Sirr, Henry Charles (1764–1841), town-major of Dublin, was born 25 November 1764, possibly in Dublin castle, as his father, Joseph Sirr (1715–99), was then town major and housed there. His mother was Elizabeth Hall (1730?–1790) from Skelton Castle in Cleveland, Yorkshire. Joseph Sirr, son of a silk merchant, joined the Royal Regiment aged about 15, was promoted to lieutenant (1734), made equerry to the prince of Wales, and joined the 18th Royal Regiment of Ireland as ensign (1742). Promoted to lieutenant (1745), he exchanged into the 10th Foot (1756), and became a captain in the 83rd Foot (1758). He came to Ireland in 1759 and was appointed town major of Dublin (1761–68). He also held other influential positions such as pratique master of the port, high sheriff of Co. Dublin (1770), deputy judge advocate, and inspector of the Royal Hibernian Military School. In 1773 he was junior grand warden of the Freemasons of Ireland, and in 1774 was elevated to senior warden. During the 1790s he had to resign most of these positions owing to failing eyesight. He died at his son's home in Camden St. on 10 November 1799 and was laid to rest in the Sirr–Minchin grave at St Werburgh's.
Henry was the eldest surviving son among six children, four of whom died in 1771; his sister later married the wine merchant Humphrey Charles Minchin (1750–1830). He attended Oswald's school at Dapping's Lane, and on 4 April 1778 joined the 68th Regiment of Foot, becoming ensign on 6 June, and lieutenant on 8 March 1780. After a posting in Munster, when he probably learned Irish (which was to prove very useful in his later career), his regiment was sent to lift the siege of Gibraltar in 1782. He became ADC to Gen. George Eliott, a brother of his paternal aunt's husband. He may have met Lord Edward FitzGerald (qv) on his visit to the Rock in May 1787. On 21 July 1784 he was elevated to the degree of master mason in Lodge 441 in the 38th Regiment of Foot at Stafford, and in 1790 helped establish a lodge in his own regiment. In 1791 his regiment left Gibraltar, and he resigned his commission with the rank of captain in 1792. He became a wholesale wine merchant and in 1797 was trading from his residence at 35 French St. (latterly Upper Mercer St.), Dublin.
His life as a respectable merchant was transformed by the rise in political agitation. In 1793 he filled the vacancy of James Napper Tandy (qv) on Dublin corporation, having been nominated by the Holy Trinity guild of merchants. For several years he represented the guild on the common council. Late in 1796, with the threat of a French invasion growing, he joined a yeomanry corps, the Stephen's Green Light Infantry, and shortly after became its adjutant. On 4 January 1797 he formed a defensive association in his neighbourhood, the ‘French Street Association’, with Minchin and his father. In November 1796 he became deputy town major of the garrison of Dublin, in effect the capital's chief of police, and in 1797 moved his family to 77 Dame St., opposite Dublin castle. He joined the Orange Order in 1798, forging important connections among prominent members of the grand lodge of Ireland, established in Dublin that year. For the next eight years he was forced to move his family no less than six times, possibly due to personal danger. Eventually he was given an official lodging inside the Palace St. gate of Dublin castle.
Running his network of informers and spies from his office in Exchange Alley, Sirr built up an unrivalled knowledge of Dublin radicals. He personally arrested many rebel leaders and came to embody the repression of radicalism. On 12 March 1798 he led the devastating swoop on a United Irish meeting at the house of Oliver Bond (qv), arresting sixteen leaders of the Leinster directory and seizing their papers. The hiding place of the only remaining leader at large, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, was finally discovered and raided on 19 May by Sirr, Maj. William Swan (qv), and Capt. Daniel Ryan (qv), all Dublin Orangemen. During a fierce struggle Sirr shot Fitzgerald in the arm as he wielded a dagger, inflicting the wound which eventually killed him. Moving swiftly he searched the home of William Lawless (qv) on 21 May, arresting John (qv) and Henry Sheares (qv). He passed on to the Castle a rebel proclamation in John Sheares's hand, which convinced the authorities that a rising was imminent. During the rebellion Sirr remained in Dublin, searching incessantly for rebels and arms, and arresting many suspects. His actions contributed significantly to the complete failure of the rebellion in Dublin, and on 10 November 1798 the king granted him the rank of major in the dragoons. On that occasion, Lord Castlereagh (qv) assured William Wickham (qv) that the king had ‘not a more faithful officer than Major Sirr in his service’, as the government had employed him ‘on every occasion which called for great personal exertions, discretions and courage’, exposing himself to ‘very imminent danger’ (quoted in Hammond, i, 24). However, on 14 July 1800 Sirr was obliged to petition the government for compensation for services rendered during the rebellion, and that November suffered the humiliation of seeing his bid for a deputy judge advocacy refused. Further reverses were to follow.
On 8 September 1801 he confronted and arrested John Hevey, a brewer and tobacconist in Dublin, who on his release issued a writ against the major for assault, battery, and false imprisonment, suing for £5,000. In 1798 Hevey, then a yeoman, had undermined evidence provided by Sirr against an insurgent. The case of Hevey v. Sirr was heard before Lord Kilwarden (qv) on 17 May 1802 and roused much public interest. The plaintiff was defended by John Philpot Curran (qv), Jonah Barrington (qv), and Leonard MacNally (qv), and Sirr's heavy-handed methods in 1798 were exposed, it being even alleged that he had taken from MacNally a silver cup inscribed ‘Erin go Bragh’. The jury found in Hevey's favour, and awarded costs of £150 against Sirr, which the Castle met. Sirr's reverse was celebrated in Dublin with bonfires and the unauthorised ringing of the bells of St Bride's, a testimony of his unpopularity. Seeking to reestablish his reputation, he concentrated his activities on capturing Michael Dwyer (qv) in Wicklow, and was only ever seen in public at the head of a troop of horsemen.
Though the authorities were disbelieving about the possibility of a rising in 1803, Sirr had engaged his staff in a flurry of activity as early as June. Part of his growing legend was that he could appear in two places at the same time, and R. R. Madden (qv) even referred to him as ‘the Irish Fouché’. His most celebrated achievement was masterminding the complex pursuit of Robert Emmet (qv) after the failed insurrection of 23 July 1803. On 25 August he raided the home of Ann ‘Biddy’ Palmer at Harold's Cross, and overpowered and arrested Emmet. Sirr was then sent to raid the home of John Philpot Curran on 9 September, in the hope of finding incriminating correspondence between his daughter Sarah (qv) and Emmet. He stormed into her bedroom, causing her distress and considerable embarrassment to Dublin Castle, as her father was not at home. Her sister Amelia (qv) burned most of the letters before Sirr's officers stopped her, though Sirr's son Joseph D'Arcy would later claim that ‘out of respect for the feelings of all parties concerned, the correspondence of the unhappy lovers was consigned to the flames’ by his father (IBL, ii (1910), 11). That night, flanked by Minchin and a yeoman, Sirr arrested Emmet's co-conspirator Thomas Russell (qv) at 28 Parliament St.
In 1807 Sirr helped draw up a petition from the Orange lodge in Dublin opposing a whig proposal that catholics be admitted to senior army posts. In 1808 he was appointed assistant magistrate to the new Dublin police, in effect its nominal chief. Though he retained his title as town major, most of the privileges of that office were transferred to the military office of brigade major. Porter, a fellow police magistrate, recalled how Dublin folklore of the early 1800s was rich with anecdotes of the hatred felt for ‘the Major’, and concluded that Sirr had been overzealous and unwilling to delegate to subordinates. Strong criticism of his methods was voiced during the 1823 Irish police debate in the commons, but Sir Robert Peel (qv) defended him as ‘unswervingly loyal, religious, and humane’ (Hammond (1942), 64).
Sirr was in the habit of retaining papers and personal items seized during his many raids and was also an inveterate collector of fossils, shells, coins, ancient Irish artefacts, and paintings. He joined the Dublin Society in 1808. He espoused the age's evangelism, and was close to the methodist sect of the wealthy La Touches, serving on the committee of the Hibernian Bible Society; he was also involved with the Mendicity Institute and the Association for Discountenancing Vice. In 1818 he helped found the Irish Society for Promoting Scriptural Education in the Irish Language, and through this connection became a friend of Archbishop Power Le Poer Trench (qv). For his religious zeal, and his role in repressing the rebellion, he was mercilessly lampooned in Cox's Irish Magazine throughout 1810, particularly for his habit of preaching to Dublin hackney carriage drivers. He retired as town major in 1826 on full pay, and was allowed to retain his house in Dublin castle; he also had a residence at Elm Park, Cullenswood, Ranelagh.
Despite his reputation as an agent of repression, Sirr held liberal political views. He admired Daniel O'Connell (qv), supported parliamentary reform, and in 1831 he spoke out at reform meetings and ‘moved resolutions of the most liberal tendency’ (Porter, 55). In later years he was less active in masonic affairs but frequented a club connected to the Benevolent Society of the Friendly Brothers of Saint Patrick. He died 7 January 1841 in his rooms in Dublin castle and was buried in St Werburgh's churchyard. He married (16 August 1792) Elizabeth D'Arcy, of Hydepark, Killucan, Co. Westmeath, in St Mary's church, Dublin; they had two sons and two daughters. An engraved portrait of Sirr by John Martyn (d. 1828) is in the NLI.
The task of disposing of his considerable collections was undertaken by his eldest son, Joseph D'Arcy Sirr (1794–1868), clergyman and biographer, who was born in Dublin. He entered TCD in 1808, graduating BA (1812) and MA (1823); he later received a BD and DD (1843). Made a deacon in 1818, he was ordained a priest in 1819. His first curacy was at Sutton, Winchester, after which he became rector of Kilcoleman, Co. Galway (1823), then of Claremorris, Co. Mayo (1841). He returned to England (1844) as vicar of Yoxford, Suffolk, and had three further appointments. He was elected MRIA (1829), and in 1841 catalogued his father's various collections and exhibited them in the Long Room at the Rotunda, then sold the substantial collection of ancient Irish artefacts to the RIA; these were handed over to the NMI in 1890. Unfortunately it is not clear what became of his extraordinary collection of 501 paintings, which included many Old Masters of the Italian and Dutch schools. In about 1842 he presented his father's papers to TCD. Adding to them on 5 March 1862, he wrote that what he had sent before ‘were all loose papers found by me amongst rubbish, my father having burnt as he thought all his more important documents’ (TCD MS 868/2). Many of his own papers were accidentally destroyed, making it impossible for him to complete the ‘Memoir of the Major's life and times’ he had started. As the first honorary secretary of the Society for Promoting Scriptural Education in the Irish Language, he became close to Trench, whose memoir he published in Dublin in 1845. From 1815 to 1862 he published seventeen works, all on religious subjects. These included a biographical sketch of Dr James Ussher (1815), later prefixed to his Sacrifices: past, present and future (London, 1862). He died 5 April 1868 and was buried in Morstead churchyard.
Maj. Sirr's second son, Henry Charles Sirr (1807–72), barrister, was born in Dublin castle. He graduated BA (1833) from TCD, and was admitted to Lincoln's Inn on 17 November 1836. In 1843 he was appointed British vice-consul of Hong Kong, and the same year married Penelope Mason; they later separated. He was made deputy queen's advocate for the southern circuit, Ceylon. His travels led him to write two insightful works: China and the Chinese: their religion, character, customs and manufactures (1849), which detailed the opium wars and smuggling in the Pearl river region; and Ceylon and the Cingalese: their history, government, religion, antiquities (2 vols, 1850), which was praised as an authoritative study. Jules Verne, in his novel 20,000 leagues under the sea, has a professor reading it aboard the Nautilus. Sirr was admitted a freemason to the Britannic Lodge no. 33 in 1839, and was the first representative of the Grand Lodge of Ireland at the United Grand Lodge of England in 1841. He died 23 November 1872.