Within Paul Robeson’s remarkable repertoire of songs were tales of injustice, defiance and hope. Robeson would describe the songs he sang as ‘the eternal music of common humanity,’ and from the miners of Wales to the besieged and beleaguered republican forces in the Spanish Civil War, he brought those songs to the places where he felt they needed to be heard.
In 1957, Robeson released ‘The Ballad of Kevin Barry’ on Topic Records, together with ‘Ol’ Man River.’ It was a peculiar chance encounter with the Irish socialist and author Peadar O’Donnell on an American roadside which had led to Robeson learning the song, telling O’Donnell he wished to learn a song from the Irish struggle for independence.
To that song, Kevin Barry was ‘just a lad of eighteen summers.’ In some ways, it can infantilise a young man who was a committed revolutionary, and an active participant in an unfolding revolutionary moment, in which men and women younger still were also playing a part.
His execution, just over a century ago, had a transformative impact on public opinion, the Manchester Guardian proclaiming that ‘as things now run in Ireland such an execution becomes a popular act of heroism and loses all the deterrent effects intended.’
An Escalating Conflict
The Irish War of Independence, accepted chronology has it, began in January 1919 with the Soloheadbeg Ambush in rural Tipperary. In the words of one participant in that ambush, Dan Breen, ‘the only way of starting a war was to kill someone, and we wanted to start a war.’ For the rest of 1919, the Spanish Flu was considerably more likely to claim the lives of soldiers and policemen in Ireland than any revolutionary upheaval, however.
The situation in Ireland dramatically intensified in 1920, with the stunning electoral victories for Sinn Féin in the local and rural elections, the establishment of republican courts, an increase in militant trade union activity and a sustained campaign by the Irish Republican Army. The IRA’s clandestine newspaper, An tÓglach, insisted that ‘the histories of former fights for freedom in other lands when guerrilla tactics were resorted to are full of lessons for the Irish Volunteers.’
Between May and July 1920, no less than 556 offices from the Royal Irish Constabulary had resigned their posts, and several hundred police stations across the island of Ireland sat abandoned, many burnt. Large parts of Ireland, it was admitted at government level, were ‘practically in a state of anarchy.’
The deployment of supplementary constables into the ranks of the RIC – remembered as the ‘Black and Tans’ – did nothing to quell the violence, instead leading to a policy of reprisals which further entrenched support for the revolution among the masses. The line of Sir Hamar Greenwood, a chief defender of the Black and Tans, was simple:
We won’t stand for independence. We won’t have a Republic. Short of that, if this campaign of violence and anarchy ceases, the Irish people can have any measure of Home Rule they can agree on.
Profile of a Young Radical
Home Rule, in essence the return of Dublin’s parliament to College Green, had been the demand of successive Irish constitutional nationalists. Daniel O’Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell and John Redmond had all pledged themselves to an Irish parliament within the framework of the British Empire, a hardly radical aspiration which had been the political demand of most Irish people throughout the nineteenth century.
In the post-Easter Rising world, that aspiration meant little to a young, confident revolutionary generation. Kevin Gerard Barry, born in January 1902, was just fourteen years of age when that insurrection occurred. To his generation, Parnell already appeared to be ancient history, and faith was instead placed in the 1916 Proclamation, which maintained the ‘right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible.’
Barry’s existence was that of a middle-class boy, whose childhood was divided between Dublin – where the family operated a dairy business on Fleet Street – and Carlow, from which both his parents hailed. Educated at the prestigious Belvedere College, an institution run by the Jesuit Order, his surviving school essays give insight into a developing revolutionary mind.
In an essay on the theme of industrial unrest, the teenager wrote of his admiration for James Larkin and the stand taking by the union in the 1913 Lockout, insisting that Dublin ‘received a forcible demonstration of the power of Labour and had an experience also of the power of agitation in the person of that marvellous leader James Larkin and his able lieutenant, Commandant James Connolly.’
One wonders what the Jesuits thought of Kevin’s views on monarchy in another school essay, which he described as ‘the only surviving evil of the days when the people, the mob, were looked upon as dirt, as animals to serve the mighty king and his minions.’
In Belvedere, Barry played rugby, the games of cricket and rugby being synonymous then with Dublin’s private schools, and the middle classes. It is an image of Barry in his striped Belvedere jersey which has become immortal. Barry is still commemorated in the school with an annual rugby match today.
While still a school student, Barry had joined the Republican movement – his sister later recounted that ‘I learned afterwards that, when he joined the Volunteers, everybody thought his Belvedere cap a great joke and they decided it was a flash in the pan and they would keep him until he got tired of it. When he proved regular and punctual in attendance, the officers began to think he might be serious and decided to try him out.’
Despite combining school with revolution, Barry graduated with flying colours – and a scholarship for University College Dublin.
The collective memory of the Irish War of Independence – a term first used in the pages of An tÓglach – is an image not unlike the Volunteers depicted by Ken Loach in ‘The Wind That Shakes The Barley.’ An invisible army which moved amongst their people, and with rifle slung over shoulder, the historian Richard English has written of how ‘these full-time soldiers on the move could engage in ambushes over wide areas; having broken with their former lives, they lived life on the run amid an atmosphere of utter commitment and of deepened contact with comrades.’
The war in Dublin was decidedly different, however; in the capital, a more clandestine conflict existed, a sort of small-arms war shrouded in espionage, where the IRA moved not through romantic hillsides but busy streets. In Dublin factories, grenades were produced for rural units of the IRA, while a relentless intelligence war was waged against Dublin Castle, the fortified home of British rule.
Barry was a daring Volunteer, willing to participate in dangerous activity, like the raiding of the guardroom of the Kings Inns, the central training institution for barristers, in June 1920. Denis Holmes, a participant in that raid, recounted that the raid ‘was of importance, not only on account of the munitions which we seized in that British stronghold, but because of the moral effect it had on our men, who had carried out this operation in daylight.’ His abiding memory was of a gleaming Kevin Barry, hugging a Lewis gun, as the haul was taken away.
With the confidence of that successful raid, Barry participated in a planned raid for arms on 1 September 1920. With regularity and routine, IRA intelligence had observed a pattern as soldiers from the Duke of Wellington Regiment arrived to collect daily bread rations from a bakery on the intersection of Dublin’s Church Street and North King Street.
Most of the soldiers would alight from their transport, entering either the bakery or a neighbouring shop, and the IRA believed it would be simple to seize rifles and ammunition from the party. When put into action, events unfolded drastically differently, leading to a brutal firefight, accounts of which survive and which paint a picture of chaos. IRA Captain Seamus Kavanagh described how, ‘their officer was certainly hit as I saw his head and arm slumped over the side of the cab. We could hear their bullets flying past and hitting off the walls and ground.’
While most of the IRA party got away, Barry was captured on the scene, hiding under the ambushed vehicle as his gun had jammed. Three British soldiers were killed in the violence: Private Thomas Humphries, Private Marshall Whitehead and Private Harold Washington.
The last was just fifteen years of age at the time of his death, a working-class teenager from Salford, who had lied about his age in enlistment, and whose brother had been killed in France in the Great War. The Ballad of Kevin Barry laments the Irish rebel as ‘just a lad of eighteen summers,’ emphasising his youth, though Washington’s summers were fewer still.
‘Another Martyr for Old Ireland’
At the time of Barry’s capture, the conflict in Ireland was a worsening public relations disaster from the perspective of the British government. Éamon de Valera, president of the unrecognised Republic, was touring the United States, addressing large gatherings and impressing radicals as diverse as Marcus Garvey and Puerto Rican revolutionary leader Pedro Albizu Campos. The First Citizen of Cork, Lord Mayor Terence MacSweeney, had just embarked on a hunger strike in Brixton Prison, a prolonged protest which, over seventy-four days, received widespread international coverage.
In the House of Commons, condemnation of Black and Tan violence was growing, with Labour MP Arthur Henderon insisting after the burning of the town of Balbriggan, ‘a policy of military terrorism has been inaugurated, which, in our opinion, is not only a betrayal of democratic principles and not only a betrayal of the things for which we claimed to stand during the five years Great War, but is utterly opposed to the best traditions of the British people.’
Arthur Greenwood, later deputy leader of Labour under Attlee, insisted that ‘Manchester under German rule would be like Cork or Dublin under British rule today.’ By the end of the year, the Labour Party would instigate its own inquiry into state violence in Ireland.
Barry, tried for his involvement in the raid at Monk’s Bakery, was sentenced to hang at Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison, the first Irish separatist to receive a sentence of death since the Easter Rising. Calls for a reprieve came across the political spectrum, from progressive newspapers in Britain to Dublin’s Catholic Archbishop.
Yet, as historian William Murphy rightly notes, the situation ‘demonstrated once more the authorities’ key dilemma: the revolution could not be halted without severe repression, but repressive acts fed the revolution.’ Barry was hanged on the morning of 1 November 1920, and his death – an end bestowed on a criminal, in a criminal prison – inflamed public opinion. Labour MP, J. H. Thomas, described Barry in the House of Commons as ‘a studious boy loved by everyone who knew him, brave and educated.’
While republican propaganda, eager to save Barry from the scaffold, had presented him as a ‘boy,’ and later ‘the schoolboy who died for Ireland,’ Barry was not a boy swept up by the romance of the moment, but a young man who had full commitment to a cause.
Weeks later, on a day that would be recalled in Ireland as Bloody Sunday and reported on in the British press as Black Sunday, IRA Volunteers – several younger than Barry at the time of his death – would partake in a morning of assassinations across the Irish capital. One, Charles Dalton, was just seventeen. Later founder of Amnesty International and winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace, Seán MacBride, was then a busy IRA Volunteer at the age of sixteen.
It is perhaps the song, more than anything, which has made a boy of Kevin Barry eternally. Reportedly written by an Irish migrant in Glasgow in the immediate aftermath of Barry’s execution, it has proven to be the most lasting and enduring of the scores of revolutionary ballads produced by the War of Independence.
To Leonard Cohen, it was a song he introduced to a Dublin audience in 1972 with the words ‘I’ve waited all my life to sing in Ireland.’ But there is a particular resonance in the performance of Robeson, who said of Irish music during a Dublin visit in the 1930s that ‘they are the saddest songs in the world and those strange plaintive airs have so much in common with the songs of my people.’ The Ballad of Kevin Barry will endure for many centuries yet.