Irish patriot Kevin Barry was eighteen years old when he was executed on November 1st 1920 for his part in an IRA ambush which killed three young British soldiers aged fifteen, nineteen and twenty. In a controversial new play former IRA volunteer Shane Paul O’Doherty tells his version of the story of Kevin’s arrest, imprisonment and execution. Writing here he explains what motivated him to write the play.
In September 1973 when I was bombing London single-handedly with small time bombs and letter bombs I was eighteen years old.
In September 1920 when Kevin Barry was participating in a raid for arms outside Monks Bakery on Church Street, Dublin, he was eighteen years old.
We had both joined the ranks of militant republicanism when we were fifteen years young. Kevin little realised that he would be the only one of twenty-five attacking volunteers captured.
I was sentenced to thirty life sentences plus twenty years for causing explosions and spent fourteen years in prison. Kevin was sentenced to death for murder and was hanged by the neck until dead. His last words were allegedly “Stick to the republic!” if you can believe that.
From the start, Kevin’s death – or execution – was special. He was the first militant republican executed since 1916. He was only eighteen. He was very Catholic indeed, a former student of the prestigious Jesuit Belvedere College and a daily Mass goer. He was portrayed as a single-minded soldier of Ireland and the cruel Brits were excoriated for executing him. He became a young role model and martyr of the Irish freedom struggle with possibly the worst of all whining commemorative ballads as dirged by Leonard Cohen on YouTube.
Various buildings, university Ógra Fianna Fáil cumainn, GAA clubs, monuments, flute bands and Sinn Féin cumainn are named after him.
He and some comrades were important enough in death to be dug up and re-interred with a state funeral and full military honours in 2001 by the Irish government.
But what if the Kevin Barry story was more myth than fact? What if much of it was a tissue of damned lies?
Would you really deserve to know? Would you really care to know? Does the truth or otherwise of this matter anymore?
I have never liked the myth of Kevin Barry. He was too perfect a martyr and republican to be true. I had no interest in him.
It was only when I began working nights in a homeless shelter near the junction of North King Street and Church Street in the Dublin city centre (where I still work) that I one evening saw a placque on the wall of The Tap pub commemorating his arrest at that spot.
I passed this placque a thousand evenings and eventually began to read about and research the real Kevin Barry.
Kevin was from a wealthy family. He combined – long before it became acceptable to republicans – cricket, rugby and GAA at Belvedere.
He was an altar server at St. Teresa’s Carmelite church in Clarendon Street and later a daily Mass goer.
He was a member of the Sodality of The Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Patrick in Belvedere and was later admitted to The Third Order of Saint Francis.
He shared his membership of the IRA with membership of the IRB.
He wanted to be a Catholic, a militant republican, a shooter and a doctor all at the same time. Is that possible?
But the mystery that finally motivated me to research and write my play for you was that he walked finally with a clear conscience and without faltering, screaming, crying or protesting to the hanghouse to meet his death.
How did he manage to do this? Who or what helped him? What of his Catholic conscience? What of his victims? How did these combine with the prospect of execution and of meeting his God?
Pending any other venue, I invite you to stage my play in the theatre of your imagination and there I will show you what I believe to be the true Kevin Barry and the method he used to die well.
The years pass and then it becomes a destiny we must all one day share.
Shane Paul O’Doherty spent five years as a teenage IRA bomber in Derry, eventually bombing London and receiving 30 life sentences and 20 years for his efforts. He spent 14 years in prison and then 5 years in Trinity College Dublin studying English. He wrote a best-selling autobiography but has recently turned his hand to telling what he believes in the truest story never told – the arrest, imprisonment and execution of Kevin Barry, the other teenage IRA activist to give himself to the IRA who was executed in November 1920 when he was 18 years young. Barry, O’Doherty claims, was betrayed by the IRA who used his life, death and execution to further its own military and political ends. He has written a dramatic play called ‘Belvedere Boy – Kevin Barry, Irish Patriot’ and believes that it is the best account yet written of Kevin’s final days. Is he right?