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The Irish War of Independence and 18 Year Old Kevin Barry

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L.M.Reid is an Irish writer who has published many history articles online and in magazines.

Kevin Barry was 18 when he was captured and executed during The Irish War of Independence.

Kevin Barry was 18 when he was captured and executed during The Irish War of Independence.

The Black and Tans in Ireland

Dublin of 1920 was a terrifying city to live in if you were Irish because Britain occupied Ireland then and they made the laws. If a person was heard to speak in Irish they would be arrested and jailed. The people of Dublin were not even safe in their own beds. At any time of day or night any home could be raided by the Black and Tans, the house torn apart or the occupants arrested and interrogated.

There was also a curfew at night with only the sound of the British army lorries along the dark streets looking for trouble. The people in their houses would hold their breaths until the lorries passed their street praying that they would not stop outside where a brutal raid would begin.

Irish War of Independence

This is the Dublin that Kevin Barry grew up in as a young lad. It is why he became a soldier at 15 years of age to fight for Irish freedom during the Irish War of Independence. He was caught by the British soldiers during an ambush in North King Street in Dublin. He was tried and received the death penalty. He was hanged in MountJoy prison in November 1920 at the age of 18.

Men, women, and children all made sacrifices during The Irish War of Independence. Irish men were taken from their homes by the Black and Tans and later found dead in a field or back alley. This was the atmosphere that the men of the volunteers were fighting in.

1916 Easter Rising

The Irish people had seen 16 men executed four years earlier after the 1916 Easter Rising. Their families were refused their bodies after the executions for a Christian burial . Their bodies were hastily dumped in a hole, dug at the back of Arbour Hill Prison .

Quick lime was added so there would be no possibility of the families claiming the bodies later.This is now a National Monument in Arbour Hill, Dublin, Ireland. There is a ceremony held every year to celebrate their fight and sacrifice for Irish freedom.

The Occupation of  Dublin Ireland in 1920

The Occupation of Dublin Ireland in 1920

The Black and Tans Arrive in Ireland

The Black and Tans arrived in Ireland in March 1920 because the Royal Irish Constabulary, which was Britain’s police force in Ireland could not cope with the Irish people. The Black and Tans were officially called the Royal Irish Constabulary Special Reserve. They were recruited from the many demobbed soldiers of the First World War in England. These men could not settle back into civilian life or regular jobs.

Those recruited were offered £1 a week, which was very good pay at the time, and the chance to ‘fight’ the Irish. There was a shortage of uniforms so they had to do with a mixture, of dark green jackets and khaki trousers. The Balmoral – cum – Beret was very distinctive. So they became known in Ireland as the Black and Tans. By November 1920 they were in Dublin for over six months and the regular British soldiers were starting to follow their lead of brutality.

Kevin Barry a Soldier at the age of 15

The Irish Volunteers had approximately 15,000 men, but very little guns or ammunition. They carried out a series of raids from 1918 onwards to capture the arms from the British soldiers. At the time of his arrest Kevin Barry was studying medicine at University College Dublin

He was first in ‘C’ Company of the 1st Battalion and later transferred to ‘H’ Company.

His commander was Captain Seamus Kavanagh. Kevin’s first duties were to deliver orders on his bike all over the Dublin City. He then progressed to taking part in the raids on the soldiers for guns. He was an experienced Volunteer when he was captured despite only being eighteen years old.

Studying to Become a Doctor

Barry won a Dublin Corporation Scholarship to U C D by getting an Honours in middle grade when he was only 16 with honours in senior grade the following year. His captain in the Volunteers had asked him not to go on the raid because he knew he had an exam at 2:00 pm that same day. But Kevin insisted that he would be alright and would back in plenty of time.

Church Street Ambush

On September 20th 1920, British soldiers drove up to Church Street in Dublin 7. They were there to collect their ration of bread from Monks's Bakery for Collinstown Camp. This is now the site of Dublin Airport. Earlier that morning four Irish Volunteers had taken over the office in the Bakery disconnecting the phone. They waited in the surrounding side streets for about 16 other volunteers were in key positions. Kevin Barry, Sean O’Neill, and Bob O’Flanagan were waiting in position to attack the lorry.

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The British soldiers were loading up the lorry when they heard ‘ Drop your rifles, put up your hands.’ They were attacked by a group of twenty Irish Volunteers. All but one soldier dropped their rifles. He fired a shot at the Volunteers and a gun battle erupted. Private Harold Washington was killed instantly and two other British soldiers, Private Marshall Whitehead and Private Thomas Humphries died later.

The Young Lad Under the Lorry

Most of the Irish Volunteers ran through the streets and got away. Bob O’Flanagan had been shot in the head but jumped into a cab. Another Volunteer picked up Bob’s cap afraid it would identify him. It had some of Bob’s scalp still inside it.

The British soldiers quickly loaded up their dead and wounded. They were ready to drive off when an old woman shouted at them to be careful as there was a young lad under the lorry. They jumped out and grabbed the boy.

This was 18 Year Old Kevin Barry

His gun had jammed when he first began to shoot. He fixed it, and then began shooting at the soldiers again. But it jammed a second time. He was lying on the ground concentrating on trying to fix the gun when he realised the battle was over and the rest of the Volunteers has escaped. He quickly dived under the lorry so the soldiers would not see him.

He would have got away with it if the old woman had not shouted for the soldiers to be careful. They dragged him out and threw him into the back of the lorry beside the dead soldier. The Irish crowd that had gathered turned on the woman calling her a traitor. She tried to tell them that she did not realise what she was saying until it was too late, and was only afraid that the lorry would run over the lad.

Kevin Barry had just been arrested when this photo was taken in 1920 .

Kevin Barry had just been arrested when this photo was taken in 1920 .

Raided Houses and Shops

There was chaos after the ambush. More regular British soldiers and Black and Tans arrived and closed off the streets. They raided nearby houses and shops. The crowd that had gathered ran for cover as they knew the British soldiers were looking for trouble.

They searched the onlookers and wanted to know the names of the other men. The shop owners closed their doors knowing that the ambush would be used as an excuse for the Black and Tans to loot and damage the area.

Hospital Treatment

Kevin Barry meanwhile was at the Barracks being questioned. He told them his address as 58 South Circular Road and his occupation as a medical student. First they told him he would be let go free if he gave the names of the other men involved.

He refused. They then began to torture him with six men in the room. He was threatened with a bayonet in his stomach and his back. When this did not work he was thrown to the ground and two of the soldiers kicked him. His arm was twisted behind his back while another soldier put his foot on his back and began to dig him.

This according to Kevin Barry himself went on for over five minutes. He needed hospital treatment for his arm for four or five days afterwards. When he was transferred to Mountjoy Prison his arm was still in a sling. The prison officers at Mountjoy Prison in Dublin were all Irish and were sympathetic to Kevin.

They allowed his mother to visit him in prison under an assumed name as they knew the British would not allow her in to see him if they knew who she was. They treated him well while he was there.

British soldiers on the streets of Dublin in 1920

British soldiers on the streets of Dublin in 1920

The British Army had Control of the Court

A new law called the ‘Restoration of Order in Ireland Act’ came about on August 9, 1920, approx. six weeks before the Ambush. This practically gave the Army total power over the law in Ireland. It was decided that Kevin Barry would be tried under this new law by Secret Court Martial. The jury was made up of nine officers and a Brigadier - General called Onslow.

Kevin refused to have a defence lawyer because he would not recognise a British Court. Kevin Barry was charged with three counts of murder. The evidence proved that the bullet taken from one of the dead soldiers was a 45 calibre.

All the witnesses stated that Kevin Barry was using a 38 calibre. The trial lasted one day. At 8 o’clock that night Kevin Barry was told he was found guilty and was sentenced to be hanged. The execution was set for November 1. There were five or six attempts to rescue him by the Irish Volunteers but they failed.

People Began To Cry

The prayers grew louder and people began to cry for Kevin Barry . A few hours before his death Kevin Barry was allowed to see his family and friends. On the morning of the execution there was a large crowd of men, women and children praying for Kevin outside Mountjoy Jail.

He had spent the night in the cell with a warder and two soldiers. He wrote a letter to his friends and family. He went to bed at midnight and slept until he was woken at Kevin then had mass and Communion in the cell. The hangman from England and his assistants came into the cell a few minutes before 8.00 am. His arms were tied together.

Hanged in Mountjoy Jail

He walked between the two priests towards the Hang House. The others followed behind him. At 8.00 am Mountjoy Prison bell rang. The prayers grew louder and people began to cry. A few minutes later a prison official posted a sign on the door.

It read, 'The sentence of the law passed on Kevin Barry, found guilty of murder, was carried into execution at 8.00 o’clock this morning.'

A large crowd praying for Kevin Barry outside Mountjoy 1920.

A large crowd praying for Kevin Barry outside Mountjoy 1920.

Irish War of Independence in 1920

When the old woman saw the headline that Kevin Barry had been hanged at just 18 years old, she screamed, ‘Oh Christ! So they have hanged that child.’ She felt so guilty that she had a nervous breakdown. Kevin Barry was buried in the grounds of Mountjoy Prison at 1:30 pm that day. A simple cross marked the grave.

Nine more Irish Volunteers were hanged at Mountjoy Jail while fighting for Irish freedom during the Irish War of Independence by the British Government until Ireland became a free state.

State Funeral in Dublin in 2001

In October 2001, the remains of Kevin Barry and the bodies of nine other Irish Volunteers who had been executed and buried at Mountjoy Prison were exhumed.

They were given a State Funeral with nine of them being buried at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin. The other one, Patrick Maher was buried in Limerick. The Taoiseach of Ireland, Bertie Ahern said during his speech at the burial ceremony that “…. Ireland was discharging a debt of honour that stretches back eighty years…."

Memorial to Kevin Barry in North King Street Dublin

Memorial to Kevin Barry in North King Street Dublin


  1. Evening Herald Newspapers of November 22th and 24th 1920.
  2. The Story of Kevin Barry. Sean Cronin 2001.
  3. Kevin Barry and his Time Glendale 1989.
  4. The Story of Kevin Barry. National Publications Committee 1971.
  5. Kevin Barry the first martyr of the Black and Tan War. PJ Bourke 1959.
  6. Hanged in Ireland: The Forgotten 10 Executed 1920 to 1921 Blackwater Press 2001.
  7. Ireland Since The Famine FSL Lyons. 1973.
  8. 1916 As History. The Myth of Blood Sacrifice. C. Desmond Greaves 1971.
  9. The Irish Republic. Dorothy Macardle 1968.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


L M Reid (author) from Ireland on June 12, 2020:

M Coffey, That was the times that the Irish lived in and they wanted to fight for their freedom.

M Coffey on December 02, 2019:

Kevin was earlier educated in Belvedere College. Shame on those who handed a 15 year old boy a weapon, no matter what the cause.

L M Reid (author) from Ireland on August 04, 2019:

Hello Al, Yes sometimes the men and women of our past and their heroic deeds are hidden. There is a Memorial plaque on the wall of the pub in Church Street where he was captured. Glad to hear you enjoyed your holiday

Al Bennett. Fr. Canada on July 20, 2019:

My visit to Ireland was a great visit . I was very disappointed that Kevin Barry and his comrades were not mentioned on any of the tours around ireland

Peter Leone on August 31, 2016:

I saw the grave of Kevin Barry in Ireland in glasnevin cemetery also Kevin Barry memorial hall in Dublin it was an emotional trip to such a sweet young lad who gave his life for freedom Kevin Barry will live for ever as a hero the British government and the hangman will go. Down in Infamy long live the memory of Kevin Barry

L M Reid (author) from Ireland on May 15, 2012:

There were a lot of young men and women who sacrificed their lives to gain freedom for Ireland during the Irish War of Independence in 1920.

They would all be horrified the way that our past and present Irish Government has given our freedom away to the EU!

Thank you everyone for taking the time to leave a comment

terry barry on November 01, 2011:

some years ago i was given a special visit to his cell in mountjoy prison ,a cold and lonely place,a sad ending to a young mans life, r.i.p kevin barry.

dardo on October 13, 2011:

what was his last letter called ? he is the bravest 18 year old boy ive ever read about and when reading about his final days is heart breaking for kevin barry and for the 1921 Thomas whelan edmand foley frank xavier flood thomas bryan and the rest god bless them all

zoe on October 22, 2010:

Very interesting & informative read for someone who lives in ireland but isn't from. History is fascinating.

Norbell39 on September 01, 2010:

Good writing on the events that led this young man to the gallows and with all due respect there would have been more if they were caught.18 year old men are a lot braver than when 38.he paid the ultimate sacrifice for his beliefs and what he experienced growing up.I salute you for your courage

jandee on August 13, 2010:

Hello viking all I can say just now is more please...good stuff ,jandee

L M Reid (author) from Ireland on June 01, 2010:

Thanks for your comment Pamela. Especially as Kevin Barry was so young. But he was a soldier since he was fifteen years old and had seen the Black and Tans shooting and beating up people for years. His last letter was very powerful and gave an insight into his character. Very sad really.

Pamela Dapples from Arizona. on June 01, 2010:

You wrote this so well that I raced through it, hanging on every word. It's amazing that the bullet was a 45 calibre and the witnesses said Kevin Barry had been using 38 calibre and yet he was found guilty. This is well-known in your corner of the world, but brand new to me. And it's amazing that he was able to sleep the night before his execution. Thank you for choosing this topic. It's the first time I've read about this time period in Ireland.

Christine from Dublin on May 24, 2010:

Another great hub viking,, I am learing loads from them... Thank you for sharing them ....

Garlic Angel :-)

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