He was born about 1717 in Dublin, the son of William Barry, a silversmith of Skinner Row, and his wife Catherine. He tried several occupations, but having inherited a comfortable sum from his father and possessed of a handsome figure and fine voice, eventually he turned actor. He made his first appearance on 15 February 1744 at the Aungier Street Theatre, Dublin, as Othello. According to the prompter that night, Barry ‘seem’d a finish’d Actor dropt from the Clouds.’ He had a ‘perfect’ figure and a voice ‘the harmony and melody of whose silver tones were resistless.’ He next played the major roles of Pierre in “Venice Presev’d” and Varanes in “Theodosius”. After acting a series of heroic roles in Dublin (some with the young actors David Garrick and George Anne Bellamy), Barry made his Drury Lane debut on 4 October 1746 as Othello, a role it seems he had been born to play; after seeing him in the part Garrick gave up playing it himself. Barry continued at Drury Lane in 1747-48, where Garrick was now manager, performing a repertoire of leading parts.
At the close of the 1749-50 season he left Drury Lane for Covent Garden, a move that prompted the famous ‘Romeo rivalry.’ On 28 September 1750 Barry and Mrs Cibber appeared as Romeo and Juliet, and on the same night at Drury Lane Garrick and Bellamy appeared in the same roles. After 12 nights at both houses the play was withdrawn from Covent Garden when Mrs Cibber tired, and a triumphant 13th performance went on at Drury Lane. In the controversy over the better Romeo, though Garrick was admired for his great passion, the palm went to Barry, whose natural physical beauty and grace more suited him to the role. As one practical female audience member put it, had she been Juliet to Garrick’s Romeo she certainly would have expected him to scale up to the balcony, but as Juliet to Barry’s Romeo, she would ‘certainly have gone down to him!’
Now at the blossoming of his talents, at Covent Garden Barry came on in a series of capital roles that established him as a major player and a continuing rival to Garrick: Lothario in “The Fair Penitent”, Phocyas in “The Siege of Damascus”, Pierre and Jaffeir in “Venice Preserv’d” and Osmyn in “Zara”. In 1754-55 he went back to Ireland to act at Smock Alley, but he returned to Covent Garden the next season and stayed through 1757-58, adding Lear and Douglas to his impressive repertoire.
Barry left Covent Garden to venture into management in Dublin, building a new theatre on the site of the old Music Hall in Crow Street, which he opened in October 1758. Dublin could not support two theatres, and after taking on several mortgages Barry was obliged to give up his theatre to Mossop, the manager of the rival Smock Alley. He also had to sell his other properties in Ireland, including a farm in Dublin and a theatrical venture he had started in Cork. Once more back in London in the summer of 1766 he and his wife Ann Barry (née Dancer) acted for Foote at the Haymarket, and in 1767-68 they engaged at Drury Lane, where their performances as Rhadamistus and Zenobia in the premiere of Murphy’s “Zenobia” on 27 February 1768 were acclaimed. The Barrys gave Garrick problems by being difficult and temperamental. Moreover, Barry was often ill and could not play. The couple continued to travel back and forth between Drury Lane and Dublin, and in 1776 they engaged at Covent Garden, where Barry made his last stage appearance on 28 November 1776 as the elderly Evander in Murphy’s “The Grecian Daughter”.
Barry died on 10 January 1777, at about the age of 60, and was buried in the North Cloister of Westminster Abbey. Clearly he had been one of the finest actors of his time. Many paintings and engravings of Barry were made, among them the oil by an unknown artist (G0048) and Hayman’s scene from “Hamlet” (G0049). Barry’s first wife Anne seems to have been dead by 1753, when he took up with the young Covent Garden actress Maria Isabella Nossiter. Early in 1768 he married An