Kevin Gerard Barry was born on January 20, 1902 at 8 Fleet Street Dublin, the fourth of seven children. He spent several years of his childhood in County Carlow when his mother returned to her family’s home with her children upon the death of Barry’s father when Barry was just six years old. Barry returned to Dublin to attend Belvedere College, where he was a member of their championship Rugby team in addition to becoming an enthusiastic player on the schools newly formed hurling team. His schoolmates remembered him as friendly and generous. Yet Barry never let his extracurricular activities interfere with his studies and he earned a scholarship to University College Dublin to study medicine.
Throughout his young life, Kevin Barry was dedicated to the cause of Irish independence, joining the Volunteers at the age of 15. Starting initially as a courier, his intelligence and drive gained him promotion to a section commander despite his youth. He was involved in several major operations to secure the arms vital to obtaining Ireland’s independence. Most notably he participated in the raid on the King’s Inn, capturing the garrison’s arms. The 25 British soldiers captured during the attack were released unharmed as the volunteers withdrew. This must be remembered in considering subsequent events.
On the morning of 20 September 1920, Barry and his section were scheduled to participate in another arms raid, this time the target was a supply detail of British soldiers collecting bread from Monk’s bakery at the junction of Upper Church Street and North King Street. It was to be an uneventful raid of relieving the soldiers of their weapons and releasing them as had been done numerous times before; optimistically Barry believed that the raid would be over in time to allow him to sit an exam scheduled for that afternoon. Unfortunately, things went horribly wrong. After stopping the lorry and in the process of disarming the British soldiers, one of them was able to get a shot off at Barry’s party. What was to have been a nonviolent raid now became a shootout during the course of which three British soldiers were killed. Barry’s gun had jammed and he dove under another vehicle to free it, only to see his comrades withdraw. Barry may still have escaped capture had a well-meaning passerby not alerted the soldier to his presence thinking he was injured.
At the time of Barry’s capture, the British government had reached their peak of frustration in not be able to douse the fire of independence that burned in their oldest and closest colony. There was a firm belief in Whitehall that the rebellion could be halted using the time honored method of a few good hangings. Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, dismayed at the embarrassment that the undisciplined reprisals of the Black and Tans lamented “If these (rebels) ought to be murdered, then the government ought to murder them.” Not able to get the desired results from the judicial system, the British government passed the “Restoration of Order Act”, wherein prosecution of captured rebels would be done through military court martial and Kevin Barry would be the first example made. To perpetuate this farce of justice, Barry was involuntarily “enlisted” in the Lancashire Fusilier so as to give the military court jurisdiction. At his trial, Barry made but one statement “As a soldier of the Irish Republic, I refuse to recognize this court” and offered no defense. The verdict was a foregone conclusion; Kevin Barry would be executed by hanging as a criminal rather than treated as a captured soldier, this despite the fact that as noted captured British soldiers had always been treated with respect by the Irish Volunteers.
Barry met his fate with courage and the peace of a man who realizes there is a higher purpose to life. His one regret was that his request to be shot as a soldier rather than hung as a common criminal was denied, ironic given that to facilitate his military trial he had been impressed into the British Army. The Chaplin of Mountjoy jail, Canon Waters, was both sincerely alarmed at Kevin’s calm demeanor and under pressure from British authorities to report that the sentence of hanging had the terrorizing effect they desired on Barry so they could report it for propaganda purposes. Barry’s last visitor was his mother, who Canon Waters approached after she bid her son farewell. “This boy does not seem to realize he is going to die in the morning. He is so gay and light-hearted all the time. If he fully realized it, he would be overwhelmed.” An indignant Mrs. Barry replied, “Is it impossible for you to understand that my son is actually proud to die for the Republic?”
With his last words “Hold on and stick to the Republic”, Kevin Barry was executed by hanging on November 1, 1920 at the age of eighteen. In the end Canon Waters did come to understand Barry, writing to his mother “His courage was superhuman, and rested, I am sure, on his simple goodness and innocence of conscience. You are the mother, my dear Mrs. Barry, of one of the bravest and best boys I have ever known. “
The British government refused to release Barry’s body to his family. He was buried in an unmarked grave in the prison yard of Mountjoy jail and was soon followed by nine other volunteers hung under the “Restoration of Order Act”. The intent was that was that their deaths be examples, but their lives forgotten. However, thanks to one of the greatest of all Irish ballads that bears his name, and sung by singers as diverse as Paul Robeson to Bob Dylan, Kevin Barry would not be forgotten. In 2001, Barry and his nine comrades were buried with full honors in Glasnevin cemetery to lie beside Pearse, Ashe, Collins and Burgha. However after overcoming so many obstacles, Barry and his comrades are in danger of being forgotten again by the misguided forces of political correctness that don’t know the story of Barry’s times nor appreciate the courage and sacrifices he and his comrades made for the cause of freedom. Let us never forget, nor be embarrassed to speak of, Kevin Barry and his sacrifice for Ireland
Neil F. Cosgrove, Historian