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George Frith Barry and the growth of chess in Victorian Ireland


By Tim Harding

One of the leading cricketers in mid-Victorian Ireland was also a strong chess-player whose forte was the correspondence game: George Frith Barry (1837?-1891).

Both cricket and chess were hugely popular in Victorian England and to some extent the same was true of Ireland, though on a much smaller scale. It might seem strange that there was an affinity between chess and cricket, but I have found several examples of people involved in both games. Cricket has a strategic element that may not be obvious to casual spectators and success in both games requires sobriety. Both games were pioneers in the assembly of individuals into clubs for a competitive leisure activity. Chess as an indoor and (in Victorian times) primarily winter game complemented the summer game, though of course it was a rarely a spectator sport.

The boom time in Irish cricket was the 1850s and 1860s, and seems to have centred on protestant elite groups and the military, whereas in England there was wider involvement across social classes. Chess has tended to have a wider appeal to people of an intellectual cast of mind that cuts across religious, social and political differences.

The first chess club in County Galway is known to have existed around 1839-40 in Ballinasloe, involving Lord Dunlo (Clancarty) who also organised the West’s first cricket club and who was a member of the Marylebone Cricket Club.

An important development was the formation around 1860 of the Victoria Chess Club which first met in the Northumberland Hotel, Eden Quay, but soon amalgamated with another club meeting at the Dublin Athenaeum at 33 Anglesea Street. Its members included the international cricketer George Frith Barry and his elder brother Samuel.

Other people were prominent in both games. One of John Lawrence’s Irish cricket Handbooks refers to a Thomas Long as having been the ‘worthy and energetic’ Honorary Secretary of Leinster Cricket Club in 1858. This was almost certainly the same Thomas Long, a civil servant who authored several short monographs on chess openings for beginners. Long does not appear to have been noted as a cricketer but was evidently a competent organiser and propagandist.

There was also Parker Dunscombe, a leading southern cricketer since 1849, who founded the Cork chess club in 1879 and may have been involved in an earlier one that briefly existed there in the 1860s. Dunscombe came to Dublin in 1880 and took 67 wickets for Civil Service in the 1881 season. He was still active in chess twenty years later, when he was in his seventies.

Barry’s chess career

George Barry was born in Buttevant, County Cork, probably in 1837, but his family soon moved to Dublin. His exact birth-date and that of his elder brother Samuel are unknown since the parish records appear to have been lost. Obituaries variously said he was fifty-three or fifty-four years old when he died on 14 February 1891.

George Barry made his debut for Leinster Cricket Club towards the end of 1853, its second season, when he was at most seventeen years old. By 1856 he was club captain and remained so until 1890. His public chess debut came later. Both Barrys played for the Victoria club in two telegraph matches against Belfast Chess Club in 1861-2.

In late September 1865 the first Irish chess congress was played in Dublin, starting two days after the last big cricket match of the season, in which the Barrys played for Leinster against the aristocratic touring team, I Zingari (on 22-23 September). The future world chess champion William Steinitz came over from London to win first prize in the top tournament. George Barry was apparently very impressed by Steinitz and his new method of strategic play. Barry did not play in that event, which had a field of only five, but came second to Rev George MacDonnell in the second tournament restricted to British and Irish players. Brother Sam was involved in a telegraph match between Dublin players and the St James’s Club of London.

The closure of the Athenaeum during 1867 prompted the formation of the City and County of Dublin Chess Club, of which the Barrys and Long were founder members. In 1868 the Chess Players’ Quarterly Chronicle published a postal game that Barry won against Thomas Bourn of Whitby, one of the strongest English provincial amateur players of that time and a second game with Bourn was published many years later.

Thomas Bourn – George Frith Barry

King’s Bishop’s Gambit (C33)

Correspondence, 1867-8

Notes from the Chess Player’s Quarterly Chronicle, volume 1 (May 1868) page 42.

1 e4 e5 2 f4 exf4 3 Bc4 Nf6

This is now the usual defence to the Bishop's Gambit. It is briefly analysed in the Handbuch.

4 Qf3

4 Nc3 is the best move here. In 'Games of the Chess Congress' (page 98) is a game between Paulsen and Dubois, where the opening is continued thus: 4...Nc6 5 Nf3 Bb4 6 0–0 d6 etc. (This is a reference to Löwenthal’s book of the London 1862 congress.)

4...Nc6 5 Qxf4 Bc5 6 c3 d5 7 exd5 Nxd5 8 Qe4+ Be6 9 d4 Be7 10 Bb5 0–0 11 Bxc6 bxc6 12 Nf3 c5

Very well played.

13 0–0 Nf6 14 Qc2 cxd4 15 Nxd4

15 cxd4 better, preventing the B going to c5.

15...Bc5 16 Be3 Ng4 17 Qe2

17 Qd2 seems preferable; any way Black must have a good game.

17...Re8 18 Re1

Kt cannot take B on account of the reply ...Qh4.

18...Qh4 19 g3 Qh3 20 Bd2 Bd7

A very good move, though 20...Bd5 is perhaps the most decisive. Suppose 21 Qxe8+ Rxe8 22 Rxe8+ Bf8 23 Re2 (the only move) 23...Nxh2 24 Rxh2 (again the only move: the magazine has a misprint 'R takes P'.) 24...Qxg3+ 25 Kf1 Qxh2 and Black must win easily.

21 Qg2 Rxe1+ 22 Bxe1 Bxd4+ 23 cxd4 Qxg2+ 24 Kxg2 Ne3+ 25 Kf3 Nc2 26 Na3 Nxa1 27 Bc3 Bf5 28 g4 Bg6 29 h4 h6 0–1.


George Frith Barry – Thomas Bourn

Ruy Lopez (C65)

Correspondence, 1867-8

Notes from the Irish Sportsman, 27 December: 1884: 'Played by correspondence some time ago between Mr G. F. Barry, of Dublin, and Mr T. Bourn, of Whitby, Yorkshire.’

1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 Nf6 4 d3 d6 5 Bxc6+ bxc6 6 Bg5 Be7 7 Nbd2 Bg4 8 h3 Bxf3 9 Nxf3 Nd7 10 Bxe7 Qxe7 11 0–0 0–0 12 Re1 c5 13 Qd2 h6 14 Nh2 Qf6 15 Re3 a6 16 Rg3 Kh7 17 Ng4 Qe6 18 Ne3 d5 19 Nf5 Rg8 20 Rf1 Nf8 21 b3 Ng6 22 Rg4 Ne7 23 f4 Nxf5 24 exf5 Qxf5 25 fxe5 Qxe5 26 Rxf7 Raf8 27 d4 cxd4 28 Qd3+ Kh8 29 Rgxg7 Qxg7 30 Rxg7 Rxg7 31 Qxd4 Kg8 ½–½.

‘We prefer White's position, but we suppose that Mr Barry, as he had won the champion game, was content to make this one a draw.’

The City and County of Dublin Chess Club’s first president, the Rev. E. J. Cordner, presented a cup in 1868 for a competition which took the form of matches played between members over two seasons. The tournament did not end until 1870 when George Barry won in the final against J. B. Pim.

At the end of 1870, a chess column began in the Irish Sportsman and Farmer, and announced the first Irish postal chess tournament. Barry seems to have had an aptitude for the slow-paced postal game, where players could study books and analyse the positions at home. Unfortunately when it came to the tournament final, and the deciding game looked like a draw, the organisers would not agree to the honours being split, so Barry and his opponent tossed a coin to see who would resign, and Barry lost.

Cricketing achievements

Moving on to cricket, where Barry first made his mark, Ger Siggins has calculated that Ireland teams played twenty-six cricket matches between 1858 and 1877; George Barry played in twenty-two of them and was captain on at least ten of those occasions. Already in 1860 he was one of nine amateurs included in Charles Lawrence’s United Eleven of Ireland that toured Scotland.

There was no formal cricket league structure in those days, players could and did often play for more than team. Barry often played for vice-regal elevens against military teams and he had a long connection with the Phoenix club. In 1867 he was even their Honorary Secretary and at their annual dinner in 1869, he was one of the singers who enlivened the evening. We know little about Barry’s style of batting or bowling, except one obituary mentions he scored most of his runs on the leg-side. Also we know he was not a slow underarm bowler. That was the speciality of Arthur Samuels, whose memoir lists the few, including Dunscombe, who also practised that old-fashioned art.

Bowling statistics are rarely printed in the early years but in 1869 Barry’s performance was said to have decided a tight match in Scotland. In September that year, he played twice against the English touring side I. Zingari; curiously both matches were twelve a side. Figures in The Field show how hard he was to score off. In wet and cold conditions, All Ireland almost won but 6pm on the second day arrived before the final (11th) wicket could be taken. In the first innings Barry took two for twenty-one in thirteen overs and the second innings was even more impressive: 15 overs, 6 maidens, three wickets for 15 runs.

Siggins writes that George’s elder brother Samuel Barry played four times for Ireland between 1859-62. This includes the two-day match at Lord’s on 26-27 May 1862, when the Gentlemen of Ireland defeated the MCC by three wickets (each team including one professional). I told the story of that match in an article in History Ireland magazine in 2011. Sam Barry had an excellent game in the field. George was not captain but opened both the batting and bowling.

One of his team colleagues on that occasion, Arthur Samuels, speaking in 1888 about Barry’s instilling great esprit de corps at Leinster, said:

"I consider George Barry to have been, at one time, one of the best all-round cricketers in Ireland. He could bowl, bat, or field as well as, or better than, most men, and he makes a first-rate captain of an Eleven... [He] has always impressed upon each of them that his first duty was to win the match, and not to sulk or be down-hearted because he did not make a score."

Barry in fact made many half centuries (and on the pitches of those days, fifty runs was a great feat), but top bowlers often got him out cheaply.

Cricket prowess landed Barry a good job. Here is the version told in a chess book by MacDonnell, who could be an unreliable witness, but would have known Barry well and probably got the details first hand.

In the presence of the Lord-Lieutenant, Mr Barry made a splendid catch, which elicited immense applause …Earl C[arlisle]… when the game was finished, [sent] for Mr Barry… Learning that he was a clerk in one of the leading banks, with a salary of two or three hundred a year, His Excellency observed, ‘You deserve something better. Come down to the Castle to-morrow, and call upon Mr G. (the head of a certain department); I think there is a vacancy in his office.’ Mr Barry called the next day, and after a short visit left the Castle yard, the holder of an appointment worth £600 a year…

Barry's later career

George Barry’s last big cricket match was played on 10-12 September 1885, when he captained Leinster against Phoenix in a three-day charity match in aid of Baggot Street Hospital, reported in the Freeman’s Journal. On the second day, Barry batted well either side of lunch until finally ‘beaten by a leg break after making a faultless 22’. On the third day, Leinster were set 183 to win but declined to 87-5.

Duggan and Barry were now together, and the veteran, who had Humphries running for him, opened with a fine cut off Thompson, which was magnificently fielded by Dunn amidst loud applause.

As cricket fans know, batting with a runner is an accident-prone business. Due to a mix-up, Barry was soon ‘thrown out’ for one and Phoenix rapidly clinched the match. Barry’s playing days were almost over in the 1880s and so he would have had more time for chess. Especially important was his column in the Irish Fireside, which ran for just over two years in 1883-5. The revival of chess in Ireland begins here. Over the first few months, Barry combined elementary instruction with news and games catering to more advanced players.

In 1886-7, George Brunton Fraser of Dundee organised a match-tournament by post, called the United Kingdom International. Six players each from Scotland, Ireland and England were to play each other by post for individual and team honours. Play began in mid-1887 and continued for two years. Ireland won the team event and Barry finished just behind Fraser, who won his own tournament, but he was a whole point ahead of the two best Englishmen, Blake and Gunston, one of whom he beat. They were both very strong experts, who also played internationally ‘over the board’.

This was Barry’s swansong; within eighteen months he died ‘of a painful illness’. He left his widow Frances an estate valued at £560. I leave the last words to the Mail column’s obituary:

"Mr George Barry … was not an old man, though a veteran in chess and cricket, on account of his early commencement. In fact… his fresh and strong appearance, until quite recently, lent him a youthfulness which made it seem queer to hear him talk of things years ago. He was very well known and greatly liked. His early demise has caused a deep and widespread regret."


This is a rewritten version of a paper delivered to the Sports History Ireland Conference at Galway in 2007. I wish to acknowledge the help of Leinster Cricket Club and of Gerard Siggins, whose history of Irish cricket, Green Days, was published in 2005. His Ireland’s 100 Cricket Greats (with James Fitzgerald) includes a short chapter on Barry, with some more pictures of him and facts and career statistics. There is more on Barry in my book on the history of correspondence chess.


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