Yours ‘Til Hell Freezes: A Memoir of Kevin Barry
by Síofra O’Donovan (Currach Books, €19.99/£17.99)
A century ago Kevin Barry became an icon of the republican movement. The ballads on his life and death were particularly popular among Irish expatriates. One of them even became part of Paul Robeson’s repertoire in the 1930s.
His status derived from the tragic fact that Kevin was the first Irish Volunteer to be executed after the Easter 1916 Rising and the executions associated with it. But his celebrity stemmed mainly from the fact that at the age of eighteen (“just a lad of eighteen summers…”, as the ballad said) he was hanged by the British authorities.
Kevin was born on January 20, 1902 in Dublin, where the family conducted a dairy business. The family also farmed at Tombeagh, near Hacketstown, Co. Carlow, and so Kevin attended Rathvilly national school. He began his secondary education at the Christian Brothers’ O’Connell Schools, but soon transferred to the Jesuit-run Belvedere College. On leaving Belvedere, he registered at University College Dublin (UCD) to study medicine.
At the age of 16, Kevin joined the Irish Volunteers. He was registered as belonging to ‘C’ Company, 1st battalion, Dublin Brigade. Encouraged by a colleague, he also joined the Irish Republic an Brotherhood (IRB) and became its youngest ever member. From the outset Kevin was a totally committed member of both organisations, assiduous in attending meetings, marches, drilling, training and camping at Ticknock in the Dublin mountains.
The first ‘operation’ in which Kevin was involved was a raid on a military outpost at the King’s Inns in Dublin on June 1, 1920. Without a shot being fired he and his colleagues secured a large cache of guns, ammunition and other military equipment.
The next operation planned by ‘C’ Company was an ambush on a military lorry collecting bread from Monk’s Bakery in Church Street in Dublin. It was scheduled for September 20, the very day Kevin was to sit a medical examination at UCD.
Again the main aim was to secure the guns and ammunition of the soldiers on the detail. The raid was ‘botched’. Firing broke out. One soldier was killed and two others were fatally wounded. One of the Volunteers was also wounded but managed to escape. Kevin alone of the attacking party failed to escape and was captured as he attempted to hide under the military lorry.
Kevin was taken to Mountjoy Jail. Martial law was, in effect, established with the passing of the Restoration of Order in Ireland Act on August 9, 1920. Thus within a month Kevin was arraigned before a court-martial, was convicted of murder and sentenced to be hanged. Attempts were made by Joseph Devlin, MP, the Nationalist leader, Archbishop William Walsh of Dublin and Laurence O’Neill, Lord Mayor of Dublin, to persuade the authorities to commute Kevin’s sentence.
To their pleas emphasising Kevin’s age the authorities responded that the three soldiers killed in the affray were also teenagers and one of them was even younger than Kevin. They were also concerned that any reduction in Kevin’s sentence would affect the morale of members of the crown forces. It seems the die was cast on his fate when Field-Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, Commander of the British army, threatened to resign if the sentence was not carried out.
From the time of his capture until he was executed on November 1, 1920 Kevin exhibited a remarkably calm and courageous demeanour.
Most of the information in this book is to be found in Donal O’Donovan’s, Kevin Barry and His Time, published in 1989. However, Síofra O’Donovan provides a wealth of extra details on Kevin’s family background and on members of the extended Barry family. And she also includes records of some of the very interesting interviews she conducted during her research.
Yours ‘Til Hell Freezes: A Memoir of Kevin Barry is available on Currach Books.