Irish Legal Heritage: The swindling judge removed from office

Sir Jonah Barrington
Sir Jonah Barrington

In 1830, Sir Jonah Barrington became the only High Court judge to be dismissed from office by the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

Jonah Barrington was a lawyer, judge and politician born at Knaptou, near Abbeyleix. The fourth child of impoverished landowner John Barrington, he was immediately adopted by his grandfather, Colonel Jonah Barrington, and went to live with him in his mansion, Cullenaghmore House.

Being the only child in the house, “and a most inquisitive brat”, Jonah recalled in his famously comical memoirs that he had “no play-fellows to take off my attention from whatever I observed or was taught”. Describing Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe, Fairy Tales, and the History of the Bible as his source of constant amusement, Jonah said he “believed every word of them except the fairies, and was not entirely sceptical as to those good people either” (J Barrington, Personal Sketches and Recollections of His Own Times (1876)).

Although he left without a degree, Barrington studied at Trinity College Dublin in 1773, the fellows of which he later described as “a narrow-minded and untalented body of men, getting from £1,000 to £1,500 a year each for teaching several hundred students how to remain ignorant of most of those acquirements that a well-educated gentleman ought to be a master of” (J Barrington, Personal Sketches and Recollections of His Own Times (1876)).

He was called to the Irish bar in 1788, and by 1797 he was appointed judge of the Court of Admiralty of Ireland. Notorious for his lack of knowledge of civil or admiralty law, Barrington is also noted as being “confused about the basic identity of the office for which he was applying”, having thought he was going to be taking the office of a judge of the ecclesiastical courts. (K Costello, The Court of Admiralty of Ireland 1575-1893 (Four Courts Press 2011))

During his 33 years in office, Judge Barrington racked up considerable debt, to the point that for many years his entire judicial salary was collected directly from Dublin Castle by his creditors. He left the jurisdiction and moved to France in 1812 in a bid to renege on his debts, however, his financial irregularities eventually caught up with him and led to his dismissal.

Despite being outside the jurisdiction, Barrington continued to collect his judicial salary while others did his work for him. By 1827, Barrington was renowned as a corrupt judge who had taken cash from admiralty cases for his own use, and that year was referred to as “a reptile, a condemned liar and a swindling sharper” in the Examiner newspaper (K Costello, The Court of Admiralty of Ireland 1575-1893 (Four Courts Press 2011)). An inquiry was launched in 1828, which uncovered the litany of fraudulent activities that Barrington had carried out during his time in office.

In 1830, after investigations in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, King William IV agreed to give directions removing Barrington from the office of the High Court of Admiralty in Ireland.

Seosamh Gráinséir

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