Barré, Isaac (1726–1802), politician and soldier, was born 15 October 1726 in Dublin, son of Peter Barré (d. 1776), merchant, and Marie Madelaine Barré (née Raboteau), both huguenot refugees from La Rochelle. His father arrived in Dublin c.1720 and prospered, becoming high sheriff of Dublin (1756), alderman of Dublin corporation (1758), and a governor of the Dublin Society. Isaac entered TCD as a pensioner 19 November 1740 and graduated BA (1745). Defying his parents' wish that he practise law, he was commissioned ensign in the 32nd Foot (1746). Over the next ten years he served in Flanders, Gibraltar, and Scotland, but lacking connections he was promoted lieutenant only in October 1755. However, during the attack on Rochefort (1757) Gen. James Wolfe recognised his ability, and on Wolfe's expedition to North America (1758–9) Barré was promoted to captain (1758) and major (1759). In the daring seizure of the French stronghold of Quebec in September 1759, Barré received a musket ball in the face, which severely damaged his left eye and remained lodged in his cheek. He witnessed Wolfe's death, and appears in Benjamin West's famous painting of the scene. Entrusted with despatches, he returned to England in September 1760, and became lieutenant-colonel of the 106th Foot (1761).
At Rochefort Barré impressed his future patron, Dublin-born William Petty (qv), who on becoming earl of Shelburne in 1761 offered Barré his vacant seat in the British house of commons. After he returned from inspecting Shelburne's Irish estates, Barré accepted and represented Chipping Wycombe (1761–4) and later Calne (1774–90), becoming Shelburne's chief spokesman in the commons and a close friend. His maiden speech was a fierce attack on Pitt, and the house was outraged that ‘Shelburne should dare to turn loose an Irish ruffian’ (Hist. parl., 51) on a statesman of Pitt's stature. It would not be the last time that his virulent abuse would shock the house: he attacked the late king George II for subordinating British to Hanoverian interests (1762), implicitly accused Lord North of treachery (1779), and in 1782 described North's actions as ‘scandalous, indecent and insulting’ (ibid.).
In April 1763 Lord Bute appointed him governor of Stirling castle, but in November he was dismissed from all his military positions for supporting Wilkes. By 1764 he and Pitt were reconciled, and in 1765 he refused several offers to join the Rockingham administration. When Pitt came to power in 1766 he restored Barré's military rank and made him a privy councillor (10 September) and joint vice-treasurer of Ireland (1766–8). As vice-treasurer Barré reported to Shelburne on Irish affairs until the ministry's collapse in October 1768.
For the next fourteen years he was a leading opposition spokesman, his robust build, strong Irish accent, and scarred face contributing to his formidable presence. Much feared by the government, he continued to support Wilkes and to dog the North administration on America and India, and was a leading opponent of the Quebec act (1774), which granted religious and civil rights to Canadian catholics. His condemnations of ministerial corruption and incompetence were so scathing that many (wrongly) believed him to be the author of the anti-government Junius letters. He regularly championed the American colonists and in 1769 his efforts against the stamp act were commemorated by the naming of the town Wilkes-Barré in Pennsylvania. On 3 December 1777 it was Barré's incisive probings that elicited news of Burgoygne's defeat at Saratoga from the government benches. Dublin corporation made him an honorary freeman in 1776. However, his fiery opposition earned him the bitter enmity of George III, who disliked Barré and Wilkes equally, and blocked his further military promotion; Barré retired from the army in February 1773.
In parliament he was a rather theatrical orator, with a habit of quoting Latin and French which he would then translate for the benefit of other members; it was alleged that Garrick offered him £1,000 a year to join his company. His speeches were not noted for constitutional knowledge or intellectual depth, but he was an excellent raconteur with a shrewd grasp of parliamentary procedure, and his declamatory and bantering style could be very effective. William Hazlitt and Jeremy Bentham both admired his eloquence and wit, and Hazlitt admitted to borrowing his sarcasms. Barré was often compared to Edmund Burke (qv): both were Irish, owed their positions to powerful patrons (Henry Dundas once taunted Barré as Shelburne's pensioner), and were renowned orators. Barré admired Burke greatly, but from 1782 he quarrelled increasingly with him, reflecting the growing rivalry between Rockingham and Shelburne.
He became treasurer of the navy (April–July 1782) in the short-lived Rockingham administration, and when Shelburne became prime minister he appointed Barré paymaster general (July 1782–April 1783) in place of Burke until the accession of the Fox–North coalition. From autumn 1782 Barré was troubled by recurrent attacks of blindness caused by his eye wound. In January 1784 he accepted the sinecure of clerk of the pells, worth £3,200 a year, in lieu of his pension, and stoutly defended it as compensation for the military positions he had lost in 1763. He voted for parliamentary reform in 1785, and in 1786 his powerful speech helped scupper the government's plans for additional naval fortifications. However, he supported Pitt the younger during the regency crisis (1788–9), and fell out with Shelburne over the latter's support for the French revolution; he did not stand for election in 1790. Like his old adversary Lord North he became completely blind in old age; during a chance meeting North once observed to him: ‘Whatever may have been our former animosities, I am persuaded that there are no two men who would now be more glad to see one another than you and I’ (Fitzmaurice, ii, 287). Barré died 20 July 1802 at his house in Stranhope St., London. He never married. His portrait, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, hangs at Bayham Abbey, Lamberhurst, Kent.