Wednesday, January 13, 2010

More Barrys: Kevin, Tom, Maggie, Philip and Spranger

Kevin Barry. A tricky one. First, some background. The 1916 Easter Rising was unsuccessful, destructive and very unpopular in Ireland. But the British managed to turn victory into defeat through the vengefulness of their response to it. The leaders of the revolt believed that they would fail, but that through their "blood sacrifice" they would galvanize Ireland and start a process leading to independence. Thanks to the British, they turned out to be right: the executions of the rising's leaders disgusted public opinion and pushed it away from Home Rule - a form of limited self-government within the British system - towards full-blown separatism, at least in some quarters. By 1919, the main separatist political party, Sinn Féin, had supplanted the establishment Irish party and swept elections for the British parliament. Instead of sitting in London, the SF MPs opened their own assembly in Dublin and declared themselves the democratically-elected government of an independent Ireland. War conditions evolved: an asymmetrical war between relatively small numbers of Irish guerrillas taking opportunistic hit-and-run actions and the militarily- and numerically-superior British. The British specially enlisted new hard men - including the notorious Black & Tans - to suppress it.  Sinn Féin's military wing, the Irish Republican Army, attacked soldiers of course, but also unarmed policemen and informants and at times attempted small-scale "ethnic cleansing". It was an ugly, nasty little war that took the initiative away from the British while never threatening to remove them from the country.

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.

Then there's Tom Barry (no relation to Kevin, or at least not a close one). He's the one they're singing about in The Boys of Kilmichael. He was a Kerryman, from Kilorglin, and a  really talented guerrilla leader during the war of independence. He was trained by the British army - he played this down later - and saw service all over the place: Mesopotamia, "Asiatic Russia", Egypt, Italy and France. He was mentioned in dispatches, a commendation usually for gallantry which would have allowed him to wear an oakleaf on his campaign ribbon, were he ever to have worn his medals. Back in Ireland, the IRA, after some hesitation, allowed him to join and put him in charge of a flying column to carry out ambushes. On November 28, 1920, three weeks after Kevin Barry's execution, Tom Barry's column ambushed a British patrol in Co. Cork, killing 18. Four months later in Crossbarry, on March 19, 1921, Barry's column, now numbering more than 100, broke out of an encirclement attempted by a British force 12 times greater in size and escaped largely intact. It was a highly impressive tactical victory and the largest engagement of the war of independence.  He was combative in other ways, too: he would later claim that "all Kerry did during the war was to shoot one decent police inspector at Listowel races".

A Barry who sang songs rather than have them written about her. In the old days, Maggie Barry was known as "queen of the tinkers", a title that today would be unacceptable and which the DIB tactfully (but perhaps mistakenly) omits. (Ireland's landless itinerant population, now "travellers", were called "tinkers" because many of them mended pots and pans. It became pejorative.) Barry was from a musical family and supported herself from the age of 16 by singing, accompanying herself on the banjo. As the DIB points out, she played everywhere, busking: "at markets, fairs, football matches, race meetings ... outside small-town shops and cinemas ... at wakes, weddings and all-night house parties." To satisfy requests, she assembled a huge repertoire of songs. By her late 30s, she had been noticed, and was recorded by, among others, the American folklorist 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.

Nearly all the Barrys in the DIB - 37 pages of them - come from or are associated with Cork. The entry for Philip Barry (d. 1177) explains. The de Berris came from Wales and Philip was among the first Norman invaders in 1169. He failed to obtain enough of the spoils from storming Wexford, so headed over to Cork, where he succeeded in grabbing large estates and established a dynasty. One non-Corkonian I liked was Spranger Barry, a leading actor in Dublin and London (pictured here playing Romeo to his lover Maria Isabella Nossiter's Juliet). He was regarded as a serious rival to the great David Garrick and sufficiently successful to be buried in Westminster Abbey in London.


  1. I don't understand the sentence: "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 . . ." Why was it embarrassing?

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