Barry was sentenced to death for his part in an IRA raid in Dublin which had gone terribly wrong and resulted in a gunfight with British soldiers in which three soldiers were killed. In the weeks since then he had been tortured in an attempt to get him to name other IRA members, but he never relinquished their names. He was convicted on the 20th October after a short hearing of a British Military Court consisting of 9 British Army Officers. He refused to recognise the court or enter a plea and as a consequence his defence Counsel informed the Court that he was obliged to withdraw. He was convicted on the doctrine of “Joint Enterprise” as the evidence showed that the bullets which killed Private Whitehead were a different calibre to the gun he had when arrested. Kevin Barry refused to disclose the names of his comrades. He was the first Irish republican to be executed by the British since the leaders of the Easter Rising.
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.
— MU Library (@library_MU) November 1, 2017
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. Much was made of Barry’s age in the Irish newspapers; he was only 18, but the British responded by noting that the dead soldiers were of a similar age.
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 Desmond Fitzgerald, Director of Propaganda for Sinn Féin.
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”
Barry’s execution outraged nationalist public opinion in Ireland and its Diaspora, largely because of his age. The timing of the execution, only days after the death by hunger strike of Terence MacSwiney, the republican Lord Mayor of Cork, brought public opinion to fever-pitch. His treatment and death attracted great international attention and attempts were made by U.S. and Vatican officials to secure a reprieve. His execution and MacSwiney’s death precipitated a dramatic escalation in violence as the Irish War of Independence entered its most bloody phase. Due to his refusal to inform, Kevin Barry became one of the most celebrated Irish republicans.
A ballad bearing Kevin Barry’s name, relating the story of his execution, has been sung by artists as diverse as Paul Robeson, Leonard Cohen, Lonnie Donegan, and The Dubliners.
'Just a Lad of 18 Summers’
— Glasnevin Museum (@glasnevinmuseum) November 1, 2017
The Ballad of Kevin Barry is well known today, though one of the most unusual recordings of it comes from the Communist singer and activist Paul Robeson, who learned of it from Donegal man Peadar O’Donnell in the United States. To quote historian Donal Ó Drisceoil’s excellent biography of O’Donnell:
“Peadar was stranded at a roadside with a burst tyre when a limousine stopped and offered help. He was invited to sit in the car by the passenger while the driver fixed the puncture. The passenger turned out to be Paul Robeson, who told Peadar that he would like to record an Irish song. O’ Donnell suggested Kevin Barry, the ballad glorifying the young IRA man hanged by the British in 1920, which he said conveyed the spirit of Ireland. He proceeded to teach the song to Robeson, who released it on record in the early 1950s.”
Another UCD student, Frank Flood, was also executed for his role in revolutionary politics during the War of Independence years. The bodies of both Barry and Flood were removed from Mountjoy in 2001 for a fitting burial in Glasnevin cemetery.
High upon the gallows tree
Kevin Barry gave his young life
For the cause of liberty Just a lad of eighteen summers
Yet there’s no one can deny
As he walked to death that morning
He proudly held his head on high Just before he faced the hangman
In his dreary prison cell
British soldiers tortured Barry
Just because he would not tell The names of his brave comrades
And other things they wished to know
“Turn informer or we’ll kill you”
Kevin Barry answered “No” Another martyr for old Ireland
Another murder for the crown
Whose brutal laws may kill the Irish
But can’t keep their spirits 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 Gerard Barry (20 January 1902 – 1 November 1920) Medical student and executed Irish Republican Army volunteer