Kevin Barry: patriot or terrorist?
Next month, the fabled Republican gunman and nine of his comrades will be reburied in a State funeral. WILLIE DILLON examines the implications
There is a gloriously irreverent version of the ballad Kevin Barry in which the hero is executed not for any subversive activity, but for a total lack of personal hygiene. "Before they shot brave Kevin Barry, British soooldiers hosed him down ... "
For the vast majority of us living in the early 21st century, this wicked parody might even be true. Most of us know little or nothing about this teenage gunman whose life is obscured by the dewy-eyed mists of patriotic legend. His popular memory has been kept alive largely by a maudlin come-all-ye. "Another maaahrtyr for ould Ireland ... "
Kevin Barry was just 18 when he took part in an ambush in which three British soldiers were shot dead in Dublin on the morning of September 20, 1920. The soldiers were escorting a ration lorry which was collecting bread for their garrison from Monks Bakery at the corner of Church Street and North King Street. They were attacked by seven or eight armed men who wanted to capture the soldiers' guns.
In the terror which followed, it was impossible to know who shot whom. Seventeen-year-old Pte Matthew Whitehead fell dead, apparently shot by Barry. Pte Henry Washington was also shot and died later. The bullet that killed him allegedly came from Barry's automatic pistol. Barry was subsequently charged and convicted of Washington's murder. The third soldier to die was a Pte Humphries.
Kevin Barry was the only one of the attackers to be captured. At a crucial stage in the ambush, his weapon jammed. As he struggled frantically to get it working again, he took cover under the soldiers' lorry. But the attack was coming to an end and his fellow assailants were already fleeing. Suddenly he found himself stranded and trapped.
Barry's plans for the day would suggest that he and his comrades took such murderous attacks in their stride. He was repeating his first-year medicine exams at UCD in Earlsfort Terrace at two o'clock that very afternoon a mere three hours later.
He had asked to take part in the attack, but his comrades tried to dissuade him because of his exams. He assured them that he would get to UCD in plenty of time. Had he lived, Kevin Barry would probably have had a successful career as a doctor.
From the British perspective, the attack was a dastardly act. By today's standards, it would be classed as a terrorist outrage.
But in the eyes of the vast majority of his countrymen, Barry and his fellow assailants were freedom fighters striking another blow for Irish independence.
Barry was hanged in Mountjoy Prison on November 1. His death sparked widespread public outrage. He was the first person to be executed since the 1916 leaders. His tender age sparked unsuccessful appeals by the Archbishop of Dublin and the Lord Mayor to spare his life.
All these factors combined to ensure that Kevin Barry immediately achieved iconic status in the pantheon of Irish nationalism. The ballad which copperfastened his immortality appeared very soon afterwards, penned by a Scot whose name has long since been forgotten.
On Sunday, October 14, this baby-faced killer will be re-interred in the Republican plot at Glasnevin Cemetery, along with nine other men hanged and buried in Mountjoy during the War of Independence. They will be given the full pomp and ritual of a televised State funeral, attended by the President, Taoiseach, Tanaiste and the entire Cabinet. A graveside oration will be delivered by Bertie Ahern.
But 80 years on, and in very different political circumstances, should our political leaders be honouring dead gunmen in this way? Is there a risk that it will send out entirely the wrong political signals as the peace process totters over decommissioning? And what will be the international response, given the new global revulsion to terrorism of all kinds following the US attack?
Historian Tim Carey, whose book on the 10 executed men, Hanged For Ireland, is published next month, believes strongly that their actions should be viewed in the context of the time. "I think it is absolutely ridiculous that we have to look at every part of our past through the prism of Northern Ireland," he says. "I thought we had gone beyond that and were able to look at the past in its own terms. I think it is wrong for people to look at everything in the context of Northern Ireland exclusively.
"They were part of an independence movement which laid the foundations of the State. They fought and died for what they believed in. They were convicted of attacking or killing military, not civilians. They were quite willing to take the punishment meted out to them. For people to try and equate Kevin Barry with the Taliban is absolutely scandalous."
Mr Carey believes Kevin Barry probably wouldn't have liked the ballad which immortalised him for future generations. He was far from being the victim the song portrays him as. He was a confident and likeable character with a great sense of humour and bright future ahead of him, says the historian.
Barry had a great ability to compartmentalise his life, which may have been necessary under the circumstances. Many of those who knew him never suspected his Republican involvement, according to Mr Carey.
The possible reburial of the 10 men was first mooted in the 1970s by the National Graves Association. In 1994, the Government gave the go-ahead, subject to the consent of all the families. However, one of the families objected to the graves being disturbed. That objection was withdrawn in 1998.
Work on exhuming the bodies began in Mountjoy in mid-August and took roughly a month. The men were executed at the back of D Wing and were buried inside a perimeter wall not far from the main entrance. Contrary to what some people believe, they were properly buried in coffins and without the addition of quick-lime to speed decomposition.
The exhumation, which was conducted with archeological thoroughness, revealed 10 complete skeletons. A sketch of the graves handed down from the British proved completely accurate. The remains were placed in coffins and are currently in a temporary mortuary in the prison.
A short religious service will take place at the prison at noon on the day of the burials. The coffins will be placed on trestles above the closed graves. Each coffin will be draped with the tricolour before being transferred to 10 hearses, which will emerge through the prison gates in a slow-moving line. Each hearse will be followed on foot by relatives of the men.
The cortege, headed by an Army motorcycle escort of honour, will make its way by a circuitous route through the city streets to the Pro Cathedral. Space has been reserved for 600 of the dead men's descendants and relations four generations in all. The hearses will halt briefly at both the GPO and the Garden of Remembrance.
Nine of the men will be buried in Glasnevin, close to Roger Casement. The tenth, Patrick Maher, will be buried in his home town of Ballylanders, Co Limerick, on the following Saturday.
In Tombeagh, near Hackettstown, Co Carlow, Kevin Barry nephew of his famous namesake says the families are glad the men are being reburied. Visiting their graves used to be very difficult; one had to ask permission to get into Mountjoy. The prison setting was also less than ideal.
He says the families would have preferred a more low-key and private event, but admits there was a danger that it might have been taken over by Republican groups for their own political purposes. The families would have been uncomfortable with that, but there is no possibility of such a thing happening at a State funeral.
Mr Barry says it is pure coincidence that the burials take place on the same weekend as the Fianna Fail ard-fheis. Just two months ago, he says, they were scheduled first for October 7 and then October 21. However, President McAleese could not attend on either date, which is why October 14 was chosen. "There is nothing sinister at all about the timing," says Mr Barry.
Fine Gael senator and UCD politics lecturer Maurice Manning says it is not fair to describe Barry and the other men as terrorists. "One of the great mistakes is to take people and historical events out of their context. When you say terrorism today, you immediately think of the Twin Towers and some of the terrible atrocities in the North."
He says one could take the line of journalist Kevin Myers that they were all as bad then as they are now; but his own personal view is that the election of 1918 gave a mandate of sorts to those fighting for freedom. "They could claim democratic sanction in that election. They were, nominally at least, answerable to a Dail established by a majority of the people."
In contrast, he says, the Provisional IRA for most of their existence either did not contest elections or had very little electoral success. Their political representatives still command the support of less than 10 per cent of the people of the entire island.
Senator Manning says that if it is appropriate and he believes it is to rebury people who have lain in a convict's grave, there are two ways of doing it. "It could be done in a low-key way which doesn't try to stir up old passions, or it can become part of the domestic political agenda."
He believes the timing of the burials is cynical and opportunistic. What could have been a legitimate exercise has now become an adjunct of the Fianna Fail ard-fheis, he claims. "Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein are locked in a battle for the nationalist vote. There was huge pressure put on RTE to give the event maximum coverage."
In the current international climate, Senator Manning believes the funerals will not make very many waves. No negative signals will be sent out because the world is too preoccupied with other matters, and Unionists already have plenty of other things to latch on to anyway, he believes.
"I think the scale of the attack on America pointed up the puniness of the quarrel between nationalists and Unionists in the North," he says. "I believe there is a new imperative on them to sort things out. They are now down, really, to the petty details of the police board. What happened in America will put it into perspective."
But things are not always what they seem and Kevin Barry's legacy is no different. There is an unexpected irony to the ballad which Brit-bashing Republicans have loved, cherished and sung badly for the past 80 years. The air of the song isn't from our native tradition at all. It's English.