‘I go to the gallows an Irishman.’ Kevin Barry’s pre-execution letter

A newly discovered letter by the Dublin medical student and rebel is up for auction

A newly discovered letter written by Kevin Barry on the eve of his execution in 1920 has come to light and will be sold at auction next month. Sheppard's Irish Auction House in Durrow, Co Laois, said the letter would go under the hammer in its auction of historic memorabilia Revolution: The Irish Revolution and Beyond: Artefacts, Letters, and Mememtos on May 3rd.

The letter was sent to Dr Denis J Coffey, first president of University College Dublin, and written on October 31st, 1920 by Barry on the eve of his execution in Mountjoy Prison, Dublin.

Sheppard’s said “previously unknown to be extant, Barry’s letter was in response to Coffey’s “kind words of encouragement and praise”’. Barry tells Coffey: “Do not worry too much about me I will be going to a much better place” and asks that his fellow students “say a prayer” for him.

The student was evidently fond of the professor and writes: “Parting is such a sad thing but we will meet again someday in heaven. This is not goodbye but simply adieu for now”. At the end of the letter, Barry says “I will go to the gallows as an Irishman with love in my heart for a free Ireland”.


Joined the IRA

Barry was born in Dublin in 1902. His family had a farm in Co Carlow and a dairy on Fleet Street, Dublin. He attended primary school in Rathvilly, Co Carlow and then went to St Mary's College in Rathmines before transferring to Belvedere College. During his second year at the school he secretly joined the IRA.

In 1920, Barry, then a medical student at UCD, was sentenced to death by a military court martial for his involvement in an ambush which caused the deaths of three British soldiers at North King Street on September 20th.

The soldiers were collecting bread from a bakery for delivery to Collinstown Aerodrome. Barry was hanged on November 1st, 1920, aged 18 in an act that inflamed Irish public opinion and is commemorated in a popular ballad which described him as “just a lad of 18 summers”.

The letter is estimated at a whopping €20,000-€30,000. That may be conservative. In 2010, the last letter written by Barry – also on the eve of his execution – and sent to “pals” sold for €87,000 – over 7 times the estimate – in a joint Adam’s/Mealy’s auction in Dublin. That letter included the quote: “I have always considered myself lucky to have such a crowd of pals. It’s the only thing which makes it hard to go.”

Michael Parsons

Michael Parsons

Michael Parsons is a contributor to The Irish Times writing about fine art and antiques