Barry, Michael Joseph (1817–89), Young Irelander, poet, and journalist, was born 26 March 1817 in Blackrock, Cork city, eldest among five children of Michael Joseph Barry, a catholic merchant, and his wife Anne (née England). John England (qv), catholic bishop of Charleston, USA (1820–42), was an uncle. He was educated at Carlow College, entered King's Inns (1834) and Gray's Inn (1837), and was called to the Irish bar (1839) while living at 8 Lr Dominick St., Dublin. In 1840 he and William Keogh (qv) published a legal textbook, Treatise on the practice of the high court of chancery in Ireland. Although he practised law sporadically during the 1840s, he was more interested in literature, and in 1842–3 contributed a series of humorous poems, ‘The Kishogue papers’, to the Dublin University Magazine, then edited by Charles Lever (qv), who introduced him to his literary friends. Closely involved with the College Historical Society at TCD, Barry and fellow Corkman Denny Lane (qv) became friends of Thomas Davis (qv). From October 1842 Barry's nationalist verse and love songs became a regular feature of the Nation, appearing under various pseudonyms such as ‘B’, ‘M.J.B.’, ‘Beta’, and ‘Brutus’. He excelled in writing martial ballads such as ‘The green flag’, ‘Bide your time’, and ‘Step together’, the last of which became a popular marching song of the Irish Volunteers.
Along with a large group of other barristers Barry joined the Repeal Association of Daniel O'Connell (qv) in summer 1843 after a number of JPs were dismissed for attending repeal meetings. He became an active member of the association and of the elite '82 club, and maintained that the association should concentrate on achieving repeal rather than seeking concessions from Westminster. He strongly opposed proposals for a federal assembly for Ireland, and in October 1844 threatened to resign from the association if it moved in this direction. In the debate in May 1845 on the new university colleges proposed by Sir Robert Peel (qv), Barry welcomed the prospect that protestants and catholics would be educated together, and his forthright speech contributed to the open breach between O'Connell and the Young Irelanders on the education issue.
In 1845 Barry won the £100 first prize in a Repeal Association essay competition with Ireland as she was, as she is, and as she shall be (1845), which strongly argued that the union had been a failure and that an independent Irish parliament would benefit Ireland and the British empire generally. Davis, though, found his political writings excessively didactic and in July 1845 advised Lane to ‘keep Barry to his songs. He writes them incomparably better than any else in Ireland’ (Duffy, Davis, 336). After Davis's death in September 1845, Barry took over responsibility for compiling Songs of Ireland (1845) for the Nation’s Library of Ireland series. It proved to be one of the Library's most successful publications, going through four editions by 1849. Barry was also commissioned to write a military history of the 1798 rebellion for the Library of Ireland, but never completed it.
According to C. G. Duffy (qv), Barry was ‘slight, agile, undersized, prompt of utterance, but never impatient or importunate if anticipated’ (Duffy, Four years, 434). He was ‘the most practical and persuasive’ of the Young Ireland orators, but his speeches and personality lacked spontaneity: an unfriendly critic noted that ‘his intellect resembled a music box; whatever it was capable of producing lay within arbitrary limits, and was relieved or varied by no spontaneous gushes of unexpected music’ (Duffy, Young Ireland, 484, 257). His reputation as a wit was somewhat tarnished by the fact that many friends believed that he studiously rehearsed his bons mots. Duffy maintained that Barry's opinions carried little weight among the leading Young Irelanders.
Barry was part of the legal team that defended Gavan Duffy on charges of sedition in June 1846. That month his charges that O'Connell was willing to trade repeal for an alliance with the whigs led O'Connell to dismiss him and his fellow critics as ‘juvenile orators’ (Duffy, Four years, 166), a spat that presaged the final break between O'Connell and Young Ireland over the issue of physical force in July 1846. Barry was a founding member of the Young Ireland Irish Confederation in Dublin in January 1847, and was appointed to its parliamentary committee and committee of public instruction. He delayed founding a confederate club in Cork to keep open the prospect of a reconciliation with local O'Connellites, and in August 1847 helped to elect the repealer William T. Fagan (1801–59) for Cork city. However, he was sceptical of the sincerity of O'Connellite efforts to heal the split, and with colleagues such as Lane founded the Desmond club in Cork in September 1847. He was one of its leading members and most forceful speakers and, encouraged by the French revolution of February 1848, proposed that the club should arm in defence of Ireland's rights. As the political situation became more polarised in 1848, Barry agreed with John Mitchel (qv) that constitutional action was futile, but feared the anarchy that might result from the abandonment of legality and strongly opposed Mitchel's proposals in the Confederation for a national rent and rates strike.
Barry and Charles D. Murphy (d. 1849) had taken over the Southern Reporter in Cork in 1847, and the paper denounced as inadequate the whig government's famine-relief policies and welcomed the overthrow of the French monarchy in February 1848. Barry was in Cork while his Young Ireland comrades attempted an uprising in Tipperary and Kilkenny in late July 1848. He was arrested in his father's house in Blackrock on 2 August and held in Cork county jail. Released after some weeks, he concluded from the lack of popular support for rebellion that the cause of Irish independence was lost and that Ireland must make the best of the union, a view he expounded in the Southern Reporter. As one of the few leading Young Irelanders to give up the party's aims, his change of opinion bitterly disappointed many nationalist friends.
He continued to edit the Southern Reporter until 1855 and wrote verse for it, some of which was later published as Echoes from Parnassus (1849) and A Waterloo commemoration (1854); he also wrote A grammar of eloquence (1849), a guide book for orators. An enthusiastic supporter of the Crimean war (1854–6), he assisted in the organisation of the Great National Banquet for Crimean veterans in Dublin in October 1856, and published Lays of the war (1856), a series of rousing ballads on the conflict. He published several pamphlets including The pope and the Romagna (1860) which defended the temporal power of the papacy, and Irish emigration considered (1863) which argued that mass emigration was good both for Ireland and the host countries. He was an early contributor to Punch and wrote several leader articles for The Times.
In about 1863 he emigrated to the USA with his wife Johanna (née Conway), but returned in 1867 and set up a legal practice at 18 Lower Mount St., Dublin. This does not appear to have been successful and in December 1871 he accepted the position of divisional police magistrate for Dublin, a decision that was fiercely criticised in the Nation. After his retirement in 1872, Barry continued to write and travelled on the Continent, living for a time in Paris and Heidelberg with his wife and stepdaughter. On the death of his wife he returned to Cork, and died 23 January 1889 in his home at 109 George's St.