Kevin Barry was 18 years old when he was hanged in Mountjoy Jail on November 1st 1920. His death at such a young age is possibly the most poignant in recent Irish history.
He was born in 1902 in Dublin and grew up both in the capital and in County Carlow. He enrolled in Belvedere College in 1916 and joined the Irish Volunteers, a nationalist organisation. In 1919 he enrolled in Dublin University to study medicine. The Michael Collins led War of Independence was developing and Barry, as Section Commander, played his part in various raids around Dublin city.
On September 20th 1920 he took part in one such raid that went badly wrong. A street gun battle ensued and three British soldiers were killed. This was very significant in that these were the first British soldier deaths in Ireland since the 1916 Easter Rising led by Pearse and Connolly. Barry hid under a truck as the British searched for him but was discovered when a passer-by, concerned for his safety underneath the huge vehicle, inadvertently warned the soldiers of his whereabouts.
Reports of his torture in Mountjoy Jail soon circulated but Barry refused to name his comrades. He was given a death sentence but it was widely believed that this sentence would be commuted, and that the British authorities would not dare to execute an eighteen year-old.
As the deadline approached it became clear that Kevin Barry would be executed. A planned rescue by Michael Collins came to nothing when reinforcements from Dublin Castle were ordered to the prison because of the large crowds that had gathered outside. It was reported that Barry had requested to be shot by firing squad rather than hanged, which he viewed as a death not befitting a soldier. The hangman, Ellis, had to be brought into the country from England, as no-one in Ireland could be found for the job. The calmness and bravery the young Barry showed in the hours leading up to his execution has become the stuff of legends. Despite protestations from clerics and politicians alike he was hanged in Mountjoy Jail on November 1st, 1920.
Just as in the aftermath of the 1916 Easter Rising the British military in Ireland had badly misjudged the situation. Had they simply imprisoned the leaders of 1916 it is likely that the huge upsurge in support for Irish nationalism would not have taken place. By executing someone as young as Kevin Barry in 1920 they handed the Irish Republican Army a huge propaganda victory. Young recruits flocked to join the IRA in the War of Independence, which in turn led to the Treaty, The partition of Ireland, the Civil War, Independence and all that has occurred since.
It was reported that, for the rest of his life, Michael Collins bitterly regretted not being able to save the young soldier.
The famous song 'Kevin Barry' was penned shortly
after his death and is still revived in ballad
sessions in Ireland to this very day:
In Mountjoy jail one Monday morning
High upon the gallows tree,
Kevin Barry gave his young life
For the cause of liberty.
But a lad of eighteen summers,
Still there's no one can deny,
As he walked to death that morning,
He proudly held his head on high.
2. Just before he faced the hangman,
In his dreary prison cell,
The Black and Tans tortured Barry,
Just because he wouldn't tell.
The names of his brave comrades,
And other things they wished to know.
'Turn informer and we'll free you'
Kevin Barry answered, 'No'.
3. 'Shoot me like a soldier.
Do not hang me like a dog,
For I fought to free old Ireland
On that still September morn.
'All around the little bakery
Where we fought them hand to hand,
Shoot me like a brave soldier,
For I fought for Ireland.'
4. 'Kevin Barry, do not leave us,
On the scaffold you must die!'
Cried his broken-hearted mother
As she bade her son good-bye.
Kevin turned to her in silence
Saying, 'Mother, do not weep,
For it's all for dear old Ireland
And it's all for freedom's sake.'
5. Calmly standing to attention
While he bade his last farewell
To his broken hearted mother
Whose grief no one can tell.
For the cause he proudly cherished
This sad parting had to be
Then to death walked softly smiling
That old Ireland might be free.
6. Another martyr for old Ireland,
Another murder for the crown,
Whose brutal laws to crush the Irish,
Could not keep their spirit down.
Lads like Barry are no cowards.
From the foe they will not fly.
Lads like Barry will free Ireland,
For her sake they'll live and die.
Kevin Barry - An article provided by The Information about Ireland Site.
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