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Barry, William Francis (1849–1930), Roman Catholic priest and novelist, was born in London on 21 April 1849, the third son (of four children) of William Barry, an Irish Catholic immigrant labourer, and his wife, Ellen, née Downey, who signed the birth certificate with her mark. The sympathies of Barry's later work suggest a childhood familiarity with metropolitan radicalism and Irish nationalism. He was educated first at Hammersmith College, where he was recruited for training for the priesthood by Frederick William Faber; then at Old Sedgley Park and Oscott College, near Birmingham, and at the Venerable English College in Rome, where he saw the First Vatican Council and the city's fall to the Italian army. In 1868 he matriculated at the University of London. He graduated from the Gregorian University with the degrees of BD and DD, and was ordained deacon in Rome in 1872 and priest in 1873. He was appointed vice-rector and professor of philosophy and church history at Bishop William Bernard Ullathorne's new seminary at Olton, then, in 1877, professor of dogmatic theology at Oscott.

Barry's literary career began with reviews in W. G. Ward's Dublin Review. His fluency in French, German, and Italian, and his fascination with the post-Enlightenment rejection of Christianity in literature, led on to his career as a prolific intellectual journalist, contributing essays to the Fortnightly Review, the Contemporary Review, the Quarterly Review, the Nineteenth Century, and the Edinburgh Review. He defended the aged Newman against A. M. Fairbairn's charge of scepticism in the Contemporary Review in 1885, winning a warm encomium from the cardinal himself.

Newman was the chief influence on the formation of Barry's prose, which has a singular grace, liveliness, and lucidity. But the inspiration of his fiction came from George Eliot, whom he compared favorably with the ‘immoral’ French novelists of his time like George Sand, Flaubert, and Zola, though unlike some of their English critics, he paid them the compliment of reading them. Some of his literary criticism was republished in Heralds of Revolt: Studies in Modern Literature and Dogma (1904). His superiors had noted his intellectual interests, and in 1883 he was sent to the mission of St Birinus, Dorchester-on-Thames, which came with minimal pastoral duties, a beautiful house and garden, and a troublesome lay trustee. He remained at Dorchester until 1907, when he was briefly appointed to St Catherine's, Birmingham, with the title of canon, but in 1908 he was given a much busier parish than Dorchester, St Peter's, Leamington, having by then completed a substantial body of literary work.

Barry's first novel was his most successful, The New Antigone: a Romance (1887), which had the double theme of a Spanish religious image, the Madonna of San Lucar, and a revolutionary free-thinking feminist, Hippolyta, who refuses to marry her lover, but then becomes a convert to Roman Catholicism and a missionary nun. A more conventional author might have concluded with a marriage, but the popularity of the active orders of independent-minded religious women in the period saves from implausibility the transformation of Hippolyta's uncompromising idealism from its secular form into a religious one, as does the word painting of the intrinsic power attributed to the image of the Madonna. There is a very Victorian tangle attending the secret family history of the central characters, as well as social comment on the condition of the poor and on the debates among revolutionaries: one character, Ivor Mardol, was to Barry his ideal self, ‘the dreamer, reformer, enthusiast for the Reign of Justice among men’ (Barry, 183). Barry afterwards recalled the publication as the hour of his glory, with praise from Gladstone and The Times and England at his feet.

A speech by Barry in 1890 in the presence of Bishop Vaughan raised a storm for urging that the social question had priority over the religious one: the poor must be civilized before they could be Christianized. He embodied his views on the nightmare of the financial markets in a further novel, The Two Standards (1898), about a corrupt financier. The atmosphere of another, The Wizard's Knot (1901), with an Irish setting, drew on his mother's tales of the mythology of Celtic Ireland. In Arden Massiter (1900) he painted the portrait of yet another idealist, who dreams of uniting Catholicism and revolutionary socialism as agents of social regeneration, in opposition to the corruption of the governing Italian liberal élite. Barry depicts both the pervading violence of Italian society, with its cut-throat but superstitious Camorra, and the backward hunger-stricken Italian hill villages, in a mixture of realism and Gothic romance. The Dayspring (1903) is based upon the 1871 rising of the Paris commune, with as hero a romantic Irish nationalist who has killed the evicter of his mother from her cottage. Here is a tale of the two cities in Paris, the light-filled society of the upper class and the revolutionary underworld, which explodes in violence. The Place of Dreams: Four Stories (1893) belongs to the genre of Catholic supernaturalism.

Barry's works of scholarship included two books on the history of the papacy, The Papal Monarchy from St Gregory the Great to Boniface VIII, 590–1303 (1902) and The Papacy and Modern Times: a Political Sketch, 1303–1870 (1911); a slight book on Newman (1904, revised from earlier efforts), probably his most popular learned work; entries in the Catholic Encyclopedia; a chapter, ‘Catholic Europe’, in the first volume of the Cambridge Modern History (1902); and a memoir, Ernest Renan (1905), which he called ‘my Hermes of Praxiteles—a single figure, well-nigh faultlessly drawn’ (Barry, 239). The Tradition of Scripture: Its Origin, Authority and Interpretation (1906) demonstrates the author's critical interest in recent biblical scholarship. He was a founder member from 1896 of Wilfrid Ward's learned Synthetic Society, and he sympathized with Ward, from 1906 the editor of the Dublin Review, over the latter's difficulties with Newman's executors in writing his biography of the cardinal. But though Barry was impatient with the inadequacy of modern Catholic apologetic, and unsympathetic to Pius X's campaign against modernism, he disagreed with modernism itself.

Barry contributed to the allied war effort The World's Debate: an Historical Defence of the Allies (1917), containing a polemic against the deified state, which he traced to Lutheranism and identified with Prussia, distinguishing it from the Germany and the German literature that he loved. President Wilson is said to have ordered 1000 copies. Rome appointed him a protonotary apostolic in 1923 on his golden jubilee of priesting. In 1926 he published his Memories and Opinions, reviewing his long life and literary labours. Roma Sacra: Essays on Christian Rome (1927) republished some of his old articles from the Dublin Review. The Triumph of Life, or, Science and the Soul (1928) assessed certain Victorian agnostic scientists and philosophers like Huxley and Spencer on the relations of science and religion on controverted points, while The Coming Age of the Catholic Church: a Forecast (1929) predicted its happy future. Barry died at 14 Park Crescent, Oxford, on 15 December 1930.

Sheridan Gilley


W. Barry, Memories and opinions (1926) · S. Gilley, ‘Father William Barry: priest and novelist’, Recusant History, 24 (Oct 1999), 523–51 · The Times (16 Dec 1930) · Wellesley index


Birmingham diocesan archives · U. St Andr. L., Wilfrid Ward papers

Wealth at death  

£1357 6s. 2d.: probate, 24 Feb 1931, CGPLA Eng. & Wales