Barrington, Sir Jonah (1756/7–1834), memoirist, judge, and MP, was born at Knapton, near Abbeyleix, Queen's Co. (Laois), third son among sixteen children of John Barrington, country gentleman, and his wife Sibella, daughter of Patrick French of Peterswell, Co. Galway. He spent his first nine years with his grandfather Col. Jonah Barrington (c.1698–1784) of Cullenaghmore, Queen's Co., MP for Ballynakill (1747–60) and militia colonel, where he received a rudimentary education. Moving to Dublin, he attended Dr Ball's school at Ship St. before entering TCD (8 July 1773), but appears to have left without a degree. An enthusiastic Volunteer (as were his father and brother) in the late 1770s, he was offered a regular army commission but declined on learning that the regiment might soon see active service in America. He also considered becoming a clergyman, but decided he had no wish to be ‘half-starved’ and recognised that he would find it difficult enough to manage his own morals without having to guide others. He finally settled on law, was admitted to King's Inns (1782) and the Middle Temple (1783), and was called to the Irish bar (1787). After his marriage (June 1789) to Catherine, daughter of Edward Grogan, a wealthy silk merchant, he became a leading figure on the Dublin social scene, residing at 14 Harcourt St. until 1793 and afterwards at 42 Merrion Square, Dublin. A notorious duellist, he was renowned as a crack shot who could repeatedly hit ‘the mark upon the ace of spades at twelve paces distance; he has frequently fought and never missed his man. In Ireland it is considered not fair to fight him’ (McDougal, 223).
He became MP for Tuam, Co. Galway (1790–97), purchasing the seat, and also for Clogher, Co. Tyrone (1798–1800). He admired the whigs, but – recognising that they were generally more able than government MPs – he realised that it would be easier to make a name for himself by supporting the government. From the start he was willing to take on opposition stalwarts such as Grattan (qv) and Curran (qv), and until the union was proposed ‘no man was more forward in support of administration; no debate passed in the commons in which he did not bear a part’ (Johnston, iii, 136). His support was rewarded in 1793 with a revenue sinecure and an appointment as KC over the heads of more senior barristers. Not renowned for any distinguished legal ability, he compensated with ready tact and self-assurance, which, added to his conviviality and political reliability, ensured his advancement; in 1797 he became a judge of the Irish admiralty court and was conferred with an LLD (1798) from TCD.
Priding himself on the orthodoxy of his political and religious views – ‘Liberty I love; democracy I hate; fanaticism I denounce’ (Barrington, Personal sketches, i, p. xi) – he was strongly opposed to the growth of popular disaffection in the 1790s. In 1795, believing that the state was under threat, he joined the Aldermen of Skinner's Alley, ‘the first Orange association ever formed’, and ‘became at once, not indeed an ultra, but one on whom loyalty absorbed almost every other consideration’ (ibid., i, 247). He was a member of a Dublin Orange lodge and (from 1796) a lieutenant in the lawyers’ yeomanry cavalry corps, but he was no extremist and during the 1798 rebellion deplored the atrocities of government forces and rebels alike. On good terms with all parties, he was friendly with many opposition MPs and United Irishmen, and made strenuous efforts to save his friend Henry Sheares (qv) from execution. Mostly, however, his politics were dictated by self-advancement. His behaviour during the union debates was complex: much to the government's annoyance he voted against the measure and resigned his yeomanry commission (January 1799) in protest, but he secretly acted for the government in persuading a fellow MP to support it, and he damaged the anti-union cause by revealing negotiations between anti-unionists and catholics during a commons debate. He claimed that he refused an offer of the Irish solicitor generalship to change sides, but evidence suggests that he applied for the post in September 1799 and was refused. He managed these changes of tack without the least embarrassment: a contemporary critic noted that he has ‘the same notion of blushing that a blind man has of colours’ (McDougal, 223). Because Clogher was regarded as a government seat, he was persuaded by government to resign from parliament on 14 January 1800, before the decisive vote of 6 February. Hoping to make the most of his public opposition to the union he stood for Dublin city (1802), but was soundly defeated.
Extravagant and often in debt, he frequently applied to the government for increased remuneration. This was not forthcoming, but he was knighted in 1807, possibly as a consolation. As his debts mounted, he misappropriated court fees on several occasions between 1805 and 1810. Many stories were told of his duplicity in financial matters. After pawning his family plate for a considerable sum with John Stevenson, a Dublin pawnbroker, Barrington was due to entertain the lord lieutenant and lord chancellor, and asked Stevenson to join them and bring the plate, which he was to take back at the end of the night. During the dinner he plied the pawnbroker with drink until he fell into a deep sleep, and when he awoke Barrington had absconded with the plate. To escape his creditors he emigrated to England around 1810, although he was allowed to keep his position and salary as an admiralty judge by appointing a deputy.
In 1809 he published the first volume of his Historic memoirs of Ireland, a second volume followed in 1832. He claimed that it was written primarily to expose the corruption employed in passing the act of union, but others alleged that he published only after his efforts to blackmail the government had failed. It was afterwards reissued as The rise and fall of the Irish nation (1833). In 1827 he published the first two volumes of Personal sketches of his own time, a series of amusing anecdotes and character sketches; a third volume appeared in 1833. His writings, though not always reliable, are highly entertaining and give a vivid picture of the political intrigue, larger-than-life characters, and boisterous social life of Georgian Ireland.
Moving to France with his family in late 1814, he was resident in Paris during Napoleon's return and wrote a vivid account of the ‘hundred days’ in his Personal sketches. After an investigative commission (1828) discovered his peculations, Barrington went to London to plead his innocence. He failed to convince the commissioners and in 1830 he was removed from the bench by parliamentary petition – the only judge ever to suffer this sanction. He returned to France and died 8 April 1834 at Versailles.
From his marriage he had a son – Edward (b. c.1796), a lieutenant in the 5th Dragoon Guards, who served in Spain (1812–14) – and five daughters.