As scruffy as he was mean: Jacky Barrett, Trinity’s great eccentric

An Irishman’s Diary

Universities probably have more than their fair share of eccentrics, one of whom was John (also known as "Jacky") Barrett, who spent most of his life in Trinity College Dublin. Although he died 200 years ago on November 15th, he was still remembered well into the last century.

A Trinity library blog quotes the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society for 1900 which noted that “his appetite for food was as great as his hunger for literature and whose love of money was in a proportionate degree”.

Rev Robert Wyse Jackson, in The Bell magazine in September 1943, said "of all Dublin oddities, few can have excelled the famous Jacky Barrett … the Odd Fellow par excellence of all time". Both of the articles just cited, and other references elsewhere, such as Jonah Barrington's Sketches (1827) and Charles Lever's novel Charles O'Malley (1840), tell how Barrett took little care about his appearance, how reluctant he was to spend any money and how unworldly he was in general, and offer many anecdotes to describe these characteristics.

His year of birth was most likely 1753 and he was born in Ballyroan, Co Laois (then Queen's County). His father, Rev Daniel Barrett, was a Church of Ireland clergyman and his mother was Rossamund Gofton. Following schooling in Dublin by a Mr Shiel, he entered Trinity College as a pensioner (ie, he paid his own fees) in July 1770, winning a scholarship three years later. For the rest of his life, he seldom left the college.


He completed his undergraduate degree in 1775, became a fellow in 1778, and college librarian 1791-1808 (some sources state until his death in 1821, with a couple of breaks). Barrett was regius professor of Greek (1796-97), and professor of Hebrew, becoming vice-provost in 1806 and holding that position until 1821.

The library underwent some significant development during his time as librarian. An important collection of Irish manuscripts was presented to the library by Sir John Sebright in 1786; the board approved substantial spending on newly published books in the 1790s, and under the Copyright Act of 1801, Trinity College library became a copyright library, which meant it was entitled to a copy of every book published in Britain and Ireland. The Fagel Library of some 20,000 works was purchased in 1802 and Barrett spent some years cataloguing it. The Quin Collection was donated in 1805 and Shakespeare's First Folio was bought.

He made an important discovery in the library, a palimpsest manuscript of St Matthew's Gospel, dating from a very early period and known as Codex Z, which he edited. Another worthwhile publication was on the early life and works of Jonathan Swift but his other published works proved of little use. One was An Inquiry into the Origins of the Constellations that Compose the Zodiac (1800); while it showed his learning and knowledge of ancient languages, the journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society mentioned that "he propounded the wildest and most fanciful theories" in the work.

But he is remembered neither for his writings nor other achievements but for his eccentricities. For generations of students at Trinity, he seems to have been a figure of fun. He took no care with his appearance, looking dirty in both person and attire. Despite a voracious appetite for food, he was notoriously mean and lived extremely frugally. On one occasion, students found him in his college rooms almost dead from hypothermia and managed to revive him with sips of hot punch. His mannerisms were decidedly odd and his speech markedly coarse at times.

Linda Lunney, who wrote the entry on him in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, also referred to "his lack of ordinary practical knowledge of the world. It was said that he failed to recognise a sheep, though he had eaten mutton at commons for 40 years".

Having spent virtually no money during his life, when he died at 68, he left some £80,000 (a huge sum for those days), mostly to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, with little going to any relative. “Trustees of his will interpreted his legacies to ‘the hungry’ and ‘the naked’ to include near relations who had frequently and in vain implored his charity, and who had received only token bequests in the will,” according to Lunney.

His portrait in Trinity seemed to mimic his lifestyle, as a later college vice-provost, Dr Wall, declared that the portrait of "Jacky in the hall grew like the original, as it got dirtier every day".