Today in Irish History - 1920
Execution of Kevin Barry
18 year old medical student Kevin Barry is executed following an ambush on British troops in Dublin in which one soldier is killed.
On the morning of 20 September 1920, Kevin Barry went to Mass and received Holy Communion, he then joined a party of IRA volunteers on Bolton Street in Dublin. Their orders were to ambush a British army truck as it picked up a delivery of bread from a bakery and capture their weapons. The ambush was scheduled for 11am, which gave him enough time to take part in the operation and return to UCD in time for a Medical examination he had at 2pm. Captured at the scene, Barry was court martialled and hanged in Mountjoy Jail November 1st 1920. He was the first Republican to be executed since the leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916. The execution of Barry led to a swell of support for Ireland's Independence, both nationally and internationally.
Before Kevin Barry was executed, he was tortured in Mountjoy Prison to give names of other IRA men he worked with, he never gave in. "He tried to persuade me to give the names, and I persisted in refusing. He then sent the sergeant out of the room for a bayonet. When it was brought in the sergeant was ordered by the same officer to point the bayonet at my stomach. The sergeant then said that he would run the bayonet into me if I did not tell. The same officer then said to me that if I persisted in my attitude he would turn me out to the men in the barrack square, and he supposed I knew what that meant with the men in their present temper. I said nothing. He ordered the sergeants to put me face down on the floor and twist my arm...When I lay on the floor, one of the sergeants knelt on my back, the other two placed one foot each on my back and left shoulder, and the man who knelt on me twisted my right arm, holding it by the wrist with one hand, while he held my hair with the other to pull back my head. The arm was twisted from the elbow joint. This continued, to the best of my judgment, for five minutes. It was very painful...I still persisted in refusing to answer these questions...A civilian came in and repeated the questions, with the same result. He informed me that if I gave them information he knew I could get off."
The image attached is a poignant letter from an 18 year old boy about to meet his end. Written in blue prison pencil in his cell on Halloween night, the night before his execution, this composed letter was one in which Kevin Barry said his farewells to his pals.
“Dear Boys, I had quite a crowd of visitors today and a crowd from the college prayed and sang outside the gates but perhaps you were there. Well boys, we have seen some good times, and I have always considered myself lucky to have such a crowd of pals. It’s the only thing which makes it hard to go, the fact of leaving you chaps and other friends behind. Now I charge you thank anybody you know for me, who has had masses etc. said. Everybody has been awfully decent and I can assure you I appreciate it. Also say just a few more prayers when I go over, and then you can rest. … Your pal, Kevin.”
An anonymous ballad written shortly after his execution is popular to this day. The song has been covered by numerous Irish bands including Wolfe Tones, the Dubliners and even Leonard Cohen.
In Mountjoy jail one Monday morning
High upon the gallows tree,
Kevin Barry gave his young life
For the cause of liberty.
Just a lad of eighteen summers,
Still there's no one can deny,
As he walked to death that morning,
He proudly held his head on high.
Shoot me like an Irish soldier.
Do not hang me like a dog,
For I fought to free old Ireland
On that still September morn.
All around the little bakery
Where we fought them hand to hand,
Shoot me like an Irish soldier,
For I fought to free Ireland
Just before he faced the hangman,
In his dreary prison cell,
British soldiers tortured Barry,
Just because he would not tell.
The names of his brave comrades,
And other things they wished to know.
Turn informer or we'll kill you
Kevin Barry answered "No".
Proudly standing to attention
While he bade his last farewell
To his broken hearted mother
Whose grief no one can tell.
For the cause he proudly cherished
This sad parting had to be
Then to death walked softly smiling
That old Ireland might be free.
Another martyr for old Ireland,
Another murder for the crown,
Whose brutal laws may kill the Irish,
But can't keep their spirit down.
Lads like Barry are no cowards.
From the foe they will not fly.
Lads like Barry will free Ireland,
For her sake they'll live and die.