Barry, Spranger (1717–77), actor and theatre manager, was born in November 1717, in Skinner Row, Dublin, the second son of William Barry, a wealthy silversmith, and Catherine Barry (née Sprainger). He was educated in Dublin and apprenticed to his father's trade; with his first wife, Anne, he had two sons: Thomas and Spranger (baptised 1748). With Anne's dowry he established his own business, but when in his mid-twenties this venture ended in bankruptcy, he turned to acting. His handsome appearance and mellifluous voice – which, according to Arthur Murphy (qv), could ‘wheedle a bird off the bush’ (Clark, 82) – secured him immediate success when he made his stage debut as Othello on 15 February 1744. Around this time Dublin's two theatre companies (Aungier Street and Smock Alley) were united into a single company at Smock Alley under the management of Thomas Sheridan (qv). Barry performed there for the next two seasons, working with actors such as David Garrick, Samuel Foote, and George Anne Bellamy (qv).
After a financial dispute with Sheridan, Barry moved to Drury Lane, London, where he made a successful debut – again as Othello – on 4 October 1746. He rapidly achieved popularity with London audiences, often performing alongside Garrick, who took over the management of Drury Lane in 1747. Barry came to be regarded as Garrick's only serious rival and there was much public comparison of their performances, a debate that was exacerbated by their habit of alternating parts, including Hamlet and Macbeth. In the part of Castalio in Otway's tragedy ‘The orphan’ Barry found a role of the kind that became his forte – the young, romantic lover. His performance as Romeo in 1748 proved so popular that his relationship with Garrick became intolerably strained, and in 1750 Barry moved to Covent Garden. Their rivalry continued, however, as both houses, capitalising on the public interest in the two actors, opened the next season with productions of ‘Romeo and Juliet’; though Drury Lane, with Garrick and Bellamy, had a marginally longer run, many critics preferred Barry's performance, among them Tate Wilkinson, who considered Barry ‘the only actor for really making love I ever saw’ (Memoirs, i, 27).
By the early 1750s Anne Barry was dead, and Barry began a protracted affair with a young actress named Maria Isabella Nossiter (1735–59). Apart from a season at Smock Alley (1754–5), Barry remained at Covent Garden for the next eight years, playing parts such as Alexander in Cibber's ‘The rival queens’ and – less successfully – King Lear. In 1758 he and fellow actor Henry Woodward moved to Dublin to open a new theatre, a scheme strenuously opposed by Sheridan who, in his Humble appeal to the public (1758), argued that the city could not support two houses. Nevertheless Barry and Woodward opened the Crow Street theatre on 23 October 1758, staging ambitious and elaborate productions that mirrored Barry's own extravagant lifestyle. Among the Crow Street company was Henry Mossop (qv), an actor whose tremendous popularity involved Barry in another highly publicised stage rivalry, and Ann Dancer (1733–1801), a young English actress with whom Barry began an affair (Nossiter died in 1759). In 1760 Mossop entered into commercial competition with Barry, leasing the dormant Aungier and Smock Alley theatres. Both managements suffered substantial loss from this development, yet, despite their accumulating debts, in 1760 Barry and Woodward opened the Theatre Royal, Cork, and instituted a regular summer season at Limerick. In 1761 Barry's son Thomas made his stage debut in the new Cork theatre, and the distinguished actor Charles Macklin (qv) appeared there in the season of the following year. Despite these efforts, Barry proved an inept and financially disastrous theatre manager. An increasingly anxious Woodward terminated their partnership in 1762, and Barry finally relinquished the managerial rights of both Crow Street and the Theatre Royal to Mossop in the winter of 1767.
Barry returned to London, and played Othello with Samuel Foote's company at the King's Theatre, before being recruited by Garrick to Drury Lane in 1767. The following year Barry married Ann Dancer; their successful stage partnership enjoyed a particularly popular run in Arthur Murphy's tragedy ‘Zenobia’, in which they played Rhadamistus and Zenobia. In April of the same year Thomas Barry fell ill and died in Dublin. The Barrys continued to work at Drury Lane for several years, but their chronic unreliability frustrated Garrick and the couple moved to Covent Garden in 1774. Barry spent the remainder of his career there, his parts increasingly constrained by his age and worsening health. His final stage appearance was on 28 November 1776 as Evander in Murphy's ‘The Grecian daughter’. He died on 10 January 1777 and was buried ten days later in the north cloister of Westminster Abbey.
Regarded as a great tragedian, Barry was also known as an entertaining raconteur and generous host, who consistently lived beyond his means. Wilkinson remarked that ‘it was seldom that either creditor or enemy left Barry in an ill humour, however in other respects dissatisfied or disappointed’ (Memoirs, iii, 75–6). His portrait was painted by, among others, Joshua Reynolds (1758), and Joseph Highmore, who depicted him rehearsing Romeo.