Words by Jakob von der Lippe
Sir Redmond Barry was not the kind of person you would expect to have been the first chancellor of The University of Melbourne. He was, in short, a wily old bastard. The first part of his life was pretty straightforward. Born in 1813 in County Cork, Ireland, Barry’s life was pretty standard for a rich-ish, pro-British son of a military man in Ireland. He attended military school from age twelve, and for the first 26 years of his life, showed every indication of joining the military. However, his failure to gain an officer’s commission (no doubt due to the mounting tensions surrounding British rule in the 1830) sent Barry along an entirely different course. In 1837 he graduated from Trinity College, and was admitted to the Irish Bar in 1838. As in he practised law, you stereotyping racist.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Throughout his time at Trinity, Barry made friends with a certain Isaac Butt, who was essentially the man behind the Irish Home Rule movement, a political force focused on Irish autonomy. Butt himself was inextricably linked with a lot of the movers and shakers of 1800s Ireland, including W. B. Yeats, so you can guess the class of individual Redmond Barry associated himself with. This man had absolutely no interest in fucking around.
Except he totally did have an interest in that. During his voyage to Australia in 1839, Sir Redmond Barry, future Queen’s Counsel and Knight Bachelor, was confined to his cabin aboard the Calcutta by the captain of the boat. The reasoning behind this was simple: Barry was having an open and incredibly improper affair with a married woman. News of Barry’s love of maritime adventure spread quickly upon his arrival in Sydney, and once the then Bishop of the Church of England found out, his prospects of employment basically dwindled to nothing in the established colonies. So, forced out of the genteel and settled parts of Australia by his audacious attitude and colossal balls, Redmond Barry did what anyone would do, and attached himself to the new settlement at Port Phillip Bay. Y’know, what would be called Melbourne.
Despite not being able work in civilised parts of Australia due to his inability to keep his pants on, Barry entered the new settlement with high ideals and expectations. As one of a few law types that far south, he worked tirelessly towards enforcing justice, sort of like a colonial Batman. Throughout this early period he also worked as a legal liaison and counsel for the local aborigines, usually without pay.
By pure luck and perseverance, Redmond Barry put himself on the scene in Melbourne. His tireless work in the early years meant that in 1851 he was appointed the first solicitor-general of Victoria, and throughout his time in Melbourne he’d cemented himself as a man of learning, the arts, and a generally alright dude. But there must have been some disagreement about this, considering he was challenged to a duel in 1841 by a certain Peter Snodgrass. Snodgrass got nervous and fired his pistol too early, missing completely. So Redmond Barry, being a magnificent bastard, slowly and majestically pointed his gun into the air, and fired.
Underpinning all of these events was Barry’s commitment to public learning. Barry offered up his own house as a library before one existed in the new colony. Unsurprisingly, in 1853 he became chancellor of the university he had worked so hard to found. Barry’s efforts to create a centre of learning in Melbourne followed a simple, but solid logic: his life had been shaped by the opportunities his education had afforded him, the development of the colony depended on offering more people those opportunities.
In the final two years of his life, Redmond Barry oversaw and prosecuted the infamous Kelly cases, making it his personal mission to apprehend and judge the outlaw. After sentencing Kelly to hanging, Kelly cursed Barry, proclaiming that he’d see him in hell soon. Within twelve days, Redmond Barry died of breathing complications.