Revealing the man behind the myth

Revealing the man behind the myth Siofra O’Donovan with Kevin Barry Jr in Tombeagh, Co. Carlow. Photo: Liosa McNamara
Jason Osborne hears about Irish historical figure Kevin Barry

One of Ireland’s most famous national figures is also one of its youngest. The story of Kevin Barry is one that resonates still in the hearts of those it encounters, the 18-year-old executed by the British on the morning of November 1, 1920, for his part in an ambush of British soldiers.

His story the subject of much subsequent writing, singing, and recounting, Siofra O’Donovan, one of Barry’s closest descendants, is the latest to turn her hand to setting down the truth behind the icon, with her latest book, Yours ‘Til Hell Freezes: A memoir of Kevin Barry.

Speaking to The Irish Catholic, author of novels and travelogues, Ms O’Donovan, explains how her natural inclination was not Irish history. That was the realm of her father.

“As a child, my Dad used to talk to me a lot about Kevin Barry and the history around the War of Independence. When I was around 11 he said to me, he was a writer and a journalist for the Irish Times, “What book am I going to write next?” He’d written a book about Irish-Americans called Dreamers of Dreams, and he was looking around for something else to write and I said: “Well you’ll have to write a book about Kevin Barry, I think.

“That was me at 11, so there was always this connection between me, Dad, and Kevin Barry, and it was very strong,” she says.

“Then Dad went about his business and he researched his book, and I wasn’t really that aware of all that he did. But for me, I always knew so much about Kevin Barry from him, but at the same time, when one is growing up as a teenager, you’re going, ‘I’m tired of Irish history, I don’t want to know any more,’” she laughs.


Initially, the flame of passion for Irish history in the family appeared to snuff out with her, seemingly set in stone by her move to India.

“I went my own way completely and went to live in India and studied Tibetan language to be a translator in the Himalayas, and I did very different things, so I wasn’t interested in Irish history. In fact, as soon as my dad started talking about it, I would go, ‘Oh, right,’ and I would switch off,” Ms O’Donovan says.  This was despite the direct connection her family had to the past. Not just Kevin Barry’s relation to her as great uncle, but her grandfather’s association with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) also.

“His dad [Siofra’s father] was a very strong IRA man, Jim O’Donovan. There’s a book written about him by Dad’s friend, David O’Donoghue. There was all of that, which was very heavy history.”

Drawn by the mystique surrounding a portrait of the young Kevin Barry in her father’s study, Ms O’Donovan’s impressions of him and his cause stood in stark contrast to those she developed of her grandfather.

“Now Kevin was always the lighter one, the happy, oval portrait in Dad’s study, he was always smiling. You’d always be uplifted by that. My grandfather looked very much more stern and dour, and he’d had his fingers blown off by a hand grenade, so he was hardcore. My dad had his own difficult feelings around that, so there was an awful lot of republicanism within Dad’s side of the family, and I, for very many years, said, ‘No thanks, I don’t want to know.’”


However, her reluctance to engage with the family history on a deeper level was to turn swiftly following her father’s death. His death set in motion the sequence of events which would result in her current offering on the life of Kevin Barry.

She says: “Now everything changed when my father died in 2009, and I started to give his work away to different archives, and to sort through his papers we had to do that. And then, I started to read some of his papers about Kevin Barry, I started to look at his work, his book, which was published in 1989 by Glendale books, and I thought, ‘This has to come out again.’”

Initially believing her task to be nothing more than getting her father’s book reprinted, Ms O’Donovan’s quest to do so resulted in her latest book. Speaking of her father’s book, she says: “I was very, very aware that 2020 was going to be Kevin’s hundredth anniversary. I tried a few different publishers – I actually tried a publisher of my own that I’ve had before, because I usually write novels and travelogues and I haven’t written a historical biography before, so I tried a few,” she continues, “And then, I kept at it and at it and then one publisher said that they would do it, but then the whole project changed and it became apparent that a new book needed to be written. So, I really felt that that did fall upon me.”


For her, this was not simply the finding of a job that had to be done; it was an obligation that had to be fulfilled.

“I was a writer, and in some way, I did feel my ancestors asking me to do it. I just felt that very strongly. I was doing it in dedication to my father’s work, and to a certain extent to my grandfather’s as well. My grandfather had written a biography of Kevin Barry in the 1950s, and he’d done a lot of fascinating, on-the-ground interviews with IRA volunteers who were still alive, obviously, around Carlow, Wicklow, and Dublin and he would have known a lot of people around Dublin and all of that, so I did it for them.”

Her family’s proximity to Kevin Barry sets Ms O’Donovan’s book apart, her access to privileged sources and information providing a closer glimpse at the man behind the myth than ever before.

“I got talking to a lot of extended family down in Carlow and discovered a lot of interesting things. I read the memoir of Kevin Barry’s schoolmaster called Ned O’Toole, and he had some beautiful anecdotes about Kevin Barry when he was in school. The teacher, this schoolmaster, sent a telegram to an MP called Devlin, who took it upon himself to go to Lloyd George and beg him not to execute Kevin Barry, but it didn’t work,” she relates.

Family memories and local records are inaccessible to the vast majority, but Ms O’Donovan has brought all that she could find and woven it into a narrative that, she hopes, reveals just how normal this young man was.

“We also know what he was like as a person, and I’ve had many conversations with Kevin Barry Jr, who still lives in the ancestral home in Carlow. You see it even just from the letters that Kevin wrote. How he would go out for a drinking spree, leave Hacketstown, and cycle over the hills, up to Glendalough, absolutely drunk. He was a real person. He wasn’t a Patrick Pearse, ‘blood, sacrifice, I’m dying for Ireland,’ type. He was very relatable.”


Asked about whether or not the veil of patriotism or romanticism got in the way of an accurate picture, she responded: “Well, you see, Dad’s book busted a lot of myths. It shared that he did shoot a British soldier, so Dad wasn’t being romantic about that. You know, about the icon, the hero – he gave the facts as he found them.”

The book hoping to convey an accurate picture of one of the most famous faces of the Irish War of Independence, Ms O’Donovan hopes that the book might stir up some questions concerning where Ireland finds itself 100 years on from the death of the young man.

“Well, you know, we have to reflect on where we are as a country after 100 years of independence. I think there are certain things that young people probably do need to ask themselves. How much sovereignty do we actually have? What kind of government do we have? You know, it seems quite laughable recently with how things have been managed,” she says.

“How seriously are the politicians of this independent country being taken? Are we proud to be Irish? And if we’re proud to be Irish, and we say, ‘I love Kevin Barry’, or ‘I love Michael Collins’, are you then going to be shoved into the category of IRA supporter? That’s, I think, one of the most difficult things in our country – we take no pride in our independence. We don’t have an independence day, we don’t celebrate it, we don’t even know when it is. I think that’s absolutely tragic. Hopefully, this book might get people to see why he died.”

The story of Kevin Barry provides a suitable point of departure for the engagement of young people with questions of national pride; he is not some distant, shadowy figure, but a thoroughly “likeable” young man, Ms O’Donovan explains.

“I think he exuded such a charm. He was such a likeable fellow; I think everybody would just love to be in his company. I would certainly love to be, and it’s not because I’m just family. There are people who, the most random people I’ve met, who just have such an admiration for him, and not just as an iconic hero, but as a person.”

While not negating the national mythology that has developed over the course of the century around him, Ms O’Donovan now sees “a happy, young, very passionate student. Those stories that Dad told me would have stayed with me”.

“He would have told me those stories of Kevin falling off his bike, you know, he would have told me the very human side of Kevin.”

Extricating an accurate picture from behind the veil of history and sentiment is no easy feat, but Ms O’Donovan’s familial ties and commitment to the young man whose death moved the prison guards to tears ensures that her book provides the most human portrayal of Kevin Barry’s life thus far.

Yours ‘Til Hell Freezes: A Memoir of Kevin Barry by Síofra O’Donovan is published by Currach Books.