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“The ancient odd fish of the College”

Do you remember Dr Barrett from my post about Anne Plumptre’s Narrative of a residence in Ireland? The idea for that post arose when I saw his note that the book was “too silly & too ill mannered for a public library” but when I was researching it, the more I read about Dr Barrett, the more I felt he deserved a post of his own.

From Dublin University Magazine, Sept. 1841
From Dublin University Magazine, Sept. 1841

John Barrett, known as Jacky, was born in 1753, the son of a clergyman in Ballyroan, Queen’s County (Laois). In 1770 he entered Trinity College Dublin as a pensioner; in 1773 he won a scholarship; in 1775 he graduated BA and in 1778 he became a Fellow. He was then Regius Professor of Greek and Professor of Hebrew and was elected Vice-Provost, serving from 1806-1821. In addition, he was Assistant Librarian from 1784 and College Librarian from 1791 until his death in November 1821, with two breaks. This was a very significant time for the Library: in 1786 Sir John Sebright presented a collection of Irish manuscripts which had been owned by the linguist Dr Edward Lhwyd; in 1791 the Board approved £500 for the purchase of newly published books and £400 to buy  books from the estate of the recently deceased Professor of Astronomy; under the Copyright Act of 1801, TCD became a copyright library, entitling it to a copy of every book published in the British Isles; in 1802 the Fagel Library of around 20,000 significant books was bought at auction and Dr Barrett arranged and catalogued it, for which he was paid an extra £100 in October 1807; in 1805 the beautiful Quin Collection was received and Shakespeare’s First Folio bought; and in August 1821 King George IV visited the library.

Dr Barrett published some items of dubious merit – the issue of the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society for 1900 (shelved in the Research Area, stall 82) says of his Treatise on the Zodiac that “he propounded the wildest and most fanciful theories” – but earned huge respect for his discovery in the library and subsequent transcription and editing of a very early palimpsest text of St. Matthew’s Gospel, known as Codex Z and now bearing the shelfmark IE TCD MS 28/2.

By all accounts (and there are many), Jacky Barrett was a slovenly, eccentric figure of fun. Twenty years after his death, the Dublin University Magazine (shelfmark Gall.EE.18.111) said that “his eccentricities cannot be duly appreciated by those who have never seen him. The toute ensemble of his appearance and manner gave an air of oddity and drollery to every thing which he said or did”. In 1900, the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, paraphrasing The Kerry Magazine no.29 vol.III, May 1, 1856 (shelfmark HH.r.69), from which the title of this post is taken, said “old Trinity is never without an oddity or original of some kind – but of all these Jacky Barrett seems to have been facile princeps”. It continues “by a strange irony, he lives on in people’s memories not nearly so much as a scholar and divine, but as a dwarf whose appetite for food was as great as his hunger for literature, and whose love of money was in a proportionate degree”. Wyse Jackson, in The Bell, Vol.6, no.6, September 1943 (OL microfilm), says “of all Dublin’s oddities, few can have excelled the famous Jacky Barrett … the Odd Fellow par excellence of all time”.

From Charles O'Malley, the Irish Dragoon
From “Charles O’Malley, the Irish Dragoon”

These articles all describe Barrett’s habitual lack of care over his appearance, his parsimony, and his unworldliness, and quote numerous anecdotes about these traits. Some of the stories are repeated in W. R. Le Fanu’s Seventy years of Irish life and there is even a chapter (“The Vice-Provost”) about Barrett in Charles Lever’s 1841 novel Charles O’Malley, The Irish Dragoon, based on the legends which have grown up about him.

From the porter's log book (TCD Ms 1939)
From the porter’s log book (TCD Ms 1939)

Dr Barrett died on November 15th 1821, aged 68, in the College rooms where he had spent most of his life. He is buried with his parents in Glasnevin.