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Commodore John Barry (1745-1803), Father of the American Navy

John Barry, co-founder of the Continental Navy in the USA.

Before the American War of Independence kicked off in 1775, the only navy operating along the coast of the future United States was the British one. Masterminded by the Admiralty in London, the Royal Navy was arguably the finest naval fleet in the world.

So when the Thirteen Colonies decided to unite and oust the forces of Britannia from the neighbourhood, they quickly realised they would be up the swanny if they didn’t develop a naval fleet asap.

With considerable encouragement from the future US president John Adams, a fleet was cobbled together with the specific aim of harassing Britain’s commercial operations at sea. Known as the Continental Navy, this gradually evolved from a raggle-taggle collection of converted merchantmen into a fleet of purpose-built warships.

Unfortunately for the Americans, their new ships were no match for the British. Of the eight that were successfully launched, nearly all were either captured or sunk by 1781.

One of these ships was Raleigh, a 32-gun frigate, the prow of which was bedecked by a full-length carving of Sir Walter Raleigh. Commanded by Captain John Barry, an Irishman, the ship was run aground in an action off Matinicus Island, Maine, in 1778. Barry got his men safely to shore and then sent a boat back to scuttle the vessel. However, Raleigh was subsequently raised by the British at high tide and went on to serve in the name of the Crown.

There must have been a lesson in there somewhere for John Barry. Born in 1745, he was the son of Catherine and John Barry and grew up at Ballysampson near Tacumshane on the south east coast of County Wexford. His father is variously described as a ‘snug’, meaning wealthy, farmer and a clerk in a malt-house. Little is known of his early life save that he went to seas at a young age as a cabin boy and settled in Philadelphia.

He was married twice but had no children. A deeply religious man, he read the bible daily. He was immensely popular with his men.

John Barry received his first captain’s commission in the Continental Navy on March 14, 1776, and initially commanded a 16-gun brig called Lexington.

After he lost Raleigh, he enjoyed more success in command of Alliance, winning the final naval battle of the war. In 1781, Barry and Alliance escorted General Lafayette, the first representative of the United States, across the Atlantic to the French court at Versailles. He was severely wounded in a battle on the way back but managed to capture two British vessels in the process.

It is said that he was offered £100,000 and the frigate of his choice if he would transfer his allegiance to the British navy. “Not the value or command of the whole British fleet” Barry replied, “can lure me from the cause of my country which is liberty and freedom.”

In 1797, President George Washington appointed him commander-in-chief of the American Navy. He also made him Commodore and Barry thus became the United States’ first commissioned naval officer, as well as its first flag officer. It was on his watch that the US Navy purchased 40 acres of old docks and waterfront access in Brooklyn which subsequently became one of the U.S. Navy’s biggest shipyards. It stands next to the oldest park in Brooklyn, renamed Commodore Barry Park in his honour in 1951.

John Barry remained head of the Navy until his death from asthma on 12 September 1803. He was buried in Philadelphia’s Old St. Mary’s Churchyard. Dr Benjamin Rush, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, delivered his graveside eulogy and stated: “He was born in Ireland, but America was the object of his devotion and the theater of his usefulness.”

As well as the park in Brooklyn, his name has been recalled through four US Navy battleships (most recently a 1992 missile destroyer), a bridge across the Delaware River, a hall at Villanova University, schools in Chicago and Philadelphia, divisions of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Maryland and New Jersey and statues in Washington DC, Philadelphia, the University of Notre Dame and his hometown of Wexford. The latter is a bronze statue, gifted by the USA, and unveiled on the Circular Quay in 1956.

In 1992, the US Congress officially designated every September 13th as `Commodore John Barry Day’. This day is also commemorated by the Irish Naval Service and the Minister for Defence.