It was 8.00 a.m. on 1 November 1920, and the bells of Dublin's Mountjoy Prison had just begun tolling mournfully. A strange hush settled momentarily on the huge crowd gathered outside and then the sounds of distraught people weeping, cursing, and praying intermingled with the tolling bells. An official emerged from the prison gate presently and put up a notice for the gathered to read - "The sentence of law passed on Kevin Barry, found guilty of murder, was carried into execution at 8 o'clock this morning".
Disregarding the overwhelming appeals for clemency from an international assortment of influential organizations, political groups, newspapers and individuals, the British Government had just put to death a young soldier of the Irish Republic. He had been part of an ambush on the ration party from the 2nd battalion, Duke of Wellington's Regiment, based at Collinstown Camp, which had arrived at Patrick Monk's Bakery at the junction of Upper Church Street and North King Street in Dublin to collect the weekly supply of bread - the plan had been to capture their weapons without any untoward incident, but things went awry and six British soldiers were killed in the encounter. Kevin Barry, unlike his associates, could not get away in time and was captured, and eventually charged with the death of Private Marshall Whitehead. The latter had died while undergoing surgery for his stomach wounds - wounds caused by a .45 caliber gun - Kevin Barry had been armed with a .38 Parabellum gun. So there was really no hard evidence that he himself had caused any of the deaths. However the fact that he had been part of the ambush was enough. As The Sunday Times put it, "An example has to be made." It didn't matter either that he was only eighteen years old.
Kevin Barry was born on 20 January 1907 at 8 Fleet Street, Dublin, Ireland. He was the fourth of a family of seven children, two boys and five girls. His father, Tom Barry, owned a farm in Hacketstown, County Carlow, and also a dairy business in Fleet Street, Dublin. County Carlow was a place steeped in feelings for Irish Nationalism, and the Barry family were strong supporters of the Nationalist movement. Not unnaturally, young Kevin too was drawn into the struggle. In October 1917, when he was just 15, he joined the Irish Volunteers and was assigned to "C" Company, 1st Battalion of the Dublin Brigade, transferring later to Seamus Kavanagh's "H" company. Aside from this, Kevin was an outstanding athlete and a gifted student. He had played in turn for the Champion Rugby Team, the Senior XV Team, and the Hurling Team; in 1918, he also became the Secretary of the Hurling Club. Schooled at Rathvilly National School, St. Mary's College in Rathmines, Dublin, and Belvedere College, he won a Dublin University Scholarship to University College, Dublin, to study medicine. At this college, he befriended Frank Flood, Tom Kissane, and Mick Robinson, fellow members of "H" Company and co-participants in the IRA activities.
Kevin's initial work as a volunteer consisted of cycling all over town delivering messages and mobilization orders. In the next three years he was initiated into the active operations. Most of these operations were planned with the view of capturing from the British weapons and ammunition much-needed for the IRA cause. Kevin took part in successful raids for ammunition and explosives on the Shamrock Works and the Marks of Chapel Street. His dedication and apparent leadership qualities during these raids brought him to the notice of his Superiors, and he was not only duly promoted to Section Commander but also selected for a special operation by the Vice-Commandant of the Dublin Brigade, Peadar Clancy. On 1 June 1920, Kevin and the other specially selected members of C Company's 1st Battalion raided the King's Inn, which was an outpost of the British garrison based in the North Dublin Union, and seized the garrison's arms. Thanks to Kevin, who led the rush into the guard-room, twenty-five rifles, two Lewis machine guns, a large quantity of ammunition, and twenty-five British soldiers were captured. Since the IRA then believed in waging a gallant and chivalrous war, all the prisoners were released unharmed. The next raid came on 20 September 1920, when Seamus Kavanagh led 26 Volunteers in the attack on the British army truck outside Monk's Bakery as mentioned above. This raid too might have succeeded, except that one of the British soldiers, instead of dropping his weapon as ordered, began firing at the raiders. This forced them to counter-fire and the commotion brought the Lancashire Fusiliers, who were housed in the vicinity, to the rescue. The Irish Volunteers had to flee the scene without accomplishing their mission. All except Kevin, who had knelt at that critical moment to free his jammed gun and did not notice his comrades' withdrawal until too late. He attempted to escape notice by taking cover under the truck, but he was spotted, dragged out, and taken to the North Dublin Union. Here he was brutally tortured in order to make him reveal the names of his associates. He refused.
On 20 October 1920, he was tried at Marlborough Barracks - a trial, which, as a soldier of the Irish Republic, he refused to recognize - and on that very evening sentenced to death.
On 31 October 1920, one day prior to his execution, Kevin was allowed to receive visitors. One of these, the Republican Capuchin chaplain, Father Albert, described him as a "a magnificent boy -- wonderfully calm", who, when asked for any final message, replied, "That is making such a fuss. The only message I have for anybody is 'Hold on and stick to the Republic". Kevin's last visitors were his mother, brother and one of his sisters. After the visit, the Prison Chaplain, Canon Waters, spoke to Mrs. Barry, expressing amazement at the degree of Kevin's self-possession. He said, "This boy does not seem to realize he is going to die in the morning. He is so gay and light-hearted all the time. If he fully realized it, he would be overwhelmed." To this, Mrs. Barry replied, "Canon Waters, I know you are not a Republican. But is it impossible for you to understand that my son is actually proud to die for the Republic?" Outside the prison that evening, the gathering crowd was joined by heavy British reinforcements, and the Prison guards were ordered to shoot Kevin if any rescue was attempted. This put paid to the IRA rescue plans.
Kevin spent his last night in the company of two Auxilaries and a Warder, and in the morning, a short while after 7 a.m., Canon Waters and Father MacMahon arrived at his cell to conduct Mass. The executioner Ellis, who had been brought from England in utmost secrecy, arrived with his assistant just before 8 a.m., and Kevin's arms were bound with a leather strap. Then, accompanied by Canon Waters, Father MacMahon, Prison Officials, and Auxilaries, Kevin was led to the place of execution in the 'D' Wing. He remained, as Canon Waters was later to write to Mrs. Barry, calm and courageous to the very last.
Kevin Barry's body, placed in a roughly made coffin and carried by four warders, was buried under some laurel trees to the left of the main entrance gates and close to the women's prison. Canon Waters and Father MacMahon performed the Catholic funeral rites. A simple cross now marks the grave.
The execution did not produce the intimidating effect that the British had hoped for. Far from it, as a martyr to British Oppression, Kevin Barry was to inspire scores of patriotic songs, poems, and writings. On the very day of his execution, the Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army were inundated with thousands of new recruits, many of them indignant fellow students of Kevin Barry. The Irish Struggle took on a far more remorseless character hereafter.