Father Murphy of Boolavogue

In Ireland in 1796, the United Irishmen, a brotherhood of concerned patriots, planned a rising. Originally a parliamentary movement among Catholic and Protestant Irishmen organized to negotiate political solutions to their disputes with the Crown, they soon came under attack by the Brits who feared that they had become too powerful. Leaders of the movement were arrested and repressive legislation was enacted to divide the remainder. The British military were encouraged to harass the people and goad them into some foolish premature action that would be their undoing. In their frustration and desperation, the leaders remodeled their organization to seek a military solution. They grasped at the straw of promised aid from Napoleon and lost a significant amount of time negotiating for that support. When that aid would finally come, it would be too little, too late, and arrive at the wrong place.

In 1798, in the parish of Kilcormack, Boolavogue, Co. Wexford, a man of God prayed for guidance as British troops continuously harassed his parishioners. Beseeched by his flock for assistance, Father John Murphy finally stepped forward and boldly provided the leadership to oppose the brutality. He called his parishioners in the name of God, united them in the cause of Ireland, and led them into history.

On Whitsunday, 1798, this brave priest, seeing his chapel and home, like so many others in the parish, on fire, and in several of them the inhabitants consumed in the flames, went into a nearby forest, where he was soon surrounded by his besieged parishioners who had escaped the brutality of the Brits. They beseeched his reverence to tell them what was to become of them and their families. He answered them abruptly that since there was no way to negotiate an end to the cruelty, it would be better to die courageously in the field than to be butchered in their homes and that for himself, if he had any brave men to join him, he was resolved to sell his life dearly and prove that the Brits could not continue their devastations with impunity. All answered that they were determined to follow his advice and do whatever he ordered. Well then, he replied, we must, when night comes, get armed the best way we can, with pitchforks and other weapons and attack the Camolin Yeomen cavalry on the way back to Mountmorris where they will return after passing the night satisfying their savage rage on the defenseless country people.

The attack succeeded, and with the arms taken in the ambush that night and in an attack at Camolin Park the following day, Father Murphy’s men reinforced their pitchforks with more effective weapons. The following day he won a victory with his pikemen on Oulart Hill and followed that, in quick succession, with the capture of Camolin, Ferns, Enniscorthy, and Wexford. In a few days, the entire southeastern part of the country was in their hands with the exception of Duncannon Fort and New Ross. An attempt was made to take New Ross on June 5, but it failed after desperate fighting and severe losses on both sides. A few days later the towns of Gorey and Carnew were captured and the way to Arklow lay open. Arklow was assaulted on June 9, but by then British reinforcements had arrived.

A pitched battle ensued that lasted from morning to night ending in defeat for the men whose only crime was being Irish. On June 21, the remaining Irish were attacked by overwhelming forces at their last stronghold at Vinegar Hill. About 500 rebels were killed including wounded prisoners. The Enniscorthy courthouse, used as a hospital, was burned down with 80 wounded Irish inside. Father Murphy was captured, tortured and murdered for his part in leading the insurrection and his body was burned upon the rack. In tribute to the memory of this gallant soldier of God and Ireland, Patrick J. McCall wrote the famous ballad Boolavogue which relates the exploits of the Boys of Wexford led by Father Murphy. Years later, poet Seamus Heaney wrote a poem called Requiem for the Croppys (as Irish Catholics were called) which read, in part:

The pockets of our greatcoats full of barley. No kitchens on the run, no striking camp.

We moved quick and sudden in our own country. The priest lay behind ditches with the tramp.

Then retreat through hedges where cavalry must be thrown. Until, on Vinegar Hill, the final conclave.

Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon. The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.

They buried us without shroud or coffin and in August… the barley grew up out of our grave.

Kevin Barry

Photo by Kevin Barry Relative Tom McNabb

Dublin in 1920 was a tense city. Searches, shootings, and ambushes were a daily occurrence as the Irish people showed their disdain for England’s new police force – the Black and Tans. This force had recently been recruited from the English military returning from the Great War, expressly to keep the Irish in check after the Easter Rising of 1916. Since military personnel are not trained in civilian policing tactics and treat any opponent as the enemy, they operated so with a significant amount of brutality.

It was therefore, not unusual that the British lorry which arrived at Monk’s bakery in Upper Church Street at 11:30 AM on September 20, was heavily guarded by armed members of the Second Battalion of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. As the soldiers loaded supplies to transport to Collinstown Camp, a voice from the street called, Drop your rifles and put up your hands. It was a group of Irish Volunteers. The Volunteers had been reorganized after the 1916 Rising to continue the fight for Ireland’s independence by opposing the British presence in Ireland. Suddenly, one of the soldiers fired, then a fusillade erupted as Volunteers and soldiers dueled with revolvers and rifles. When it was over, one soldier was killed and four wounded, and the Volunteers had fled. The British spotted a young man hiding under their lorry and pulled him out. They threw him into the back with their wounded and sped off. An official statement later that day from British HQ stated that, One of the aggressors had been arrested.

The aggressor, as it turned out, was an 18-year old medical student named Kevin Barry. Kevin had joined the Irish Volunteers when he was only 15. His job was to cycle to various parts of the city delivering orders and communications between officers of the movement. As a precaution against written messages being intercepted, most of the communications had been verbal and Kevin had an intimate knowledge of the movement. its members and leading figures. Kevin was from a nationalist family; his mother was a Dowling from northeast Carlow, where the Barrys and the Dowlings had done their part in 1798. Kevin’s older brother Mick was Officer in Charge of the Volunteers in Toombeagh, Co Carlow, and his sister Shiela was in Cumann na mBan – the IRA Ladies Auxiliary. The British knew of Barry’s position as courier for the movement and knew that they had a prize catch.

The questioning and physical persuasion began in earnest: Who were his companions? Name the officers of the Volunteers? . . Where was their Headquarters? Kevin steadfastly refused to betray the independence movement. He was offered amnesty and freedom, yet he refused. He was tortured for days on end, and still he refused. The British had never seen such determination in one so young. His mother visited him, and reported that his arm was in a sling as a result of the beatings and mistreatment he received, yet Kevin did not give in. Finally, under the misnamed ‘Restoration of Order Act’, Kevin was charged with murder. At a secret Courts Martial, he was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging.

Photo by Kevin Barry Relative Tom McNabb

A reprieve movement began, and focused world-wide attention on the injustice of British rule in Ireland. Terence MacSwiney, Lord Mayor of Cork, had only recently died in Brixton Prison, after a 74-day hunger strike, and was laid to rest on the eve of Barry’s proposed execution. This intensified the pressure on England to release the young student, but still no repeal.

Late at night, Kevin was taken to see the scaffold that would end his life the following morning. With incredible cruelty and mental coercion, he was promised a full pardon, his tuition paid at any Medical school in the world, and a pension of 2,000 Pounds Sterling a year for life if he would only reveal the names of his officers and comrades. Kevin, visibly shaken, listened to the officer in silence, then glanced up at the beam from which hung the noose that would end his life and said, Yes, I think that should bear my weight.

On November 1, at 8 AM, his hands pinioned behind him with leather straps, the slender young 18-year old boy was led to the gallows at Mountjoy Jail where his short life was ended. Later, Father Albert, one of Kevin’s last visitors, reported that Kevin’s final message to Ireland and his comrades in arms, was, Hold on, and stick to the Republic.

Kevin Barry’s life was over, but his influence had just begun. His name became a symbol and a slogan; a hymn to freedom and to unconquerable youth.