Barry Yelverton, 1st Viscount Avonmore

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Barry Yelverton, 1st Viscount Avonmore, PC (Ire) KC (28 May 1736 – 19 August 1805) was an Irish judge and politician, who gave his name to Yelverton's Act 1782, which effectively repealed Poynings' Law and thus restored the independence of the Parliament of Ireland. This achievement was destroyed by the Act of Union 1800, which Yelverton supported. By doing so, he gravely harmed his reputation for integrity, which had already been damaged by his leading role in the conviction and execution for treason of the United Irishman William Orr, which is now seen as a major miscarriage of justice.

Early life[edit]

He was the eldest son of Francis Yelverton of Kanturk, County Cork, and Elizabeth Barry, daughter of Jonas Barry of Kilbrin (now Ballyclogh, County Cork)[1] His father died when Barry was only ten; his mother reached a great age, dying only a year before her son. He went to school in Charleville[2] and Midleton College, and attended Trinity College Dublin, where he took a degree of Bachelor of Arts in 1757 and of Bachelor of Laws in 1761. His family lacked wealth and social position[3] and he was for some years an assistant master under Andrew Buck in the Hibernian Academy. This menial occupation was later a source of great embarrassment to him, as his enemies loved to ridicule him as "Buck's usher".[4]

In 1761, he married Mary Nugent (died 1802), daughter of William Nugent of Clonlost, County Westmeath, and his wife Ursula Aglionby, a lady of some fortune, and was thus enabled to read for the Irish Bar,[4] entering the Middle Temple.

He was called to the Bar in 1764: despite his lack of family connections his success in his profession was rapid, due to his legal ability, charm and remarkable eloquence, and he took silk eight years afterwards.


He was elected to the Irish House of Commons as member for Donegal Borough from 1774 to 1776. In the latter year, Yelverton was elected for both Belfast and Carrickfergus. [5] He chose to sit for the latter constituency and represented Carrickfergus until 1784. Although few examples of his oratory survive, all contemporaries agree on his eloquence, which gave him a dominant position in the Commons.

Judicial career[edit]

He became Attorney-General for Ireland in 1782, and was elevated to the bench as Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer in 1783. He was created Baron Yelverton in 1795, and in 1800 Viscount Avonmore in the Peerage of Ireland. As Chief Baron he led the opposition to the proposal to increase the number of judges in each of the courts of common law[6] from three to four, on the practical ground that four-judge courts often divide evenly and thus cannot reach an effective decision. Despite this common-sense view, the new judges were eventually appointed.

William Orr[edit]

In 1797 he attained a degree of infamy for presiding over what was widely regarded as a "show trial" which led to the execution of the United Irishman, William Orr (although Yelverton is said to have shed tears when passing the death sentence on Orr). Orr was charged with administering the United Irish oath to a soldier called Hugh Wheatly; this had recently become a capital offence. In fact it was generally believed that another man, William McKeever, administered the oath. Wheatly, who was the principal witness for the prosecution, later confessed that he had perjured himself, but despite a superb defence by John Philpott Curran, Orr was found guilty and hanged. Yelverton may have formed an early impression of Orr's guilt and acted on it - even his admirers admitted that as a judge he lacked impartiality.

Peter Finnerty, a journalist, was later convicted of seditious libel for publishing an attack on Yelverton over his conduct of Orr's trial: this did nothing to enhance the judge's reputation.


He died in 1805 at his mansion, Fortfield House, Terenure, County Dublin, which he had built at great expense around 1785.[7]


To his colleagues at the Irish bar, Yelverton was a popular and charming companion:[4] even John Philpot Curran, despite their frequent courtroom clashes, seems to have liked Yelverton personally. Curran and Yelverton were co-founders of the popular drinking club called The Monks of the Screw. Being a man of insignificant physical appearance, he owed his early successes to his remarkable eloquence, which made a great impression on his contemporaries; as a judge, he was inclined to take the view of the advocate rather than that of the impartial lawyer.[4] Ball considered him one of the most learned judges of his time.[8] While Edward Cooke called him "a brute", this simply reflects Cooke's low opinion of all the Irish judges. of his time[9] Sir Jonah Barrington wrote that for all Yelverton's faults, and his lack of any real moral code, it was impossible not to like and respect him.


He gave his support to Henry Grattan and the Whigs during the greater part of his parliamentary career.[4] He was a strong supporter of the demand for an independent Irish Parliament, but later changed his stance.

Yelverton's Act[edit]

He played a crucial role in the reforms which are collectively called the Irish Constitution of 1782.[10] In particular he sponsored the Act 21 and 22 of George III, An Act to regulate the manner of passing bills and to prevent delays in summoning of Parliaments- which was popularly known as "Yelverton's Act". This radically modified Poynings' Law of 1495 by which all legislation to be passed by the Irish Parliament had to be drafted by the Privy Council of Ireland, then sent to the English Privy Council for approval. Under Yelverton's Act, the role of the Irish Privy Council was abolished and legislation was commenced in the normal way in the Irish Parliament, which for the last 17 years of its existence enjoyed a wide measure of independence.

Act of Union[edit]

In his latter days he became identified with the court party and voted for the Act of Union 1800, for which his viscounty was a reward.[7] For this he was never forgiven by his former friends. Sir Jonah Barrington, who continued to regard Yelverton with affection and respect, regretted that this action should have destroyed his reputation forever; but he argued that such a mistake of judgment was understandable in a man who lacked worldly wisdom, and despite his many good qualities, did not have a strong moral sense.

He became a member of the Royal Irish Academy in 1787.


He had three sons and one daughter, and the title descended in the family.

Children of Barry Yelverton and Mary Nugent:


  • Webb, Alfred (1878). "Yelverton, Barry, Viscount Avonmore" . A Compendium of Irish Biography. Dublin: M. H. Gill & son – via Wikisource.
  1. ^ Ball, F. Elrington The Judges in Ireland 1221–1921 John Murray London 1926 Vol.1 p.219
  2. ^ Ball p.219
  3. ^ Ball p.166
  4. ^ a b c d e  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Avonmore, Barry Yelverton, 1st Viscount". Encyclopædia Britannica. 3 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 67.
  5. ^ Chisholm 1911.
  6. ^ Ball p.167
  7. ^ a b Falkiner 1885.
  8. ^ Ball p.166
  9. ^ Ball p.169
  10. ^ Ball p.220
  11. ^ "Barry Yelverton, 1st Viscount Avonmore". the 9 February 2011. Retrieved 1 January 2012.
  • Falkiner, Cæsar Litton (1900). "Yelverton, Barry" . In Lee, Sidney (ed.). Dictionary of National Biography. 63. London: Smith, Elder & Co. pp. 314–315.; Endnotes:
    • Webb's Compendium; Ryan's Biographia Hibernica, ii. 640
    • Wills's Illustrious Irishmen, v. 237
    • Barrington's Historic Sketches, and Personal Sketches
    • O'Flanagan's Irish Bar, pp. 52–63, and Lives of the Lord Chancellors of Ireland, vol. ii. passim
    • Lord Ashbourne's Pitt; Curran's Life, by his Son, i. 118–32
    • Phillip's Curran and his Contemporaries, pp. 92–108
    • Duhiggs's History of the King's Inns
    • Irish Political Characters, 1799
    • Smyth's Law Officers of Ireland
    • Todd's Graduates of Dublin University
    • G. E. C[okayne]'s Complete Peerage
    • F. Elrington Ball The Judges in Ireland 1221–1921
Parliament of Ireland
Preceded by
Viscount Sudley
Richard Gore
Member of Parliament for Donegal Borough
With: Richard Gore 1774–1776
James Cuffe 1776
Succeeded by
Henry Vaughan Brooke
James Cuffe
Preceded by
Hon. Henry Skeffington
George Hamilton
Member of Parliament for Belfast
With: Hon. Henry Skeffington
Succeeded by
Hon. Henry Skeffington
Alexander Crookshank
Preceded by
John Chichester
Conway Richard Dobbs
Member of Parliament for Carrickfergus
With: Conway Richard Dobbs
Succeeded by
Waddell Cunningham
Conway Richard Dobbs
Legal offices
Preceded by
John Scott
Attorney-General for Ireland
Succeeded by
John FitzGibbon
Preceded by
Walter Hussey Burgh
Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer for Ireland
Succeeded by
Standish O'Grady
Peerage of Ireland
New creation Viscount Avonmore
Succeeded by
William Yelverton
Baron Yelverton