Kevin Barry was born in Dublin on the 20th January 1902, the fourth child of Thomas Barry and his wife Mary Dowling both of whom were natives of County Carlow. In 1919 Kevin entered University College, Dublin as a medical student. Some years earlier he had joined the Irish Volunteers and was a member of the 1st Battalion of the Dublin Brigade. As a Volunteer he took part in a number of actions by the Dublin Brigade aimed at securing arms and ammunition. One such action took place in Church Street, Dublin on the 20th September 1920 when Irish Volunteers including Barry attacked a military lorry. Three British soldiers were killed that day and Kevin Barry became the first Volunteer to be captured in an armed attack since the Easter Rising in 1916. He was subsequently court martialled and sentenced to death on the 20th October 1920. Kevin Barry was the first person tried and executed for a capital offence under the Restoration of Order in Ireland Act which was passed earlier that same year. He was also the first Irish person to be executed since the executions carried out following the Easter Rebellion. Kevin Barry was hanged in Mountjoy Jail on the 1st November 1920.
The British Army commander who headed up over 40,000 troops in Ireland in 1920 was confident as was the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, that the guerilla warfare which started in January 1919 would soon be ended. However, even with the reinforcements of the R.I.C. by the recruitment of ex-World War I soldiers commonly known as the Black and Tans and the setting up of a new auxiliary division of the R.I.C. law and order could not be restored in Ireland. While deValera was in America seeking support for the self proclaimed Government of the Irish Republic, young men such as Kevin Barry continued to be involved in the fight to achieve an independent Irish Republic.
The recent commemorations for the Easter Rising brought forward an enormous amount of claims, too many to be substantiated, of active involvement in the Rising. The numbers tended to indicate exaggerated claims of involvement. Even more exaggerated claims of involvement in the subsequent War of Independence have in the past been made and will undoubtedly resurface in the coming years. As to the actual participants in the guerilla warfare of post Easter rising Ireland, historians have estimated that it is unlikely that any more than 3,000 men and women were actively involved.
Just a week before Kevin Barry’s execution, Terence MacSwiney, the Mayor of Cork died on hunger strike in Brixton Prison. Four weeks later, fourteen British army personnel were assassinated by Michael Collins’s men and on the same day twelve civilians were killed in Croke Park in a retaliatory action by British soldiers.
The death sentence passed on Kevin Barry’s Court martial attracted world wide attention given that he was just eighteen years of age Eamon deValera, then in America spoke in New York at a large rally on the morning of Barry’s execution. His speech was recorded and later issued as a commercial record, copies of which were on sale in America that following month. Appeals for clemency for Kevin Barry went unheeded and the British Government headed by Lloyd George decided against a reprieve pointing out that the British soldiers killed in the Church Street raid were also very young men.
The Irish Weekly Independent of the 6th November 1920 reported that Barry objected to being pinioned and blindfolded saying that as a soldier he was not afraid to die. Arthur Griffith wrote to his mother “your son has given his young life for Ireland and Ireland will cherish his memory forever”. He was buried within the walls of Mountjoy jail where four months later another young man his friend Frank Flood, was also buried. Kevin Barry’s sister later married “Bapty” Maher of Athy who was a member of the Irish Volunteers in the town. Frank Flood was a brother of Tom Flood who following the Treaty lived in Leinster Street, Athy. Another link with both Barry and Flood was made when Patrick Moran was also executed and buried in Mountjoy Jail. He had spent some years working as a bar man in Athy before leaving for Dublin where he took part in the Easter Rising.
A Kevin Barry exhibition put together by University College Dublin will be opened at Athy Heritage Centre on Tuesday, 12th July at 7.30 p.m. The images displayed throughout the exhibition come from the University’s Digital Archive with text prepared by Diarmaid Ferriter, Professor of Modern Irish History in UCD. The newly elected Mayor of County Kildare, Councillor Ivan Keatley, will officially open the exhibition. All are welcome.