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Kevin Barry and the Anglo-Irish propaganda war

  • M. A. Doherty (a1)


Most Irish people, when asked what they know of the life and death of Kevin Barry, will pause for a moment while they recall the words of a famously maudlin ballad. A few points will emerge: ‘a lad of eighteen summers’ … ‘British soldiers tortured Barry’ … ‘refused to turn informer’ … ‘hanged him like a dog’ … ‘another martyr for old Ireland, another murder for the crown’. That they know anything at all about Kevin Barry is testimony, among other things, to the power of popular music for the making of political propaganda. Along with Father Murphy, Seán South and Fergal O’Hanlon, Kevin Barry figures in the pantheon of nationalist Ireland’s popular historical heroes, largely because somebody happened to write a good song about him. In many ways this is unfortunate, for Barry and the rest were once living people, and the process of iconographifying them in popular balladry, like all forms of political propaganda, serves not to clarify their roles in the historical events in which they played a part, but rather to obscure and distort them. So it is worth reconsidering the story of Kevin Barry, for a number of reasons. To begin with, his short life reached its climax at a vital moment in the long struggle for Irish self-government, a moment when the violence unleashed in 1916 burst forth again with renewed savagery on both British and Irish sides, involving in the Barry case the deaths of four young men aged between fifteen and twenty.



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1 There are two biographies of Kevin Barry: Cronin, Seán, The story of Kevin Barry (Cork, 1965); O’Donovan, Donal, Kevin Barry and his time (Dublin, 1989). Cronin was at one time chief of staff of the I.R.A., and not surprisingly his book is highly partisan, heavily influenced by Barry’s devotedly republican sister Kathy, who provided much of the information upon which it is based. Her strong personality is also stamped on O’Donovan’s text, which arose from research undertaken by his father for an unpublished biography of Barry. O’Donovan senior, also a leading I.R.A. man, was the husband of Barry’s sister Monty.

2 O’Donovan, Barry, p. 46.

3 Ibid., pp 80-86; Irish Times, 21 Sept. 1920.

4 Daily Express and Irish Daily Mail, 23 Sept. 1920.

5 Court martial: Kevin Barry (P.R.O., WO 71/360). Private Whitehead was misnamed ‘Matthew’ on the charge sheet rather than ‘Marshall’, and Washington was misnamed ‘Henry’ rather than ‘Harold’. Barry himself was referred to as ‘Berry otherwise Barry’.

6 Ibid. O’Donovan has Barry say: ‘As a soldier of the Irish Republic, I refuse to recognise the court’ (O’Donovan, Barry, p. 107). The official transcript has the unadorned version only.

7 Opening statement of the prosecution (P.R.O., WO 71/360).

8 Ibid. Mark Sturgis, the assistant under-secretary at the Castle, noted in his diary that ‘The bakery gun boy, Kevin Barry, is sentenced to death’ (Sturgis diary, 21 Oct. 1920 (P.R.O., PRO 30/59/2)).

9 See, for example, Taylor, Rex, Assassination: the death of Sir Henry Wilson and the tragedy of Ireland (London, 1961). Taylor reports incorrectly many of the details of the Barry case and asserts that during his imprisonment his British captors tortured him ‘to the point of endurance’ (p. 52).

10 Statement of Dr Bartholomew Hackett, H.M. Prison, Mountjoy, 9 Nov. 1920 (P.R.O., CO 904/42).

11 Allegations of this nature made by John Joe Carroll are reported in O’Donovan, Barry, p. 143. For an account of the various escape plans see the typescript in N.L.I., MS 18828.

12 O’Donovan, Barry, pp 124-5.

13 Statement of Kevin Gerard Barry, 28 Oct. 1920 (N.L.I., MS 8412).

14 See, for example, ‘Serious allegations against military in Dublin: ill-treatment of condemned man’ in Deny Journal, 29 Oct. 1920; ‘Alleged torture in Ireland’ in The Times, 30 Oct. 1920.

15 Manchester Guardian, 30 Oct. 1920.

16 Westminster Gazette, 30 Oct. 1920.

17 Cabinet conference, 14 Nov. 1919, C.8 (19), App. IV (P.R.O., CAB 23/18).

18 Thomas Jones, Whitehall diary, iii: Ireland, 1918-1925, ed. Middlemas, Keith (London, 1971), p. 19.

19 P.R.O., CO 904/42, passim.

20 Draft conclusions of a conference held in Mr Bonar Law’s room’, 28 Oct. 1920 (House of Lords Record Office, Bonar Law papers, Box 90/8).

21 Minute by the lord chancellor, 30 Oct. 1920 (P.R.O., CO 904/42).

22 Sturgis to Anderson, 31 Oct. 1920 (ibid.).

23 Freeman’s Journal, 1 Nov. 1920.

24 Ibid., 2 Nov. 1920. Neither of Barry’s biographers accredited him with this portentous remark, and Cronin has him say simply: ‘The only message I have for anybody is, “Hold on and stick to the Republic”’ (Cronin, Barry, p. 32).

25 Irish Catholic, 6 Nov. 1920.

26 Macready to Strickland, 1 Jan. 1921 (Imperial War Museum, London (henceforth I.W.M.), Wilson papers, HHW 2/2C/27); Macready to Wilson, 18 Mar. 1921 (ibid., HHW 2/2C/49).The restriction on access to the correspondence on Irish affairs of Field-Marshal Sir Henry Wilson with Sir Nevil Macready has only recently been lifted.

27 The Daily Herald in particular regularly and vociferously denounced ‘Black and Tan’ attacks. See, for example, its coverage of the sacking of Balbriggan in the issue of 22 Oct. 1920.

28 Manchester Guardian, 2 Nov. 1920.

29 See, for example, ‘Sinn Féiner to die’ in Daily Mail, 1 Nov. 1920.

30 Daily Mail, 2 Nov. 1920.

31 Clarke to Street, n.d. (P.R.O., CO 904/42). Clarke appears to have inserted the word ‘callous’ in his last sentence as an afterthought. General Macready also grudgingly conceded that Barry had died with dignity, noting in his autobiography that ‘Barry met his fate with fortitude, the victim of those who preached assassination under the guise of patriotic sacrifice’ (SirMacready, Nevil, Annals of an active life (2 vols, London, 1924), ii, 506).

32 Freeman’s Journal, 1 Nov. 1920.

33 Letter from E. A. Aston, Irish Independent, 5 Nov. 1920. Aston had not seen Lloyd George in London, although McCabe had, he being a friend of Hamar Greenwood. See Taylor, Assassination, p. 55.

34 Devlin to Czira,2 Nov. 1920 (N.L.I., Mrs Sydney Czira papers, MS 18828); Devlin to Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, 1 Nov. 1920 (ibid., Sheehy Skeffington papers, MS 22695).

35 Sturgis diary, 30 Oct. 1920 (P.R.O., PRO 30/59/2).

36 See remarks to this effect in Taylor, Assassination, pp 55-6.

37 Macready to Wilson, 29 Oct. 1920 (I.W.M., Wilson papers, HHW 2/2B/35).

38 Irish Situation Committee, ‘Weekly survey of the state of Ireland for week ended September 20th, 1920’ (P.R.O., CAB 27/108).

39 Irish Situation Committee, ‘Weekly survey of the state of Ireland for week ended September 27th, 1920’ (ibid.).

40 Macready to Strickland, 1 Jan. 1921 (I.W.M., Wilson papers, HHW 2/2C/27).

41 Macrcady to Greenwood, 27 Sept. 1920 (ibid., HHW 2/2B/10).

42 G.H.Q. Ireland to Headquarters Dublin District, 25 Sept. 1920 (N.L.I., Documents relating to the trial of Kevin Barry in October 1920 and related papers, MS 8043).

43 Macready to Wilson, 31 Oct. 1920 (I.W.M., Wilson papers, HHW 2/2B/37). Macready had indeed told Greenwood that Privates Whitehead and Washington were aged twenty, and Private Humphries aged nineteen (Macready to Greenwood, 28 Oct. 1920 (P.R.O., CO 904/42)). In fact, Harold Washington was born at 189 Regent Road, Salford, on 24 October 1904 and, whatever the army may have believed, was aged only fifteen when he was killed: see Register, Commonwealth War Graves Commission ( He was buried in Weaste Cemetery, Salford, on 27 September 1920, and his interment is recorded in the Reporter for the County Borough of Salford and ‘Salford Chronicle’, 2 Oct. 1920. The paper erroneously gives his age as sixteen, but confirms the Regent Road address. In the same letter to Wilson, Macready confirmed that of the last fifteen soldiers killed in Ireland, only two were aged over twenty-one.

44 Macready to Wilson, 1 Nov. 1920 (I.W.M., Wilson papers, HHW 2/2B/38).

45 Macready to Boyd, 1 Nov. 1920 (P.R.O., WO 35/180B).

46 Wilson to Macready, 2 Nov. 1920 (I.W.M., Wilson papers, HHW 2/2B/39).

47 Macready to Wilson, 2 Nov. 1920 (ibid., HHW 2/2B/40).

48 Macready to Wilson, 1 Nov. 1920 (ibid., HHW 2/2B/38).

49 Macready to Wilson, 10 Feb. 1921 (ibid., HHW 2/2C/35).

50 Cronin, Barry, p. 37.


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