Kevin Barry was 18 in 1920, a decent lad who had attended Belvedere College, a middle-class Jesuit school in Dublin and gone on to University College Dublin as a medical student. He had been involved in the republican movement since school and was in an active service unit of the IRA, one of which functions was to take arms away from British soldiers. One such attempt against a detachment picking up bread in Dublin, went horribly wrong. Most of the British soldiers had been disarmed. Then, a gun went off, possibly fired by one of the remaining British. The IRA men overreacted and started firing at the soldiers. Barry attempted to shoot but his gun jammed. One British soldier was killed and two others wounded fatally. The three were around the same age as Barry. Most of the IRA party escaped, but Barry, who had been separated from the others, was captured and tried for murder as a civilian. He was roughed up during interrogation - threatened with a bayonet and his arm twisted behind his back - but did not divulge information.
The IRA, for understandable reasons, viewed themselves as soldiers who were entitled to be treated as prisoners of war upon capture (although they didn't wear uniforms, as required by the international conventions of warfare). The British were determined to treat them as common criminals and accordingly subjected them to criminal penalties. Since Barry had been part of a criminal enterprise, he was complicit in the deaths of the soldiers even though he had not fired any of the fatal shots. Instrumentality, of course, there was another agenda. The British appear to have been concerned about the effect on army morale if Barry were not executed. He was not tried in a criminal court, but by army court-martial. On November 1, 1920, three months short of Kevin Barry's 19th birthday, he was executed by hanging.
In my early childhood, "rebel" songs like Kevin Barry and The Boys of Kilmichael (of which more below) were part of the background noise of the culture, a gesture towards the past, embraced but not fully assimilated in all their implications. (In similar vein, it's unlikely that all French citizens singing La Marseillaise actually desire that their gutters be inundated with the impure blood of their enemies, although you never know.) By the late 1960s, the "troubles" had broken out again and for many of us the atavistic link had been broken. I recall a family friend giving me an LP of rebel songs when I was about 12 or 13: she was a gentle, American professor of Irish literature who was over visiting and hadn't really registered how the times had changed. I was embarrassed by the present and kept it tucked away out of sight.
There are Irish historians - good ones - who argue that the Easter Rising was a terrible mistake. In their view, Ireland would have received dominion Home Rule - with partition - at the end of the First World War, and in time, full, functioning independence would have emerged as it did for the other British dominions Australia, New Zealand and Canada. The Rising, they claim, ennobled the physical force tradition because of its ultimate success: a war was fought, the British left, self-government arrived and within a generation the very nominal constitutional connection to Britain was severed with the proclamation of a republic in 1949. The same logic, they say, was applied by Irish nationalism to the Northern Ireland situation from the late 1960s on, and the result was nearly 40 years of conflict, 3,000 dead and a constitutional settlement under which nationalists essentially abandoned their key goal: the reunification of the country. I can see the logic of this argument, but am not completely persuaded by the schematic neatness of this revisionism. Atavism cuts all ways, and it wasn't just the nationalists who were inflamed by their own mythology. And ultimately, we have to live with the horrid oppositions and accommodations of conflict and politics: many feel an Animal Farm-like revulsion at contemplating the leaders of extreme unionism and nationalism in coalition together in Belfast, driving around the place in their ministerial cars, cutting ribbons. But it's better than what went before.
In the end, I still can't really stomach the rebel songs, unless they relate to an earlier, still mythic period; songs like Arthur McBride and the Sergeant (play the link - it's the magnificent Paul Brady version), which is about a political, if physical confrontation that doesn't leave anybody dead. Am I just a faintheart, enjoying my present liberties but denigrating the sacrifices of others that made it possible? Maybe. A bit. But not entirely. In the end, I think I believe that we may sometimes have to fight wars, but would be better off not singing about them afterwards.
Alan Lomax, who had recorded Leadbelly, Muddy Waters and others. She formed a long partnership with the Sligo fiddler Michael Gorman. This recording, of My Lagan Love, is sublime.