Ferrar, John (1742–1804), printer and historian, was born in 1742 in Limerick city, the only son of William Ferrar (sometimes spelt Farrier), bookbinder and printer, and Rose Ferrar (née Paine or Payne). The first member of this family to settle in Limerick was William Ferrar, a cavalry officer in the Williamite army, who married Marie Lloyd from Co. Limerick c.1691. His son William Ferrar (b. c.1700) set up a printing, bookbinding and papermaking business in the city. The English branch of the Ferrar family, from Little Gidding in Huntingdonshire, were well known for their bookbinding skills in the mid-seventeenth century, and it is possible that some of these skills were passed on to the Irish family members. John Ferrar was trained as a printer and bookseller and took over the business after the death of his father (c.1753). It is only from the 1760s that his publishing career seemed to gain momentum. In 1765 he authored and published a collection of poems, and in 1767 wrote a small quarto volume, An history of the city of Limerick, which is the earliest printed history of the city. He launched the Limerick Chronicle in 1768 and the Limerick directory in 1769. Though not the oldest newspaper in Limerick, the Chronicle stands out as one of the longest running provincial newspapers in Ireland. Similarly Ferrar could boast that his directory, which lists all the officeholders, trades, and services in the city, was ‘the only one of the kind ever printed here [in Ireland]’. His business moved from near the exchange to Quay Lane c.1769, and during the 1770s he published a steady stream of books ranging from The memoirs and adventures of Robert Kirk (1774) to Rational self love, or a philosophical and moral essay (1770). A catalogue of his wares in 1774 lists 214 plays for sale at sixpence each. As well as writing, laying out print blocks, and taking advertisements over the counter, he also sold insurance and patent medicine. In 1781 the Limerick Chronicle was taken over by his son-in-law, Andrew Watson, and he appears to have sold his printing business on Quay Lane in 1785. Ferrar seems to have continued as an insurance agent in Limerick and at St Mary's Mall, Cork, and devoted more time to writing.
In 1787 he wrote The history of Limerick: ecclesiastical, civil and military, published by Andrew Watson. Ferrar greatly expanded on his earlier work and included fifteen engravings, a fine map of the city, and an essay on the spa at Castleconnell. Desirous to promote the manufactures of Ireland, he ensured that the paper used for almost all copies of his book was made in Dublin, and obtained at least 350 advance subscriptions. In the late 1790s he retired to Dublin and this induced a final burst of activity with A tour from Dublin to London in 1795 (1796) and A view of ancient and modern Dublin (1796), with an additional essay on the La Touche house and demesne at Bellevue. The latter work is dedicated to Mrs Peter La Touche ‘in grateful remembrance of her regard for poor children’. Ferrar was also committed to improving the welfare and schooling of destitute children. In 1793 he was instrumental in establishing by private subscription a school in Limerick for fifty boys and fifty girls. He made a tour of all fifty-four schools in Dublin and made recommendations on how the living conditions of the children might be improved. His full account was published in The prosperity of Ireland displayed in the state of the fifty four charity schools in Dublin containing 7,416 children (1796) and he petitioned the government to introduce a bill for erecting parochial free schools across the whole of Ireland.
Ferrar was one the more significant provincial book and newspaper publishers in Ireland during the 1760s and 1770s and an important historian of Limerick. Maurice Lenihan (qv), who wrote a longer account of the city in 1866, was very disparaging about Ferrar: ‘of the grand and salient features of the history he gave but little’ (Limerick: its history and antiquities, p. viii). Lenihan also suggests that Ferrar glossed over the ‘heroism’ of the defenders during the siege of Limerick and omitted much that ‘did not suit the time and his patrons’. Ferrar was in fact a very sensitive recorder of history and was particularly anxious not to offend the catholic and dissenting citizens of Limerick. In his preface to the 1789 edition of The history of Limerick he stated that his intention was to ‘lessen the little jealousies which have divided men living on the same land’, as he believed that ‘toleration is the basis of all public peace’. When he made a case for more charity schools in 1796 he insisted that the ‘poor children of every religious persuasion are admitted’ and that ‘all books of religious controversy are excluded’. After 1798 he may, like other protestants, have become less optimistic about the future and in a curious pamphlet by ‘John Ferrar’, addressed to the fifty district commissions of the city of Dublin, he praises the authorities for putting down the rebellion of 1803. In his memoirs the actor John O'Keefe commended Ferrar for his ‘excellent history of Limerick’ and described him as ‘very deaf, yet had a cheerful animated countenance; thin, and of the middle size’ (Recollections of the life of John O'Keefe, i, 244). He had at least one daughter (who married the printer Andrew Watson) and at least one son, called William. John Ferrar probably died in 1804 in Dublin. It was probably a direct relative or namesake who sold books in Dublin c.1815.