Kevin Barry: An Irish rebel in his relatives’ own words

Síofra O’Donovan and Eunan O’Halpin discuss their biographies of their rebel ancestor

One hundred years ago this weekend, Kevin Barry was executed in Mountjoy Prison. Novelist Siofra O’Donovan and Trinity College Dublin professor of history Eunan O’Halpin have written biographies of the “lad of 18 summers” who became a martyr in the cause of Irish republicanism.

Ronan McGreevy: How are you related to Kevin Barry?

Síofra O’Donovan: Kevin Barry was my great-uncle. My grandmother Maureen Christina (Monty) O’Donovan was Kevin Barry’s sister.

Eunan O’Halpin: Kevin Barry’s eldest sister Kitby (Katherine) was my grandmother. She married Jim Moloney and their daughter Mary is my mother.


Ronan McGreevy: Eunan, you raised the question in your book as to whether an 18-year-old could ever be considered worthy of a biography yet here we are with two biographies written at the same time.

Eunan O’Halpin: For several reasons. Síofra’s father Donal O’Donovan (a former features editor of The Irish Times) brought Kevin Barry to life as a person, not an icon with his book in 1989 (Kevin Barry and His Time). It showed him to be a very warm and interesting person. I knew none of that. I had only known that martyrology vision of Kevin which wasn’t really very interesting.

His political ideas were clearly developed in his early teens. I have been introduced as Kevin Barry’s grand-nephew. There are lots of our relatives who took extraordinary risks and did extraordinary things, yet it is “Kevin, Kevin, Kevin” for us both.

Ronan McGreevy: Síofra, why did you decide the time was right for another biography of Kevin Barry?

Síofra O’Donovan: Since my father wrote that biography, a lot of different material has been released into the public domain. I couldn’t really have done this without my father behind me. There were witness statements that my father did not have access to. The witness statement of Kitby Barry, Eunan’s grandmother, was not yet in the public domain when my father was writing his book. (It was released as part of the Bureau of Military History witness statements in 2003).

He quoted large chunks from it, but never gave her credit. I couldn’t understand why until I read his memoirs this year. He had discovered all sorts of extraordinary things in Kitby’s witness account, but he couldn’t quote them because they were not in the public domain so he simply put them in unattributed.

In that witness account she described in detail how she met Kevin at the back of the court during the court martial and he told her then that he did shoot a British soldier. Kitby did know this for all those years and she did not even tell my own grandfather this who was writing a biography of Kevin Barry back in the 1950s. It was quite a paper trail to bring it all together. That’s why I felt that I had to write a new biography.

Ronan McGreevy: Remind us of the circumstances of how Kevin Barry ended up being executed.

Síofra O’Donovan: On September 20th, 1920, a lorry load of Lancashire Fusiliers arrived at Monk’s Bakery in Church Street. The IRA were going to hold them up and take their arms. It was a simple plan. It was supposed to not take very long just as the Kings’ Inn raid on June 1st, 1920 hadn’t taken very long. (The IRA took two Lewis machine guns, 25 rifles, boxes of hand grenades and thousands of rounds of ammunition without firing a shot).

It was pulled off in about five minutes and nobody was injured. Nobody was intending on a shootout at Monk’s Bakery. All went wrong because the timing went wrong. Kevin had been given a .38 Mauser Parabellum revolver by Captain Seamus Kavanagh on the morning of the ambush. This was known to be tricky. It often jammed. There was chaos and then there was shooting. In the midst of all that, Kevin’s gun jammed after the first shot. He dived under the lorry. He was arrested. He was taken and interrogated and then tortured.

Ronan McGreevy: We are all familiar with the song that Kevin Barry was a “lad of 18 summers”, but we also know that one of the three soldiers killed in that raid, Private Harold Washington, was just 15. What can you tell us about him?

Eunan O’Halpin: Washington was born in Salford in 1904. He was almost 16. The army would have taken him at his word that he was 18, the minimum age. It was well-known that the army was desperate for volunteers after the first World War. One of his brothers was killed in the war and another injured.

Ronan McGreevy: Does the fact that the other British soldiers who were killed, who were 19 and 20 respectively, put a different complexion on the incident?

Eunan O’Halpin: I don’t think it does. Kevin was described by one priest after his death as “poor little Kevin Barry”. I’m sure he would have been furious at that description. He was almost 19. He was at the end of his first year in medical school at UCD. He was not a boy. What both our books show is that he had very clear and well developed political ideas. He was not some typical greenhorn. The key thing with Kevin is that the photographs that the family circulated just before his death are all at least a year and a half old. Of course he looks young because, in all but one of them, he was in Belvedere College.

Ronan McGreevy: One of the things I learned from reading both your books is that at the trial he did very little to help his own case. He didn’t recognise the court. He was reading a newspaper in the middle of it. Do you think he could have done more to try and save himself?

Síofra O’Donovan: I don’t think his motivations towards the end of the court martial was to save himself. He gave very clear instructions to Kitby that there would be no reprieve. He saw that as a compromise. He saw being in that court martial as a compromise. To recognise the court was to give in.

It was almost comical. You can see the sketches of the courtroom. He is sitting there with his newspaper and he is saying, “I have nothing to say”.

Eunan O’Halpin: I don’t think Kitby’s witness statement is quite accurate. I think my grandmother had personal issues to some extent about the whole matter, not just in terms of the tragedy of Kevin’s death, but there must have been some nagging doubts about she managed matters. Her witness statement is justifying to herself what happened.

Kevin took part in the initial proceedings because he attended and asked questions of the witnesses when they were giving their deposition. The disaster for him was that he did not have any legal advice early on. Whether or not he wanted to be defended is beside the point.

Síofra O’Donovan: The witness statements of those who were involved in the ambush were invaluable. It was incredible. Maybe Kitby’s was too close to the bone.

Ronan McGreevy: There have been attempts over the years to make a martyr of Kevin Barry. How do you feel about that representation 100 years on?

Siofra O’Donovan: There is nothing you can do. You can’t deconstruct a martyr. He was not a sanctimonious martyr like Pearse at all. He wasn’t into the idea of blood sacrifice. We know how jovial and charming he was. We know the guards who were with him were crying. Kevin Barry has endured through the songs that Paul Robeson and Leonard Cohen recorded. The iconic images of Kevin Barry in his rugby shirt, we are not able to get rid of them. He was a sophisticated young man. He had the capacity to compartmentalise various aspects of his life.

Eunan O’Halpin: Most of us are uncomfortable with the word martyr. I don’t think Kevin had a martyr complex. He wasn’t like Terence MacSwiney. He committed plenty of sins and he was a rounded person. Everybody liked him. He had a sense of humour, but he was willing to die rather than to yield.

Kevin was a fantastic correspondent, but Private James Daly, who had no education and from a very poor background, wrote a fantastic letter before he was executed a day after Kevin. (Daly was executed for his role in the Connaught Rangers mutiny in India). It’s a really moving and reflective short letter.

Ronan McGreevy: Chris Fitzpatrick, the former master of the Coombe Hospital, wrote a recent column in The Irish Times stating that medical students should be in the business of saving lives, not taking them. How do you respond to that?

Siofra O’Donovan: I was put through torture on Liveline about this. Kevin was a first year medical student. He wasn’t a qualified doctor by any means. He had failed his first-year exams. He was about to do his resits. If we look around, there were other doctors involved in revolutionary activities, Che Guevara being one of them.

Eunan O’Halpin: On Bloody Sunday there were plenty of medical students involved, far more proportionately than arts students. Andy Cooney qualified as a doctor and then became chief-of-staff of the IRA. Con Ward, who was already a doctor, was a very significant figure in the Monaghan IRA during the War of Independence.

Ronan McGreevy: No matter how many books or iconic pictures are produced, he will always be known through the song Kevin Barry. How do you feel about it?

Siofra O’Donovan: When we were brought up, that song was never sung in our house. My grandmother Monty thought it was maudlin. She said it was not to be sung. I have been asked, most embarrassingly, to sing it and I can’t remember the words. I can’t get beyond the first verse.

Eunan O'Halpin: I'm not a fan. It has a simple melody. The words are trite but it works. This martyr stuff which drives me mad goes on and on. Kevin Barry migrated into the folk music revival and that's part of the reason that Leonard Cohen sang and even Björn Ulvaeus from Abba did a version of it. You name it, they sang it.
Yours 'Til Hell Freezes, a memoir of Kevin Barry by Siofra O'Donovan is published by Currach Books, priced €19.99. Eunan O'Halpin's Kevin Barry: An Irish Rebel in Life and Death is published by Irish Academic Press, priced €16.95.