Yelverton, Barry (DNB00)

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YELVERTON, BARRY, first Viscount Avonmore (1736–1805), was the eldest son of Frank Yelverton of Blackwater, co. Cork, by Elizabeth, daughter of Jonas Barry. He was born in 1736, and received his early education at a school at Newmarket, near his birthplace. In 1753 he entered at Trinity College, Dublin, obtaining a sizarship and subsequently (1755) a scholarship. He graduated B.A. in 1757. Being in very poor circumstances, Yelverton maintained himself for some years by teaching, and acted as usher in the Hibernian Academy in North King Street, Dublin, under Andrew Buck, a position of ignominious dependence, of which in later days he was ungenerously reminded by his political opponents, who lampooned the future chief baron as ‘Buck's usher.’ In July 1761 his marriage with Mary, daughter of William Nugent of Clonlost, co. Westmeath, a lady of some fortune, enabled Yelverton to study for the Irish bar, to which he was called in 1764. Possessed of remarkable rhetorical ability and a highly cultivated mind, at a time when eloquence was a more important qualification for success than legal learning, Yelverton rapidly attained a high position in his profession. He was appointed a king's counsel in 1772 and a bencher of the King's Inns the same year.

In 1774 Yelverton was returned to the Irish parliament for the borough of Donegal, and in 1776 for Carrickfergus, which he represented until his elevation to the bench. He was a member of the earlier volunteer associations, and, associating himself with the popular party, he joined Grattan and his colleagues in their demand for legislative independence. In July 1782, during the government of the Duke of Portland, he was appointed to succeed John Scott (afterwards Lord Clonmell) [q. v.] as attorney-general, and in December 1783, on the death of Walter Hussey Burgh [q. v.], he ascended the bench as chief baron of the court of exchequer. In 1789 Yelverton took part with Grattan and the Irish whigs in supporting the claim of the Irish parliament to exercise an independent right of nomination in reference to the regency. In later years, however, he associated himself, like most if not all his colleagues on the Irish judicial bench, with the court party, and, abandoning his former political connections, he ultimately voted for the union. In 1795 he was raised to the peerage as Baron Avonmore, and in 1800 was created a viscount in the peerage of Ireland and a baron of the United Kingdom.

Although very few specimens of his eloquence remain, few men, even in that age of great speakers, enjoyed a higher reputation for eloquence than Yelverton. Sir Jonah Barrington [q. v.] says of him that although inferior in reasoning power to Flood, in epigrammatic brilliancy to Grattan, and in pathos to Curran, in powerful nervous language he excelled them all. Grattan in the English House of Commons paid the following remarkable and glowing tribute to his powers as a debater: ‘The penal code was detailed by the late Lord Avonmore. I heard him. His speech was the whole of the subject, and a concatenated and inspired argument not to be resisted. It was the march of an elephant. It was as the wave of the Atlantic, a column of water three thousand miles deep. He began with the catholic at his birth; he followed him to his grave. He showed that in every period he was harassed by the law. The law stood at his cradle, it stood at his bridal bed, and it stood at his coffin.’ Mean and common in appearance, with manners devoid of dignity, and curiously absent-minded, Yelverton blended an engaging simplicity with brilliancy of thought and expression which made him the Goldsmith of the Irish bar. He was the patron and intimate friend of John Philpot Curran [q. v.], and their kindred delight in social conviviality is commemorated by many anecdotes. Yelverton was the founder, in 1779, of a convivial society called ‘The Order of St. Patrick,’ of which Curran, who wrote its charter-song, ‘The Monk of the Screw,’ was prior. Political differences among its members led to the dissolution of the society in 1795, but, according to accepted tradition, its Latin graces, ‘Benedictus benedicat’ and ‘Benedicte benedicatur,’ were adopted, and are still used, by the King's Inns at Dublin.

Yelverton was not a great judge, his temperament was not judicial, and he was apt to take first impressions of a case which were generally difficult to erase. On the death of Lord Clare in 1802 he was an unsuccessful aspirant to the Irish seals. He died at his residence, Fortfield, Rathfarnham, on 19 Aug. 1805. His portrait, by Hugh Hamilton, is in the dining-hall of the King's Inns at Dublin. He left three sons and one daughter. His descendant, William Charles Yelverton, fourth viscount [q. v.], is separately noticed.

[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.]

C. L. F.