Hon. Justice Jeremiah Hayes Barry
The New Brunswicker Who Opened The Door To Equality
by Richard Hughes
New Brunswick lawyers, and other professionals with Irish roots, owe a large debt of gratitude to a man who, in the early years of the 20th century, found ajar the door to opportunity and pushed it open for others to follow. Hon. Jeremiah Hayes Barry, a son of immigrant parents, became a distinguished New Brunswick barrister and jurist whose extraordinary success made him a role model for Irish Catholic families wishing professional careers for their children. Not only was Barry the first Irish Catholic ever to join the Supreme Court of New Brunswick, he would become chief justice of the King’s Bench Division and be recognized by his peers as a leader among the province’s oppressed Irish minority.
Born in 1858, Jeremiah Barry was a son of Patrick and Julia Barry, early pioneers from Bandon, County Cork, who settled in Maugerville in the early part of the 19th century. There they farmed and raised a family of nine children. According to lore, in the late 1860s the Barrys left their home in low-lying Maugerville to escape an annual plague of mosquitoes and moved up the St. John River to reestablish themselves at St. Mary’s, now part of Fredericton. It was here that Jeremiah Barry attended public schools and later studied law in the office of James Arthur VanWart, a notable Fredericton barrister. Eventually Barry sought admission to the New Brunswick Bar and was confirmed as a member in 1884.
Through hard work and good fortune, Barry was able to strike a legal partnership with a man who would become one of the most important political figures in the history of New Brunswick. This was Fredericton lawyer Andrew George Blair who would found the provincial Liberal Party and later serve as premier of New Brunswick for 13 years. Whether it was his friendship with Blair, his distinguished career as a barrister or his active involvement in municipal, fraternal and service organizations, Barry was rewarded with an appointment as judge of probate in 1899 and elevated to the Supreme Court of New Brunswick ten years later. His selection as Chief Justice of the court in 1924 was hailed as a momentous personal achievement and an inspiration for other Irish Catholics to follow his example.
Few people today are aware of the virulent discrimination faced by those early Irish New Brunswickers who professed the Roman Catholic faith. Not only were their children discreetly barred from the professions but their best plans were often thwarted by machinations of the anti-Catholic Orange Order. For most of the 19th century, university entrance and the best government appointments were reserved for the sons of the Loyalist elite. For the most part, the Irish were condemned to scratching a living from hardscrabble farms or working in the woods as exploited lumbermen. Barry’s precedent-setting appointment to the high court signaled that change was in the wind and that Irish New Brunswickers, for the first time, might pass the examination to seek equal opportunity among the ranks of the professions.
Cited as a great New Brunswicker by the influential Ancient Order of Hibernians, Barry would be seen as a model for others to emulate, including members of his own family. Both his sons, Paul and Charles, followed their father into the profession of law; the latter becoming a New Brunswick judge of probate. Barry’s prestige greatly influenced his extended family and this would resonate in the province’s judicial history. Jeremiah’s sister, Mary Jane, had married into the large Irish Catholic Hughes clan of Fredericton and one of its members, Peter Joseph Hughes, would be inspired to become one of the most celebrated courtroom lawyers in 20th century New Brunswick. He would later be appointed to the New Brunswick Supreme Court, Appeals Division as the first Irish Catholic on this, the senior court.
Another member of this remarkable family, Charles Joseph Arthur Hughes, would, like his uncle Peter, have a distinguished career as a barrister and solicitor and he, too, would succeed to the New Brunswick Supreme Court. Appointed Chief Justice of New Brunswick in 1972, a post he held for 12 years, he was the first Irish Catholic ever to fill this, the most powerful judicial position in the province.
Today the legal profession in New Brunswick is fully represented by men and women whose forefathers left Ireland to seek opportunity in this province. But for nearly 100 years after their arrival, the early Irish families found only discrimination and barriers. Jeremiah Barry ignored the discrimination and passed through those barriers, and in so doing ably demonstrated that the Irish could rise to the top – for the bright and the quick, equal opportunity was finally there to be grasped.