from heaven and that upon their death they sink back into nothingness.
His parents’ troubled marriage and his controversial views on damnation inform the science fiction novel, History of a world of immortals without a god (1891), which he published under the pseudonym Antares Skorpios; it was republished under his real name as The immortals’ great quest (1909). The book described a society of alien immortals who practice a form of marriage in which either party can terminate the arrangement at will; because they cannot have children, there are no consequences to these divorces. Although life is easier within this less morally strict society, Barlow also shows these beings to be in a state of spiritual crisis. They are aware that they were created by a maker who appears to have abandoned them. Incapable of leaving their godless planet, their acute sense of estrangement from their creator leaves them in eternal despair.
In 1861 he became Erasmus Smith's professor of modern history, ‘the first professor of modern history for many a long year to take his duties seriously’ (McDowell & Webb, 300). His major historical work was A short history of the Normans in south Europe (1866); he wrote in 1873 that ‘in Ireland a lecture on modern history must be regarded as an incitement to a breach of the peace’ (quoted ibid., 552, n. 64). He also wrote on university issues and continued to write on philosophical questions.
He represented junior fellows on the college council (of which he was secretary for thirteen years), and boycotted the 1892 tercentenary in protest against the power of senior fellows, though he was reconciled to the system by becoming a senior fellow (1893). McDowell & Webb (op. cit., 300) comment: ‘In his old age a defender of some of the more preposterous aspects of the status quo, he seems to have antagonised at least some of his colleagues by mere perversity. . . . He was bullied mercilessly by Mahaffy [qv] and Traill [qv]’, and he cheerfully described the board of TCD to a royal commission in 1906 as ‘the most heartily and universally abused body in Ireland’ (ibid., 525–6). Barlow was bursar 1893–8, a period in which, he believed, no return on investment in Irish estates was likely; he advised a policy of strictness in dealing with college tenants. He was vice-provost from 1899 to his resignation in 1908.
Throughout his life, he was preoccupied with the nature of life after death and with evaluating human happiness and misery. In 1901 he joined the English Society for Psychical Research, subsequently becoming chairman of the society’s new Dublin section. The Dublin section was notable for being dominated by attempts to commune with the dead through séances, automatic writing and Ouija boards. He died 4 July 1913 at The Cottage, Raheny, Dublin; his last publication, Doctors at war: studies of the French medical profession circa the seventeenth century, appeared posthumously in 1914.
In 1853 he married his cousin Mary Louisa Barlow of Clontarf; their happy marriage produced four sons and three daughters, one being the novelist Jane Barlow (qv).