Kevin Barry is one of the most popular and enduring songs to emerge from the Irish War of Independence between 1919 and 1921.
It tells the story of how 18-year-old Barry was tortured and then hanged for his part in an attack on an army truck in Dublin in which three British soldiers were killed. The song highlights Barry’s courage in the face of torture and his refusal to inform on his comrades, even though it would cost him his life.
The author of the lyrics in unknown but the song emerged soon after Barry’s execution in1920. The lyrics are set to an old sea shanty called Rolling Home to Ireland. It’s been recorded by several major Irish artists, most notably the Wolfe Tones and the Clancy Brothers. American singer Paul Robeson also recorded it, and Leonard Cohen has performed the song at some of his concerts.
The short life of Kevin Barry
Kevin Barry was from a well to do family who ran a dairy in Dublin. He was born on 20th January 1902 and later attended Belvedere College where he excelled academically and was a keen sportsman, playing both rugby and hurling.
He went on to become a medical student at University College Dublin.
He became devoted to Irish nationalism in his early teens and joined the Irish Republican Army volunteers when he was only 15. He began as a messenger running errands around Dublin but he soon took part in military operations.
On 1st June, 1920 he played a part in seizing the King’s Inn, a British Army garrison in Dublin. Barry and his fellow volunteers were content just to take the arms they found; the 25 British soldiers they captured were released unharmed. This act of mercy was to come to the fore a few months later when Barry was captured in another operation.
Barry captured during attack on British Army
On 20th September, Kevin Barry took part in an ambush of a British Army truck with the aim of capturing more arms.
They five soldiers were taken by surprise and agreed to lay down their arms. But then another British soldier, it’s not clear who or from where, fired a shot. The volunteers fired back and three British soldiers were killed. Barry tried to fire two shots but his gun jammed.
British reinforcements appeared and the volunteers escaped. Barry, however, was spotted and captured.
His arrest, torture and subsequent execution were to have a major impact on public opinion and helped cement the calls for Irish independence.
The propaganda war over Kevin Barry
The arrest of Kevin Barry led to a propaganda battle between Irish nationalists and the British authorities.
The Irish claimed that Barry was a soldier engaged in a war of independence and should be treated as a prisoner of war, rather than as a common criminal. The British, however, did not recognise the war of independence and were determined to treat Barry simply as a murderer.
The Irish pleaded clemency because of Barry’s youth. The British responded by saying the soldiers who were killed were of similar age. The Irish pointed to the fact that Barry and the volunteers who seized the King’s Inn had released the 25 captured British soldiers.
The British did not consider the two incidents to be comparable and the date was set for Barry’s trial.