He was born at Ardquin, County Down, the second son of Robert Echlin. The Echlin family had come to Ireland from Fife, Scotland, in the early seventeenth century. He was the great-grandson of Robert Echlin, who was Bishop of Down and Connor from 1612 to 1635. His mother was Mary Leslie, daughter of Henry Leslie, Bishop of Meath (died 1661) and his wife Jane Swinton. His father died when his children were still very young, and he seems to have left his family in some financial difficulty, although their position improved when his widow remarried Robert Ward of Killagh, County Down, who was a man of sufficient social standing to be created a baronet in 1682. Henry's eldest brother John Echlin seems to have been a man of some substance: John's son Charles Echlin was an MP, and his daughter Rose was grandmother of the first Earl of Bandon. Henry's younger brother was Lieutenant-General Robert Echlin (c.1657-c.1723), commander of the 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons, and later a prominent Jacobite, who died in exile in France.
He gained useful experience of the legal system by working in the courts as a clerk while still in his teens, no doubt to supplement his income. At the same time he attended the University of Dublin; he matriculated in 1667, was Scholar in 1668, and became Master of Arts in 1703. He practiced for some time as an attorney, then entered Lincoln's Inn in 1672 and the King's Inns in 1677.
In 1683, he was appointed Third Serjeant-at-law. Since he was just over thirty and had only been in practice at the Irish Bar for six years, his appointment caused some surprise. Like most legal appointments at the time, it was largely due to the influence of James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormonde, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland; Echlin also had the support of Sir John Temple, the Solicitor General for Ireland, who justified the appointment as follows:
At the Glorious Revolution, he took his family to England to be out of harm's way, but he returned to Ireland in 1690 and was made second Baron of the Court of Exchequer (Ireland); he later transferred to the Court of King's Bench (Ireland), then returned to the Exchequer. He regularly attended the Irish House of Lords to advise them on legal matters; he was knighted in 1692 and sat on a commission to assess the estates of those Jacobites who had fled to France. He was required to explain to the Lords why he had asked a bishop who had asked to give unsworn evidence in court to swear an oath (which is rather ironic given the number of bishops in his own family tree). He lobbied in 1706 to become Chief Baron of the Irish Exchequer, but was passed over, supposedly on the grounds of ill health, although he was well enough to go regularly on assize in Ulster.
In 1713-4, Irish political life was greatly complicated by a feud between the central Government and Dublin Corporation. Echlin, along with his colleagues, signed a number of reports on the matter, which were considered to give a partisan view of the affair. Questioned years later by the Irish House of Commons on his actions, he admitted frankly that he knew little about the affair, but had signed whatever reports were placed before him for fear of losing his office if he refused.
In 1714, on the death of Queen Anne, her Irish judges were removed en bloc and were in temporary disgrace (one, Anthony Upton, later committed suicide), but Echlin's reputation did not suffer permanently. Ball says that his loyalty to the House of Hanover was never seriously in question, although suspicions about his loyalty would have been natural enough from 1715 onwards, when his brother, General Robert Echlin, embittered by what he saw as the Crown's failure to reward him for his long and faithful service, fled to France and became a prominent Jacobite. The brothers do not seem to have been close, and there is no evidence that Henry, despite his increasing wealth, ever helped his brother financially.
He married Agnes, daughter of the Reverend William Mussen, and they had three sons and a daughter. Robert, the eldest son, died in 1706. He had married Penelope Eustace, daughter and co-heiress of Sir Maurice Eustace of Harristown, County Kildare, and the title passed on Henry's death to Robert's son, Sir Robert Echlin, 2nd Baronet The younger Robert's wife Elizabeth, Lady Echlin (née Bellingham), was a well-known writer in her day.
The main Echlin estate was Kenure House at Rush, County Dublin, which had once belonged to the Duke of Ormonde: only a few traces of Kenure now remain. Echlin also owned Clonagh Castle in Kildare and a town house at Winetavern Street, Dublin.
There is a sympathetic account of his character, which notes in particular his abiding passion for books, from the author and bookseller John Dunton, who met him in 1698:
"Baron Echlin is a person of great honour, and of a greatness of soul beyond most that I ever heard of. He is such a universal lover of books that very few if any shall escape him whatever their cost. He has a very large and curious library, yet is as inquisitive still after rarities as if he had none."
- Ball, F. Elrington The Judges in Ireland 1221–1921 John Murray London 1926 Vol. 2 p.56
- D.W. Hayton ed. "Robert Echlin" in The History of Parliament -The House of Commons 1690-1715 (2002)
- Ball p.56
- Hart, A.R. History of the King's Serjeant-at-law in Ireland Dublin Four Courts Press 2000 p.65
- Hart pp.65-6
- A rival candidate, of whom little is known.
- Hart p.65
- Hart p.66
- Ball p.57
- Ball p.57
- except Sir Gilbert Dolben, 1st Baronet
- Ball p.87- although the suicide may have been the result of a mental illness, and thus unrelated to his political disgrace
- Hayton History of Parliament (2002)
- Mosley, ed. Burke's Peerage 107th edition Delaware 2003 Vol. 1 p.1268
- Burke's Peerage p.1268
- Ball p.57
- Ball p.28