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We need to talk about Kevin

Author Siofra O’Donovan told David Hennessy why she felt compelled to retell the story of one of her ancestors, the Irish rebel and martyr Kevin Barry, after running away from him for all of her adult life. 

“I was compelled to do it but it was really, really hard work,” author Siofra O’Donovan says of Yours ‘Til Hell Freezes, a biography of one of Ireland’s most famous martyrs Kevin Barry.

Kevin Barry was only 18 years old when he died a martyr, on the morning of 1st November, 1920, making him one of the first to be executed by the British after the 1916 Easter rising. His execution inflamed nationalist public opinion in Ireland, largely because of his age. His death attracted international attention, and attempts were made by U.S. and Vatican officials to secure a reprieve. His execution precipitated an escalation in violence as the Irish War of Independence entered its bloodiest phase.

One of his closest surviving relatives, Siofra was well placed to tell the story of Kevin’s Barry’s life and death with rare access to family papers and archives but reveals to us she was not always attracted to telling the story of her historically iconic great-uncle.

“I have been running away from Kevin Barry all my adult life because I was just tired of hearing about him from my father.”

The only full-length biograph of Kevin to be written before Siofra’s new addition was written by her father, the journalist and author, Donal O’Donovan in 1989.

“My father and I had a very strong connection. When I was 11 he said, ‘What am I going to write next?’ And I said, ‘Write a book about Kevin Barry’. Because we used to chat about Kevin Barry ever since I was a child. And he said, ‘Right, that’s what I’ll do’.”

Donal’s father Jim O’Donovan was IRA director of chemicals during the War of Independence and the principal architect of the bombing campaign in Britain during the second World War. He was the IRA’s link-man with the Abwehr and sheltered the Nazi spy Hermann Goertz. He was interned in the Curragh for two years.

“Because my Grandad was a very big Republican as well and went on and on into the forties with the whole thing, things that I wouldn’t be too proud of but, there’s a lot of heavy family history. Grandad would have brought in German spies and had them in the garden, at least one anyway. My Dad felt my Grandad was too extreme and he wanted to take a very measured response to Kevin’s story. He wanted to show that Kevin had shot a soldier, this is the information and the evidence. He didn’t want to portray him as this romantic martyr. He did his best to portray him as a person.

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“Then my father died in 2009 and I felt very strongly that I wanted to take care of his work. I originally decided to re-publish his book but that was complicated for a few reasons. It became evident pretty quickly on a new book needed to be written.

“There’s a lot of new witness statements that have been released since Dad wrote his book. And also a lot has happened regarding Kevin Barry since Dad published his book. There was the exhumation of the bodies, the ten bodies from Mountjoy Prison to Glasnevin in 2001. That was a pretty momentous event and there was a lot of different perspectives on that.”

After joining the IRA at the age of 15, Kevin would be sentenced to death for his part in an attack upon a British Army supply lorry which resulted in the deaths of three British soldiers. 

On 20 September 1920, Kevin and members of C Company were to surround the lorry, disarm the soldiers, take the weapons and escape. However, although the soldiers complied and laid down their weapons, a shot was then fired. Where this shot came from is unclear but Barry and the rest of the ambush party then opened fire. Kevin’s gun jammed twice and he dived for cover under the vehicle. When his comrades fled, he was left behind. 

Kevin Barry would be arrested. One of the soldiers, Private Harold Washington who was just 15, had been shot dead.Two others, Privates Marshall Whitehead and Thomas Humphries, were both badly wounded and later died of their wounds.

Although there were plans to break him out, he was hung at Mountjoy Prison. 

The Irish Army honour the volunteers, excuted during the war of Independence 1920/1921,during a State Funeral in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin. 14/10/2001

Part of what I had to do was actually live through his journey  because he had to be almost present, in a way, through all the different descriptions of it to honour what happened to him. 

“My sister, who very sadly passed away and won’t see the book, came with me to Mountjoy last November. The prison guard brought us to the Gallows and we stood there together and we sang his song very quietly. It was very, very, very moving. My sister said she felt grief that she’d say our grandmother, great-aunts wouldn’t have allowed themselves to feel because women and men didn’t in those days, wouldn’t allow themselves to actually grieve. Also the fact that it was a highly politicised death and the Barry’s were very Republican, they would have been devastated and proud but inwardly, of course.”

Kevin has been quoted as saying, ‘It is nothing, to give one’s life for Ireland. I’m not the first and maybe I won’t be the last. What’s my life compared with the cause?’ While waiting for his death sentence, he seemed to be conscious of what he was doing and the martyr he would become and that his execution could turn the tide in the fight for Irish independence.  

“He did know that, Kevin. He said to Kitby when she came into visit towards the end. He said, ‘Look, what they’re saying about me. Isn’t it great?’ He was delighted with himself and he said, ‘That’s going to really help everything’. 

While he was proud, he was also very human and very grounded about all of it. You can see it in his sister’s witness statement when she went to see him for the first time since he had been arrested. He said, ‘I’m going to instruct you. There is to be no reprieve’. And Kitby took it as something sacrosanct and said, ‘I will do my best to see that that actually doesn’t happen which might seem very strange but that was what he wanted. He didn’t want to be saved. A reprieve would have been a compromise anyway as far as he was concerned and as far as the Barrys were concerned. 

“There were plans to have Kevin escape, help them escape. None of those worked. Kevin said he wasn’t interested but if they had barged in and taken him, I suppose he would have gone.

“The Barrys said they were getting a bit irked at times about the escape plans. They were worried about other men losing their lives as well. It was complex. Michael Collins was crying the night before Kevin’s execution because his plan to have him escape failed. He was very moved apparently. Kitby was very close to Michael Collins all the way through despite the Civil War. It is very contradictory because she was such a staunch republican. The one that they hated in the end was De Valera.  He had banned the IRA, he had imprisoned certain people and they were very annoyed. They wouldn’t talk to him at Mrs Barry’s funeral. He was Taoiseach at the time and they snubbed him.”

“They really didn’t have the actual proof that he shot the British soldier but my father took Kitby, Kevin’s older sister’s witness statement. It says very clearly in my father’s memoirs that she met him out the back of the barracks when there was a recess in the in the court martial and he told her exactly what happened. He said directly to her, ‘I did shoot a soldier’.

“There is no doubt about it for me even though they didn’t have that evidence in the court. I’m not making any judgement on either side. As soon as General Macready heard about the ambush by telephone call, he just sent a telegram back to Dublin Castle and said, ‘Try for murder’. And that was it. But it wasn’t it. They had to do a court martial and look like they were going to try and do something fair like give him legal representation. Kevin said he didn’t want any. He said, ‘I don’t want any because I don’t recognise the court’. Anything the President of the court-martial asked him, he said, ‘No, no, no, no, I’m not interested’. It’s almost comical.

“What was tough was writing about the nitty-gritty of the actual execution and doing more research on the execution. I remember I didn’t feel well. It felt very heavy to be writing about the execution in such detail.

“He said he would much prefer to be shot than be hanged like a dog, as he put it.  I think he went with enormous dignity. There was a witness statement of one of the British guards who was in the Gallows and described him as being ‘a callous young man’.  I think that was definitely filtered through his own fears and prejudices because that’s not what we hear from the priest, it’s not what we hear from the doctor, it’s not what we hear from other prison guards. I don’t think that Kevin has been described by anybody else as being callous. It’s another perspective. He did shoot somebody.

“The prison guards were crying when he was executed. I did notice in a lot of different witness statements about people crying: Men crying, prison guards crying, captains crying. That’s really amazing.”

Something that comes through in the book is the sense of Kevin being an ordinary lad who liked to bet and flirt and joke. This may come as a surprise to some but not Siofra: “My dad brought me up on stories of Kevin and how he would be cycling around the hills of Wicklow, going to Glendalough to have a bit of a booze up and he might sometimes end up in the ditch or something. Funny stories. He was very human and he loved life. He had a wonderful sense of fun.

“The title of the book comes from one of his letters to his cousin. He would sign his letters off with funny things like, ‘Yours ‘til Hell freezes’.  Or ‘Yours ‘til I go over the top’ which was the old term for someone lost in the trenches. ‘Yours ‘til I’m qualified’. His letters are brilliant and they really bring him to life.  

“I’d love to spend an afternoon with Kevin. I’ve actually always felt that he’s somehow in my life even though I’ve been running away from him for quite a long time.”

What was her favourite story about Kevin? “In July 1920, the guys they were given orders to burn down Aughavannagh Barracks in Wicklow so off they went. John Redmond’s son was living there. When Kevin and the lads cycled up to Aughavannagh barracks to burn it down, Kevin got in the window and I think Redmond meets him with a rifle or Kevin had the rifle and Redmond had a big mallet or something. 

“Somebody who was in that party said there was a hysterical woman and for some reason it stopped everything from happening. Now according to the local guy who’s still alive down in Aughavannagh, that woman was the housekeeper and she just roared him out of it so they didn’t do it. They said, ‘Well if you don’t use it as an actual barracks. If you don’t put RIC in here, or auxies or whoever, we will let you go’. But I think they said they would get rid of Redmond if he allowed soldiers to come there but that never happened.

I thought that was very funny and then we actually visited Aughavannagh Barracks with the present owners.  I think the owner was almost a little bit wary of me because my great-uncle had tried to burn down the barracks. It’s a good thing he didn’t because it’s very nice and it’s very nice B&B now.”

Siofra has not found that writing the book has reopened old wounds for either herself or other members of the family but has found bringing the subject up has provoked some strong reactions. “There was a point where I interviewed some older guys. They were very helpful with their memories but it turned out they were actually pro-Treaty in the Civil War. When I told other people about that, they were not happy that I had spoken to them. It’s a very long time ago, 100 years ago.”

She also got a blunt response when she enquired if some older gentleman would like to help fundraising for a new statue of her iconic late relative.

“I went to a group of older men in a café, ‘Would you be interested in buying a raffle ticket for this new statue of Kevin Barry?’ And one man turned around to me and said, ‘I would rather give money to the man he shot’. He actually said he had met the descendant of the guy he shot and he had a very personal feeling about this. I was utterly shocked. I had to walk away. I just couldn’t get them to buy tickets after that statement. Isn’t it amazing how history comes out in the present day?”

Yours ‘Til Hell Freezes by Siofra O’Donovan is out now on Currach Books.

For more information, go to Siofra’s website here

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