Kevin Barry was hanged at the age of 18 by the British in Mountjoy Jail on 1 November 1920, 100 years ago this week. He was the first republican to be executed by the British after the 1916 Rising, but his martyrdom inspired the republican side in the War of Independence.
Kevin Barry was born in January 1902 in Fleet Street, Dublin. He was the fourth of seven children of Thomas and Mary Barry. Thomas died when Kevin was only 6, and the family lived for a while in County Carlow, before moving back to Dublin. Barry initially went to school in St Mary’s College, Rathmines. He then moved to Belvedere College where he was member of their championship winning rugby team. On leaving school he won a scholarship to study medicine at University College Dublin.
Kevin Barry’s interest in the nationalist movement began at a young age, by the age of 15 he was a member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the organisation which had led the ill-fated Easter Rising of April 1916 and was now involved in consistent skirmishes with British forces throughout Ireland. His first job as a member of the IRA was delivering mobilisation orders around the city. Along with other volunteers, he trained in a number of locations in Dublin, including the building at 44 Parnell Square, the present day headquarters of Sinn Féin. He took part in a number of IRA operations including raids on various premises looking for ammunition and explosives, and he was promoted to Section Commander.
On the morning of 15th August 1920 Kevin Barry joined a party of IRA Volunteers who had been ordered to ambush a British army vehicle and capture their weapons. As the group surrounded the truck, a shot was fired and, in the hail of gunfire that followed, three soldiers were killed. Barry was the only Volunteer captured. He was brought to the North Dublin Union and held there.
Having been brought to the barracks, the British authorities began to interrogate him, determined to discover the names of all of those involved in the ambush. Barry gave them his name, address and occupation as a medical student, but refused to answer any further questions. The soldiers reverted to torture to glean the information they required. A subsequent account of his torture was delivered to Sinn Féin.
The affidavit, drawn up in Mountjoy Prison days before his execution, describes his treatment when the question of names was repeated:
“I, Kevin Barry, of 58 South Circular Road, in the County of Dublin, Medical Student, aged 18 years and upwards solemnly and sincerely declare as follows:
“On the 20th of September 1920, I was arrested in Upper Church Street by a Sergeant of the 2nd Duke of Wellington’s regiment and was brought under escort to the North Dublin Union now occupied by military. I was brought into the guard room and searched. I was then moved to the defaulter’s room by an escort with a Sergeant-Major, who all belonged to 1st Lancashire Fusiliers. I was then hand-cuffed.
“About 15 minutes after I was put into the defaulter’s room, two Commissioned Officers of the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers came in. They were accompanied by 3 Sergeants of the same unit. A military policeman who had been in the same room since I entered it remained. One of the officers asked me my name, which I gave. He then asked me for the names of my companions in the raid. I refused to give them. He tried to persuade me to give the names and I persisted in refusing. He then sent a Sergeant for a bayonet. When it was brought in the Sergeant was ordered by this officer to point the bayonet at my stomach. The same questions as to the names and addresses of my companions were repeated with the same results. The Sergeant was then ordered to turn my face to the wall and point the bayonet to my back. The sergeant then said he would run the bayonet into me if I did not tell. The bayonet was then removed and I was turned round again.
“This officer then said that if I still persisted in this attitude he would turn me out to the men in the barrack square and he supposed I knew what that meant with the men in their present temper. I said nothing. He ordered the Sergeants to put me face down on the floor and twist my arm. I was pushed down onto the floor after my handcuffs were removed. When I lay on the floor one of the Sergeants knelt on the small of my back, the other two placed one foot each on my back and left shoulder and the man who knelt on me twisted my right arm, holding it by the wrist with one hand while he held my hair with the other to pull back my head. The arm was twisted from the elbow joint. This continued to the best of my knowledge for 5 minutes. It was very painful. The first officer was standing near my feet and the officer who accompanied him was still present.
“During the twisting of my arm the first officer continued to question me for the names and addresses of my companions and the names of my Company Commander or any other officer I knew.
“As I still refused to answer these questions I was let up and handcuffed. A civilian came in and he repeated the same questions with the same results. He informed me that if I gave all the information I knew I could get off. I was then left in the company of the military policeman. The two officers, three sergeants and civilian all left together.
“I could certainly identify the officer who directed the proceedings and put the questions. I am not sure of the others except the sergeant with the bayonet. My arm was medically treated by an officer of the Royal Army Medical Corps attached to the North Dublin Union the following morning and by the prison hospital orderly afterwards for 4 or 5 days.
“I was visited by the Court Martial Officer last night and he read the confirmation of sentence of death by hanging to be executed on Monday next and I make this solemn declaration conscientiously believing same to be true and by virtue of the Statutory Declarations Act, 1835
“Declared and subscribed before me at Mountjoy Prison in the County of the City of Dublin, 28 October, 1920
“Signed, Myles Keogh, A justice of the peace for said County.”
It was ordered that Kevin Barry be tried by court-martial under the ‘Restoration of Order in Ireland Act’. He was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging on 1st November 1920. It is reported that Barry said “It is nothing, to give one’s life for Ireland. I’m not the first and maybe I won’t be the last. What’s my life compared with the cause?”
The night before he was due to be executed, Father Francis Browne SJ, the famous photographer, and a teacher at Belvedere College, cycled to the Vice Regal lodge in Dublin’s Phoenix Park to plead for Barry’s life, but to no avail.
The Irish Weekly Independent of November 6th 1920 ran a full page account of Barry’s execution. They wrote:
“He was steadfast and unflinching to the end, walking to the scaffold without a tremor in voice or body. It is recorded that when being pinioned and blindfolded he objected to both processes, saying that as a soldier he was not afraid to die”
With a crowd of several thousand people outside Mountjoy Jail, Kevin Barry was executed. Following his death, he was buried within the walls of the jail, between the male and female wings. The only mourners present at the burial were prison officials and two catholic chaplains.
Arthur Griffith sent his sympathies to Barry’s mother “In your hour of deep sorrow, permit me to offer you, in the name of the duly-elected representatives of the people of Ireland, the heartfelt sympathy of the Irish nation. Your son has given his young life for Ireland, and Ireland will cherish his memory forever”.
It was said that scores of Barry’s fellow students joined the IRA on the day of his execution.
His comrade and friend Frank Flood was buried alongside him four months later. A plain cross marked their graves. They were joined in the plot by Patrick Moran, Thomas Whelan, Thomas Traynor, Patrick Doyle, Thomas Bryan, Bernard Ryan, Edmond Foley and Patrick Maher, all of whom were also hanged in the same prison for their part in the War of Independence. As a group they became known as “The Forgotten Ten”.
On October 4th 2001 they were afforded full state honours with a private service at Mountjoy Jail, followed by a requiem mass at St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral in Dublin. The cortège passed through the centre of Dublin and was witnessed by tens of thousands of people. Nine of the ten, including Kevin Barry, were reburied in Glasnevin cemetery.