Despite last-minute entreaties, 18-year-old Kevin Barry is executed, ushering in a new era of ruthlessness in the war for the Republic. The British bid to intimidate the Irish Volunteers fails miserably, as Barry's heroic mien on the gallows draws many new soldiers into the IRA's ranks.
Women keep vigil with rosaries awaiting the execution of IRA prisoners. Hulton Picture Library
For the cause he proudly cherished,
this sad parting had to be
Then to death he walked softly smiling
so that Ireland might be free
By Kieron Punch
Prominent members of the Republican movement took a different stance, arguing that Barry should be treated as a prisoner of war, while also contrasting the treatment of British soldiers captured by the IRA with that of Barry.
Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Fein, used "The Irish Bulletin" to appeal to the world, "Hundreds of members of the armed forces have been, from time to time, captured by the Volunteers and in no case was any prisoner maltreated, even though Volunteers had been killed and wounded in the fighting."
A letter by Erskine Childers was published in the "Westminster Gazette," stating, "This lad, Barry, was doing precisely what Englishmen would be doing under the same circumstances. To hang him for murder is an insulting outrage, and it is more, it is an abuse of power; an unworthy act of vengeance, contrasting ill with the forbearance and humanity invariably shown by the Irish Volunteers towards prisoners captured by them."
|Courtesy of National Library of Ireland
On October 28, a Conference of Ministers, presided over by Lloyd George, decided that they could not recommend commutation of the death penalty. The next day The London Times announced that the sentence was to be carried out Monday, November 1, at 8 a.m.
Despite the apparent finality of the pronouncement, appeals continued to be made on Barry's behalf until the very last moment. On Sunday, October 31, the Archbishop of Dublin and Lord Mayor O'Neill contacted General Sir Nevil Macready, commander-in-chief of the British forces in Ireland; Sir John Anderson, Joint Under-Secretary; and Lloyd George and appeared to make some headway. It
|"A MAGNIFICENT BOY -- WONDERFULLY CALM"
was at this critical moment, though, that Major-General H. H. Tudor, Inspector General of the Royal Irish Constabulary, threatened to resign if Barry was reprieved. This was the deciding factor. Barry would hang Monday morning.
On the day prior to his execution, Kevin was permitted three visits of three people each. Among the last of these visitors was the Republican Capuchin chaplain, Father Albert, who described Barry as a "a magnificent boy -- wonderfully calm". Before leaving the condemned cell, he asked Barry if he had any final message. The reply was, "That is making such a fuss. The only message I have for anybody is 'Hold on and stick to the Republic.'"
His brother, a sister and his mother comprised Kevin's last group of visitors. After bidding her son farewell, Mrs. Barry was met by the Prison Chaplain, Canon Waters, who stated his alarm at Kevin's carefree demeanour. "This boy does not seem to realize he is going to die in the morning. He is so gay and light-hearted all the time. If he fully realised it, he would be overwhelmed."
An indignant Mrs. Barry reproached the priest, "Canon Waters, I know you are not a Republican. But is it impossible for you to understand that my son is actually proud to die for the Republic?"
That evening a final rescue attempt, planned by Michael Collins himself, came to nothing. The entire strength of three companies of the 1st Battalion, including Frank Flood and Kevin's other "H" Company colleagues, was mobilised to fight their way into Mountjoy with the aid of a land-mine that would breach the wall. As fate would have it, the Prison guard had become alarmed by the large crowds of women who had gathered to pray by the main gates. Dublin Castle was notified and reinforcements, including armoured-cars, were rushed to the area. The rescue was called off when it became apparent that any attempt would result in large casualties being incurred amongst the Volunteers and the praying women. It was also later revealed that Kevin's guards had instructions to shoot him if any disturbance occurred.
Shortly after 7 a.m., Canon Waters and Father MacMahon entered the Prison and were taken to the condemned cell, where Kevin had spent his last night in the custody of two Auxiliaries and a Warder. Mass was celebrated and then, just before 8 o'clock, the English executioner, Ellis, arrived with his assistant.
|"... ONE OF THE BRAVEST BOYS I HAVE EVER KNOWN."
Commander of the Auxiliary Division, Brigadier-General Frank Percy Crozier, who had been required to supply Barry's guard, was deeply moved the young man's bravery and commented: "In Ireland, as no hangman could be found to hang Barry, we had to bring one all the way from England, in disguise and in great secrecy. He came 300 miles across the sea, surreptitiously, to hang a rebel murderer. Or -- he came 300 miles across the sea, surreptitiously, to hang a soldier of Ireland. You see, so much depends on one's point of view." Crozier would later resign in protest at the lawlessness of the Auxiliaries.
Ellis pinioned Barry's arms with leather straps and then, with Canon Waters on one side and Father MacMahon on the other, the condemned man led a small procession of Prison officials and Auxiliaries towards the "hang-house" at the end of "D" Wing.
Tom Barry commanded one one of the most effective Irish units of the War of Independence. Read his story in Guerilla Days in Ireland
Canon Waters later wrote to Mrs. Barry with a description of Kevin's final moments: "His courage was superhuman, and rested, I am sure, on his simple goodness and innocence of conscience. You are the mother, my dear Mrs. Barry, of one of the bravest and best boys I have ever known. He went to the scaffold with the most perfect bravery, without the slightest faltering, repeating his little ejaculations and the Sacred Name 'til the very last moment of his life."
The execution of Kevin Barry did not produce the effect that the authorities in Dublin Castle had sought. In fact, support hardened behind Sinn Fein, and many indignant young men became active members of the IRA. The war intensified, with both sides adopting a far more ruthless and deadly approach.
Tom Barry, commander of the highly successful West Cork Flying Column, summed up the Volunteers' new approach: "The British were met with their own weapons. They had gone down into the mire to destroy us and our nation, and down after them we had to go to stop them."
MORE ON THE IRISH WAR OF INDEPENDENCE
Learn more about Kevin Barry and all the other men who took on an Empire, and then each other, in Who's Who in the Irish War of Independence & Civil War
This page was produced by Joe Gannon, and edited by Gerry Regan.