Barrett, James (1721?–1808), catholic priest, was born probably in 1721, presumably in the diocese of Killaloe (which takes in south and central Clare and north Tipperary), and obtained a licentiate in theology from the university of Paris. From 1762 until his death he was parish priest of Ennis, Co. Clare. By 1798 he was vicar general and dean of his diocese; he was also a doctor of divinity; he declined however to be proposed as co-adjutor with right of succession to the elderly bishop, Michael Peter MacMahon (qv). Barrett presided over important catholic political meetings at Ennis in March 1795 and March 1806, but took no part in the controversy over the union bills (1799–1800). He is said to have been the author of a treatise, Harmony. More remarkably, he is also said (when aged about 80) to have adopted Harriet Smithson (qv) (1800–54), the two-year-old daughter of a local theatre manager, and ‘treated her in every respect as his own child’ (W. Oxberry). Though the girl ‘was instructed in the precepts of religion’ and ‘everything connected with the stage was carefully kept from her view’ (idem), she later became an actress and the inspiration and wife of the French musical composer Hector Berlioz. James Barrett died on 8 February 1808, aged 86, at his house in Chapel Lane, Ennis, where a memorial plaque was erected in the catholic cathedral.
Hibernian Mag., June 1795, p. 555; Irish Mag., Apr. 1808, pp 200–01; Oxberry's dramatic biography, ii (1825), 195–6; Ignatius Murphy, The diocese of Killaloe in the eighteenth century (1991), 112, 243, 251, 312–13; idem, The diocese of Killaloe, 1800–1850 (1992), 22, 323