Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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Click this image opposite to hear Leonard Cohen's version of "Kevin Barry (Shoot me like an Irish soldier". He gets his dates muddled - it should be 1920, not 1916 - and the words aren't quite right but, all the same, Leonard does a fine job. Paul Robeson also sings a suitably rumbling version which can be found here on YouTube.

KEVIN BARRY (1902-1920)

‘They are not going to shoot me like a soldier’, marvelled Kevin Barry. ‘They are going to hang me like a gentleman!’ And now his time had come. It was still dark outside when they led the 18-year-old out to the gallows that cold November morning. The guards at Mountjoy Jail were agitated. Barry was to be the first man executed in Ireland since the Easter Rising of 1916. And a lot of people didn’t think he should die. Several hundred of those had gathered outside the prison gates, sinking their knees into the muddy street as they sobbed and whispered their last minute prayers. [i]

Barry remained calm, accepting that his life was about to end. After his last Mass and Communion in his cell, two priests walked him to the glass-roofed Hang House. He stood on the double-leaf trapdoor and the noose was placed around his neck.

At 8 o’clock, the crowd outside heard the mournful peal of the prison bell. Minutes later, an official posted a sign on the prison door stating that, in accordance with the law, Barry was dead. It was Monday November 1st 1920 and Barry had just become the first person to be executed during the Irish War of Independence.

Kevin Barry was born in Dublin’s Holles Street Hospital on 20th January 1902.[iii] The Barrys lived at 8 Fleet Street, from where they ran a successful dairy business. Kevin’s father Thomas Barry also had an 86-acre farm at Tombeagh, between Rathvilly and Hacketstown, Co. Carlow. Following Thomas’s premature demise in 1908, his widow Mary moved permanently to the Carlow farm where she and her sister raised the seven children.[iv]

Six-year-old Kevin, the fourth child, went to school in Rathvilly. He quickly made an impression on his fellow classmates standing up to a bully of a teacher, who duly smacked his ears for his impudence. At length he became a favourite of the school principal, Edward O’Toole, a former head centre of the Carlow branch of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.[v]

At the age of 13, Kevin’s mother took him on a trip to Manchester where he was greatly stirred by a memorial to the Manchester Martyrs, three Irish Fenians hanged in 1867 for killing a policeman during a botched prison rescue attempt. [vi] The story runs that he asked his mother to let him join the Fianna na hÉireann (Irish Warriors) but she declined.

By the time of the Easter Rebellion, Barry was studying at St Mary's College in Rathmines. However, when the school closed down that summer, he transferred to Belvedere College. As well as excelling at both rugby and hurling, Barry was a fine student. He won a Dublin Corporation Scholarship to go on to the National University of Dublin (now University College Dublin) to study medicine.

In October 1917, while at Belvedere, the 15-year-old joined the Irish Volunteers and was assigned to C Company of the First Battalion. He later transferred to ‘H’ Company where his Commander was 1916 veteran Seamus Kavanagh.

He began his medical studies at UCD in September 1919, befriending Gerry McAleer of Dungannon, Co. Tyrone, and Jack Henry of Charlestown, Co. Mayo. [vii] During a visit to the McAleer's hotel in Dungannon, he carved his initials into a window sill. The sill is now a treasured family relic!

By the time he started at UCD, the War of Independence was well underway. As a Volunteer, Barry’s initial duties were simply to cycle around Dublin delivering messages and orders. He quickly graduated to taking a more active role in ammunition raids, such as those on an RIC consignment held at the Shamrock Works and at Mark’s of Chapel Street.

He was promoted to Section Commander after his unit conducted a particularly daring raid of two Lewis machine guns and 25 rifles from an army depot beside the King’s Inn on Henrietta Street. Twenty-five British soldiers were captured during this encounter but released after Barry’s men withdrew.

When UCD closed for the summer in May 1920, Barry returned to Carlow to help his brother Michael Barry run the farm. He maintained his close connections with the IRA throughout the summer. Michael was also active in the Carlow Brigade and Kevin reputedly played his part in seizing guns from loyalists in the surrounding area, intercepting vital police mail and cutting telephone lines to both the police and army barracks in Hacketstown. When the RIC evacuated the Hackestown barracks, Kevin Barry was amongst those who set fire to the premises to ensure it would no longer be operational.

Barry was not long back in Dublin when he rejoined his unit. Kavanagh explained that they had been ordered to carry out an arms raid on a British Army truck headed for the city on September 20th. As Barry had an exam scheduled for 2pm that same afternoon, Kavanagh suggested that he skip out on the raid. Barry refused, reasoning that the mission would be finished by midday, giving him plenty of time to get to his exam hall at Earlsfort Terrace.

The army truck rolled up half an hour late outside Patrick Monks's Bakery on the corner of Upper Church Street and North King Street. Sergeant Banks and eight soldiers of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment had been assigned to collect bread rations for Collinstown Camp (now the site of Dublin Airport.) Four Volunteers were already waiting inside the bakery, while another sixteen, including Barry, hid themselves in the surrounding streets and alleys, with their revolvers cocked and loaded.

As Banks and two men entered the bakery, the Volunteers surrounded the truck. ‘Hands up and throw over your arms”, ordered Kavanagh. Faced with sixteen armed men, the five soldiers within obeyed. What happened next remains a matter of debate. A single shot rang out, almost certainly fired from a British gun.

And then the Irish guns began to bark. Private Harold Washington was killed instantly and two other British soldiers, Private Marshall Whitehead and Private Thomas Humphries died later.[viii]

Barry's pistol is believed to have jammed twice in the attack, obliging him to take refuge under the truck to try and fix it.

Hearing the commotion, a nearby detachment of Lancashire Fusiliers rushed to the scene and the Volunteers fled. However, just as the British army lorry was about to pull away, an old woman shouted at them to halt. She pointed out that there was a young lad under the lorry who might get hurt. The soldiers dragged the boy out, spotted his loaded pistol and hurled him into the lorry beside their dead and dying comrades. The boy was Kevin Barry.

According to his interrogation statement, up for sale today, Barry was handcuffed and taken to a room at the Barracks for questioning by six officers.[ix] He was told that if he revealed the identities of his fellow attackers, he would be let go. When he refused, they began to torture him, twisting his elbow out of its socket, prodding his stomach and back with a bayonet, sinking their knees into his back and kicking him repeatedly in the stomach. He did not talk.

He was taken to Mountjoy to await trial. He arrived with his arm in a sling, and required several days of hospital treatment. The Irish prison officers at Mounjoy showed a degree of sympathy and, contrary to orders from higher command, allowed his mother to visit under an assumed name.

On 20th October, Barry became the first person to be tried by court martial under the new Restoration of Order in Ireland Act.[x] He appeared before a jury made up of Brigadier-General Onslow and nine officers. He was charged with three counts of murder. After a short adjournment Barry announced, “As a soldier of the Irish Republic, I refuse to recognize the court.” The Judge directed the jury that the Crown simply had to prove Barry was a member of the party responsible for the three deaths. Every member of that party, he said, was technically guilty of murder.[xi] This proviso negated the fact there was no evidence Barry fired any of the fatal shots.[xii]

As witness after witness came forward to give their version of the morning's events, Barry was repeatedly asked if he wished to question the witness. Each time he replied "No" and carried on turning the pages of a newspaper he was reading. On one occasion, he snapped at the Judge, "Don't bother asking me that question any more, I am not interested in the proceedings."

At 8 o’clock that night, Barry was back in his Mountjoy cell when informed that he had been found guilty as charged and was sentenced to hang.

In the following days, the Volunteers launched upwards of five rescue attempts, including one by Michael Collins, all unsuccessful. High-level attempts to secure a reprieve were made in London, Washington and the Vatican.[xiii] The Catholic Archbishop of Dublin also pleaded for clemency, while the Lord Mayor of Dublin made an unsuccessful phone call to Lloyd George on the night of October 31st.

Meanwhile, on October 25th the Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney died in Brixton prison in London after a 74-day hunger strike. His death and burial in Cork four days later generated huge world-wide publicity.

Few believed that the British authorities would go ahead and execute an 18 year-old in the midst of such a tense political situation.

However, Major-General H. H. Tudor, Inspector General of the Royal Irish Constabulary, stated his intention to resign if Barry was reprieved. Faced with the prospect of dissent from within his own ranks, Lloyd George rejected all the appeals.

Father Albert, the Republican Capuchin chaplain who gave Barry his final Communion described him as "a magnificent boy - wonderfully calm". As he left, he asked Barry for any final messages. Barry replied: "The only message I have for anybody is hold on and stick to the Republic.” Canon Waters, the Prison Chaplain, likewise wrote to Mrs. Barry describing Barry’s courage in the final moments as ‘superhuman … it 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.’

Brigadier-General Frank Percy Crozier who oversaw the execution was also much moved by the young man's nerve. The hangman, John Ellis, was brought over from England in considerable secrecy as no Irishman would perform the deed. “He came 300 miles across the sea, surreptitiously, to hang a rebel murderer”, Crozier later wrote. “Or - he came 300 miles across the sea, surreptitiously, to hang a soldier of Ireland. You see, so much depends on one's point of view." Crozier subsequently resigned in protest at the lawlessness of the British Auxiliaries in Ireland.

Britain evidently had not learned the lesson of the Easter Rebellion. Executions make martyrs. Barry’s case had commanded considerable attention in the international press. Seizing the opportunity to win the propaganda war against Britain, Erskine Childers, Sinn Fein’s director of publicity, greased the cogs which would propel Barry to the ranks of the Republican immortals, the ‘lad of eighteen summers’ who, as the ballad goes, ‘proudly held his head on high’ and ‘gave his young life for the cause of liberty.’[xiv]

For both the British Crown and the Irish Republicans, one thing was now clear. This war would be a bloody one. Over fifty policemen were attacked across Ireland on the day of Barry’s execution; seven died. The four weeks that followed were the bloodiest of the conflict.[xv]

Kevin Barry was buried in a small laurel plantation in the yard of Mountjoy Jail. In 2001, he was amongst those reinterred with full State honours in Glasnevin Cemetery.[xvi]

With thanks to Michael Purcell, Michael Brennan, Mark Monks, Terry Curran, Geraldine Dunraven, Evanna Kennedy, Nellie O’Toole, Cathal Henry and the late Bill Burgess.


[i] The New York Times stated that the crowd outside Mountjoy had grown to 2,000 by 8am.

[ii] Barry wrote the letter to his friends in blue prison pencil on two sheets of paper on October 31st, 1920, the night before he was hanged. “I have always considered myself lucky to have such a crowd of pals. It’s the only thing which makes it hard to go,” the letter reads.

[iii] He was baptized in St Andrew’s on Westland Row, as were the Pearse brothers, Brendan Behan and Hugh Leonard.

[iv] Kevin Barry’s mother was born Mary Dowling. Her sister was called Judith.

[v] A photograph survives of Kevin and his brother Michael working in O’Toole’s award-winning garden. Apparently some of the villagers who worked at Lisnavagh held O’Toole accountable for Barry’s militant activities, although their sympathies switched to pro-Barry after his death,

[vi] William Philip Allen, Michael Larkin, and Michael O'Brien were hanged in Manchester on 23 November 1867 for the rescue of two officer of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Young Barry was reputedly much affected by the song ‘God Save Ireland’ written in tribute to the three men.

[vii] One of Kevin Barry’s last visitors at Mountjoy was Gerry McAleer (Gerard Ward McAleer) of Dungannon, Co Tyrone, whom he befriended at Belvedere where they were studying medicine. They played on the same rugby team. Others from this group included Frank Flood, Tom Kissane and Mick Robinson. Unknown to many in the college, Barry and the latter three were also IRA Volunteers. In 2012, Gerry’s daughter Evanna told me her father was not in the IRA and that he did not know Barry was either.
It is to be noted that the day after Barry’s death, a party of men fired upon a police patrol in Dungannon and wounded a constable, leading to a violent few days of reprisal in the area.
However, Gerry always claimed he had failed one of his exams at UCD because he had gone down to the Barry farm at Tombeagh, Rathvilly, in mid-1921, to help save the hay a few months after Kevin’s execution, only to be arrested. He went down with a long with a pal called Charlie O'Neill (later a dentist in London) and another gent, who may have been called Jack Henry.
Michael Purcell, the Carlow historian, has since confirmed that Gerry was arrested in Rathvilly and subsequently sent via Carlow Barracks to the Curragh where he was held for three weeks. A British officer lent Gerry his binoculars so that he could to enjoy the races. At the Curragh, he and O'Neill were known as the Doctor and the Dentist.
For the rest of the war, Rathvilly became a focal point for the British military. 'The Troubled times were very bad here,' said Nellie O’Toole, a wonderful old woman I interviewed for ‘Vanishing Ireland’. ‘At night we'd see soldiers flashlights coming in from Baltinglass. They'd come in their big, noisy lorries and take over the schoolyard. They'd go through all the houses, demanding to know, "Who have you in bed? Have you any men here?' Any men they found would have to get up out of bed and give answers. Sometimes they'd be taken away and given a beating. It was shocking really."
Gerry later returned to Carlow and spoke with some locals about Kevin and his last hours. He was accompanied by Honoria Aughney, later a Medical Officer in Wexford.
Gerry McAleer later became No. 2 in the Far East Medical Force; apparently he missed the top spot because he only got second-class honours at Belvedere. Eavanna knew nothing of her fathers’ incarceration until she attended the unveiling of the Kevin Barry memorial in Rathvilly in 1970, during which a shawly approached her and, with quavering voice, said she had brought tea to Evanna's father while he was in Carlow Jail. Evanna has a number of her fathers letters from Kevin Barry, including one that says "Give my love to all the old Belvederians when I go over the top on Monday' or some such.
For many decades afterwards Gerry McAleer, Jack Henry and Charlie O'Neill would meet up for an annual drink in London. Jack Henry's son Professor John Henry (1939-2007) was a clinical toxicologist at St Mary's Hospital in Paddington, London. He was the man who dealt with the poisoning case of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko.
When Kevin Barry’s remains were reinterred in Glasnevin in 2001, two of Gerry McAleer’s daughters marched out in memory of their father.

(With thanks to Michael Purcell and Eavanna Kennedy).

[viii] Many Irish policemen had been killed in the War of Independence but these three were the first regular British soldiers to die. Vengeance was always going to be swift. It began on the streets around the bakery to which the British soldiers returned in droves, raiding shops and houses throughout the area, demanding information on the perpetrators of this deadly ambush. In a heated article in the Daily Telegraph (7/10/2001) entitled ‘Ireland celebrates its murderous dead’, referring to the State-sponsored reburial of the Mountjoy Volunteers in Glasnevin, Kevin Myers stated that Washington was a 15 year old ‘boy-soldier - and probably an orphan’ from Salford, while the other two were ‘Thomas Humphries, aged 19, son of Sarah Humphries, a widow from Bradford, and Matthew Whitehead, aged 20, from Halifax, son of Alice Whitehead, also a widow.’ ‘No ballads were written about them, nor about their youthfulness’, says Mr. Myers.

[ix] Barry’s stated address was 58 South Circular Road.

[x] Restoration of Order in Ireland Act’ which had come about on August 9, 1920.

[xi] The guardians of the Shillelagh poor house later declared that Barry had been “done to death at Mountjoy by that mockery called British law”.

[xii] An early piece of evidence showed that the bullets taken from Private Whitehead’s body came from a .45 calibre gun, whereas Barry’s revolver was a .38 calibre Mauser Parabellum.

[xiii] Edward O’Toole, Barry’s old teacher from Rathvilly, telegraphed his friend Joe Devlin, MP, and asking him to do whatever he could. Devlin and T.P. O’Connor approached British Prime Minister Lloyd George who “seemed to be sympathetic and promised to bring the matter before a meeting of his cabinet”.

[xiv] His name is recalled from the terraces of Rathvilly to the pubs of Savannah, Georgia.

[xv] Twenty seven were killed on Bloody Sunday alone. Large numbers of his fellow students signed up to the cause of freedom, while his sisters and their friends became highly active in Cumann na mBan Kevin Barry’s sister Kathleen joined the university branch of Cumann na mBan in 1920 and was close to the most senior republicans including Michael Collins, Austin Stack, Richard Mulcahy and Eamon de Valera throughout the 1920–24 period. She opposed the Treaty.

[xvi] In 2001, Barry was one of ten executed Irish Volunteers buried at Mountjoy whose bodies were exhumed. They were then given a State Funeral and Barry was amongst the nine buried at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin. Taisoeach Bertie Ahern gave a graveside oration. The tenth, Patrick Maher, will be buried in his home town of Ballylanders, Co Limerick.