The Doctor Who Feigned Manhood

/ˈbɑːri meɪnɪak/
person filled with excessive and single-minded zeal for Dr James Barry (1789-1865), a 19th century transgender army surgeon from Cork City, Ireland.


The Irish Language

I was suddenly struck by the question of language - it’s frequently stated that the Irish language never recovered from the Famine but Dr James Barry - having left Cork City around 1804 - wouldn’t have been impacted by that.

Aidan Doyle wrote a fascinating piece on Language and Literacy in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (published by Cambridge University in 2018). Simply put, his general belief was that everyone bar the very highest and lowest parts of society were bilingual, and even if people couldn’t speak both languages they could often understand them. Most people who could read and write did so in English with little being written Irish though what was, was eagerly read much to the disappointment of the Church who were pushing only the Bible.

Dr Barry could write in English before leaving for the UK as demonstrated by the letter he wrote to James Barry RA on behalf of his mother. The Bulkeleys also came from Cork City where a large number of boats docked which suggests that they would have been more likely to know English anyway. But did he know Irish? Is there anything to suggest he didn’t?

Several people described Barry as being “Scotch” in appearance and temperament. I wonder if this was at all impacted by his accent or dialect - did Barry improve his English while in Edinburgh and therefore pick up a Scottish accent and turn of phrase? Or did people mistake his Cork accent and Irish for a Scottish one and Gaelic? Did he even know Irish, coming from a family in Cork City where Irish would be less used? I like to think that he did.


Since you’ve posted extensively about James Barry - I would love to know if you have any idea of how he represented his nationality while in the military. He was said to have claimed London as his birthplace during his student years and identified as English in his thesis. However, I haven't come across any such details about his later years. Considering he was known to give varying birth years, I wonder if his claims about his origins shifted too. There's obviously also the letter to his brother John (1808 I think), where he mentioned the honour of dying for one's country and his own desire to join the military. This could be sarcastic given the family's problems, but it might also suggest he was patriotic-ish towards a British identity.
As we know Regency - early Victorian wasn’t a very good time to be proudly Irish among the UK ruling class. He also lived through the Irish Potato Famine, which makes his stance even more intriguing. Did he conceal his Irish Catholic background throughout his life? What about his accent? Moving to England in his teens, he could have adopted a new accent, which wouldn’t be too difficult with determination I guess. As a side note, apparently his father Jeremiah was eventually deported to Australia, tearing the family further apart. 🥲


This is such a good question! And something I’m really interested in learning more about. My current theory is that Barry didn’t obviously identify as Irish in public. Ireland and Britain were merged in 1801 to become The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, though obviously England had been ruling Ireland long before that. Therefore Barry would’ve grown up in Ireland possibly already considering himself British. Historically there hasn’t been such a divide with being both (making that important distinction between being British and being English), much like how many Scottish people today are happy to consider themselves British also. Barry is often described as being Scotch in countenance and having studied in Scotland I wonder if he did let people assume he was Scottish rather than Irish. The accents aren’t too dissimilar to an ignorant ear and that would also allow him to get away with the odd word as Gaeilge in a way identifying himself as english wouldn’t. I know he gave his place of birth as London at some point but there is nothing to say he didn’t tell people his family were Scottish, or even Irish though I doubt it.
The thing about mentioning dying for one’s country, many Irish people died in World War I because they signed up to fight for Britain. Many. Ireland in 1914 was in a similar place to Ireland in 1801 regarding Britain’s rule, just the other way around. A lot of people regarded the war as their chance to fight for their country - yes even if they were proudly Irish they felt this was their fight too. (Not everyone obviously otherwise the Rising wouldn’t’ve happened but a not insignificant number of Irish people did go off to fight for Britain because they felt it was their duty.
Ah the thing about the Great Famine (1845-1852) is that Barry was far far away at that point. I’m not sure how much he would’ve known about it and most (all) of what he did know would most likely have been from English newspapers, which we know are not necessarily fair on Ireland even today. However Barry was also born within living memory of an earlier famine (1740). James Barry RA was born in 1741, right at the tail end of that famine, and so Mary Anne Barry was probably not far behind him. I think there was 5 children in the family? Not many so they probably weren’t born too far apart. From my quick google to check when James Barry RA was born it also says his father (Dr Barry’s grandfather) was a coasting trader between England and Ireland.
Barry is sometimes claimed to be the child/grandchild of Lord Buchan, a Scottish Earl, and I wonder if his accent played into that. I could be wrong but James Barry RA’s insistence to be extra kind to his fellow Irish makes me think that although he lived most of his adult life in England he didn’t lose anything from home, probably including his accent. Barry MD may possibly have picked up an English accent when he was over there or he may have not. Which brings me back to my previous point of him passing himself off as Scottish. (Side note: while some people can pick up and drop accents at the top of a hat, I was raised in Ireland to parents with English accents and I never got an Irish accent. Maybe this is why I never see Barry as having lost his accent.)
Regarding Barry’s Catholicism - I’ve read very little but considering he spent most of his life abroad I am inclined to think that there would only have been one or maybe two Christian churches in the area that people attended regardless of their specific denomination. In South Africa this would’ve been a Dutch church, most likely the Dutch Reformed Church. Though of course it wouldn’t surprise me if the Church of England commandeered the Dutch Reformed Church buildings and made them C of E. Either way, I doubt Barry was proudly Catholic, not when working for the British Army.
I think I did know Jeremiah got deported but by all accounts it wasn’t much of a loss considering Mary Anne had been ignoring his correspondence, Barry had become Barry and therefore was not corresponding to anyone from home and John was in the military. It’s possible, considering the places James and John went, that they were actually closer to Jeremiah in Australia than they had been to Jeremiah in Cork.
I’m really interested in researching Barry’s Irish nationality, his Catholicism and also his knowledge of the Irish language, which at that point in time was about equally known as English was in Ireland. Especially in towns and cities and a lot of people could understand both even if they couldn’t speak both. It’s an angle that doesn’t often get considered - I presume because Barry moved to London, trained in Edinburgh and worked with the British army in British colonies - but it’s doubtful to be something that can be overlooked easily especially at the time.
I’m not unhappy when I see older pieces describe Barry as British because technically he was, but I feel that regardless of his own feelings towards being Irish or British, it is neglectful to call him British now. Ireland struggles to claim our notable people because Britain likes to get their claws in, whether because they moved to the UK, ignorance, or something else. And the fact that most historical notable people were Anglo-Irish doesn’t help but the fact that James Barry RA is *always* referred to as Irish and makes me determined to refer to Barry MD as Irish at any given opportunity.
At the end of all that - I know very little. Most of what I’ve said there is pure speculation and theorising from what we do know. I don’t know a lot about being Irish in the British army in the 19th century. I don’t know about religion in South Africa at the time. I don’t know about the opinions regarding being born Irish and British. I don’t know how Barry felt about the Great Famine. I don’t know if he was a staunch Catholic or if he…converted to being Anglican. I don’t know if he spoke Irish. I don’t know if he even wanted to be considered Irish. I don’t know and while some of that is things I can learn, a lot of it is not. I enjoy talking about it and I want to learn more.
(Please note this was near completely unresearched because I wrote it on my 40 minute commute to work on the underground. These are all things I really want to discuss and learn more about so I will definitely come back and clean this up.)