“Kevin Barry”


Eighteen year old Kevin Barry is hung, "another martyr for old Ireland, another murder for the crown." Despite torture, he will not betray his comrades. (Family and friends bid farewell.) (Barry asks to be shot as a soldier, but is hanged as a rebel)


Patrick Galvin reports that "Kevin Barry, an eighteen-year-old student, [was] the first Irish patriot to be hanged in Ireland since Robert Emmet 117 years before. His death precipitated scores of his fellow-students into the I.R.A...."

Robert Kee's statement (in _Ourselves Alone_, being volume III of _The Green Flag_, pp. 122-123) gives him a slightly different distinction: ?the first British execution of an Irishman in the post-war period.?

Terry Golway, _For the Cause of Liberty_, has a photo of Barry (who looks like any other schoolkid) on page 258, and gives a less biased report than Galvin. Given a good education, he still tried to join a nationalist organization at the age of 13. At 17, he could no longer be restrained from joining the Voluneers.

On September 20, 1920, Barry -- now 18 and in his first year of studying medicine -- was called upon to take part in a hijacking. The rebels desperately needed weapons (a perennial problem in Ireland, dating back to the rebellions against the Tudors; G. A. Hayes-McCoy, _Irish Battles_, p. 111, reports that it then took six head of cattle to buy a single musket! Rifles were cheaper in the twentieth century, but they were also, according to Charles Townshend, _Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion_, p. 45, a fetish item for Irish volunteers of the time). To gain arms, a band of Volunteers set out to stop a British army truck. The Irish had only one gun, but somehow one of the British soldiers ended up being shot and killed. Barry's comrades fled; he was captured.

Threatened with death, though apparently suffering nothing worse than arm-twisting, Barry refused to give any information about his comrades. He was subjected to a military trial on October 20, and executed November 1. We observe that, though Barry died as a rebel, he was, by modern legal standards, guilty of murder (though not premeditated murder).

Of course, if they'd hung everyone guilty of that sort of murder in 1920 Ireland, the country would have been depopulated.

Tim Pat Coogan, in _Michael Collins_, p. 154, notes that the British cabinet actually considered clemency but could find no grounds. There are said to have been five thousand people praying outside his prison at the end.

Kee makes the interesting point that Barry's death ?made a considerable impact on public opinion. By contrast the fact the the soldier he had shot was as young as himself made virtually none" (p. 123)

There is at least one other Barry poem, "Kevin Barry" (by Terence Ward), for which see Kathleen Hoagland, editor, One Thousand Years of Irish Poetry (New York, 1947), pp. 751-752.

There is also a 1989 biography, _Kevin Barry_, by Donal O'Donovan. Which mostly shows the power of songs like this; if Barry had lived in America a century later, he would probably be considered a "gang member." - RBW

Historical references

  • Nov 1, 1920 - Execution of Kevin Barry

Cross references


  • The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, "Kevin Barry" (on IRClancyMakem03)
  • Pete Seeger, "Kevin Barry" (on PeteSeeger11) (on HootenannyCarnegie)


  1. Sandburg, pp. 42-43, "Kevin Barry" (1 text, 1 tune)
  2. Hodgart, p. 218, "Kevin Barry" (1 text)
  3. PGalvin, pp. 67-68, "Kevin Barry" (1 text, 1 tune)
  4. OLochlainn 49, "Kevin Barry" (1 text, 1 tune)
  5. Silber-FSWB, p. 324, "Kevin Barry" (1 text)
  7. Roud #3014
  8. BI, San042


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1927 (Sandburg)
Found in: Ireland US(MW)