10 May 2023
Sir Charles Barrington,
‘the father of Irish rugby’,
and his life in Co Limerick
I have spent a lot of time in recent weeks researching and writing a paper on members of the Church of Ireland in Co Limerick and the impact on their lives of World War I, the War of Independence and the Irish Civil War.
A key figure in these stories is Sir Charles Burton Barrington (1848-1943) of Glenstal Castle, who is also known as ‘the father of Irish rugby.’ He played a significant role in seeking peace and conciliation at the height of sectarian attacks, but eventually moved to England after the murder of his only daughter.
He was born at Glenstal Castle, Murroe, Co Limerick, on 6 February 1848, the eldest of four sons of Sir Croker Barrington (1817-1890) and his wife Anna Felicia West. He was educated at Saint Columba’s College, Rathfarnham, Rugby School (1864-1866), and Trinity College Dublin (BA 1870, MA 1877).
He was an accomplished rower and rugby player and is credited with being ‘the father of Irish rugby.’
Dublin University Football Club (DUFC) existed as early as 1854. When Barrington entered TCD in January 1867 there was what he described as ‘a rugby of sorts’, but with few formal rules and no designated kit. At Rugby, he played the game according to the rules produced in the school in 1846. Later, he took credit for formalising the game in TCD and, by extension, throughout Ireland.
Barrington and RM Wall, honorary secretary of DUFC, met in 1867 in Wall’s rooms in ‘Botany Bay’ to lay down the rules for DUFC and its matches. He first captained the club in 1867-1868, and was captain for the following two seasons. At the subsequent AGM it was announced that the rules had been forwarded to other clubs in the hope of spreading uniformity.
In reality, the rules were almost identical to those of Rugby School. The important difference was that the DUFC rules outlawed what was known as hacking. Under the Rugby rules, the forwards remained standing in a scrum and attempted to win the ball by hacking at the other side. Under the DUFC rules, the forwards crouched in a formation similar to today’s scrum and tried to win the ball by hooking.
Barrington and Wall also decided to introduce a formal kit for the team, with the black and red jerseys. The kit was ordered from Rugby. Barrington also helped to formalise positions and differentiate between forwards and backs by introducing the positions of full back and half backs. He appears in the earliest known photograph of DUFC rugby team, taken in 1867, and in a photograph taken during his last season as captain of the first XV (1869-1870).
Barrington was also an accomplished oarsman. He competed in Trinity’s first Henley regatta in 1870 and was one of the founders of Limerick Boat Club that year. He continued to row for many years. Barrington and his brothers William, Croker and John represented Ireland and Dublin University Boat Club (DUBC) at the Philadelphia International Centennial Regatta, in 1876 and he stroked the DUBC boat to victory.
The Barrington family held more than 9,400 acres in Co Limerick in the 1870s and was popular throughout the county. Barrington became a DL, JP and high sheriff (1879).
Barrington succeeded his father as fifth baronet on 4 July 1890, inheriting the family title and estates. But with his unionist views he failed to get elected to the first Limerick County Council in 1899. He was commissioned as an officer of the Limerick City Royal Field Reserve Artillery in 1901.
Barrington was in his late 60s during World War I, but was attached to an Anglo-American unit with the French under Lord Castlemaine. He drove a field ambulance in France, for which he was made an MBE in 1919.
Back in Ireland, he was a life governor and joint honorary secretary of Barrington’s Hospital, founded by his grandfather Joseph Barrington, was the provincial grand master of the freemasons of North Munster and was the first president of the Limerick Amateur Athletic Bicycle Club.
Barrington married Mary Rose Bacon (1868-1943), the youngest daughter of Sir Henry Hickman Bacon, in All Saints’ Church, Margaret Street, London, on 14 February 1895, and they were the parents of two sons and a daughter.
Their only daughter Winifred Frances Barrington, who had been a nurse during World War I, was shot dead by the IRA on 14 May 1921 in an ambush near Newport, Co Tipperary, on a police inspector with whom she was travelling.
But Sir Charles Barrington continued to be involved in peace efforts during the Irish war of independence (1918-1921) and the civil war (1921-1922). He chaired a public meeting on 4 April 1922 to express disgust at sectarian outrages in Belfast, and – despite the earlier murder of his daughter – praised the toleration shown to Protestants in Limerick and insisted they ‘had thrived’ in a Catholic community.
But the Barrington family decided to leave left Ireland to live at Fairthorne Manor, Botley, their estate in Hampshire. Barrington offered Glenstal Castle to the Free State government in 1925 as a residence for the governor general. But, due to its distance from Dublin and the cost of upkeep, WT Cosgrave turned down the offer. Glenstal was sold to Monsignor James Ryan, a former president of Saint Patrick’s College, Thurles, for £2,000 in 1926. Ryan later offered the castle and grounds to Benedictine monks from Maredsous Abbey in Belgium for founding a community.
During the 1920s and 1930s, he corresponded with Edward John McCartney Watson of TCD, who was researching Dublin University’s older sports clubs. He was said still to row occasionally (but only in fine weather) in Hampshire in his 90s. He died on 12 August 1943 in Hampshire at the age of 95. Fairthorne Manor was sold to the YMCA in 1946.
The family title was first inherited by his elder son Sir Charles Bacon (‘Pat’) Barrington (1902-1980) as sixth baronet, and then by his younger son, Sir Alexander Fitzwilliam Croker (‘Fitz’) Barrington (1909-2003) as seventh baronet.
His brother John Beatty Barrington (1859-1926), who rowed with him for Dublin University Boat Club (DUBC), later was his land agent in Limerick, a Justice of the Peace for Limerick City and County, High Sheriff of Co Limerick (1912), and a member of Limerick County Council.
John Barrington’s daughter, Mary Charlotte Gladys Barrington (1889-1981), was the mother of John Middleton (‘Jock’) Campbell (1912-1994), Baron Campbell of Eskan, who spent formative childhood years in Glenstal Castle and was a key figure in the growth and development of Milton Keynes as chair of Milton Keynes Development Corporation.
Sir Charles Burton Barrington’s biography in the Dictionary of Irish Biography was contributed by Shaun Boylan (October 2009)
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