Barry Yelverton

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2005), Letters, Letters, Volume 13

Sir,

—I greatly enjoyed Helena Kelleher Kahn’s piece on ‘The Yelverton Affair’ of 1861 (HI 13.1, Jan./Feb. 2005). A cause célèbre can be like a time capsule, accurately preserving incidentally forgotten aspects of history, society and sensibility.
Ms Kahn is certainly right in saying that the Yelvertons had an ambiguous reputation. The founder of the family’s fortunes, Barry Yelverton, Viscount Avonmore and chief baron of the court of exchequer 1783–1805, was a Patriot orator and a ‘Monk of the Screw’ who became an increasingly loyal government man under the long hegemony of William Pitt. This may have been in part because of his acute personal and financial embarrassments. When, on the death of Lord Chancellor Clare (formerly John FitzGibbon) in 1802, Yelverton sought the position and its unrivalled emoluments, the chief secretary reported to the prime minister that, despite his brilliant talents, his ignorance of propriety made it difficult even to justify retaining him in the office he had. He added that ‘his very salary of office is assigned to his creditors by deed enrolled in his own court’.
The title was not strictly a ‘Union peerage’. Yelverton was elevated to the peerage as a baron (the lowest rank) in 1795, apparently as a counterweight to creating FitzGibbon Viscount Clare. The Irish political classes of the day (and their wives) cared hugely about such things. Confusingly, the legal rank of ‘baron of the exchequer’ did not confer any degree of nobility at all: Yelverton had held it initially as a commoner. However, Avonmore was indeed a Union man in 1800: his reward for this was a step in the peerage, from baron to viscount.
A very odd echo of the deeds of the Yelvertons (whether the first Avonmore or the galloping major of whom Ms Kelleher Kahn writes) is to be found in James Joyce’s Ulysses. In the Circe episode, chapter 15, Leopold Bloom finds himself arraigned before a Kafkaesque dream court, charged with various sexual peccadilloes that he has committed (if at all) only in his mind. One of his accusers is ‘Mrs Yelverton Barry’, who says that she received an indecent pseudonymous letter from Bloom ‘when my husband was in the North Riding of Tipperary on the Munster circuit, signed James Lovebirch’. The Yelverton title was ‘Viscount Avonmore of Derry Island in the County of Tipperary’. Some reference to the Avonmore Yelvertons is certainly intended: the immediately following text of the Circe episode (Gabler edition, ch. 15, lines 1020–1122) may suggest something about the precise respect in which ‘propriety’ was ignored or about the posthumous reputations of the first Lord Avonmore or his grandson.

—Yours etc.,
ADRIAN HARDIMAN
Dublin 6

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