The thing about martyrs


Kevin Barry in his Belvedere Rugby Shirt

Born today in 1902 Kevin Barry was the most perfect of martyrs.  A smart lad, educated by the Jesuits in Belvedere College Dublin.  He played on a championship winning junior rugby cup winning team and also represented the school on the senior cup team.

He went on to study medicine in University College Dublin.  Aged only 18 he was involved in a shootout with British Soldiers and was the only member of his squad caught.  He refused to give up his comrades under torture.  He was tried, found guilty and hanged by the British like a common criminal.

For Sinn Féin (the IRA) the events could not have been orchestrated more favourably.  The British immediately found themselves on the losing side in a world-wide PR campaign.  In Ireland tempers were already high.  The hanging of Barry occurred in the same week when Terence MacSwiney, Lord Mayor of Cork, died on hunger strike.

The British had plenty of ammunition to fight a counter PR campaign but they failed miserably.  For instance the soldiers attacked by Barry’s squad were about the same age as Barry himself.  Barry was armed with dum-dum bullets, banned by Geneva convention.

Described as a “sensitive poet-intellectual” MacSwiney was presented to the world as a pacifist playwright intellectual forced by the brutal British to take up arms in defence of his rights.  Killed by a callous and cold-hearted monarchy.  Barry was presented as little more than a child, a young gentleman of great potential, beaten, tortured and hanged by violent beasts.  Who could not shed a tear?

Money flowed in from abroad for the cause.  The IRA guerilla campaign went into all out war and within a year the British Government found their position in Ireland untenable.  They went to the negotiating table.

The thing about martyrs is never to create them.  The British were slow to learn this lesson.  The execution of the 1916 leaders should have opened their eyes to the power of martyrs.  But the British were still creating martyrs in 1981 when 10 Provisional IRA prisoners died on hunger strike in the Maze prison in the Britain of Margaret Thatcher.  The leader of that strike, Bobby Sands, was elected to the Westminster parliament while on hunger strike.  The British Government suffered a dreadful loss of face and had to pass legislation to prevent nomination of prisoners for election to prevent a repeat incident.

The hunger strike is a very ancient tradition in Ireland and goes all the way back to pre-Christian Ireland and Celtic Hospitality laws.  It was compulsory for a host to feed a guest under his roof.  As a protest against injustice a subject might starve himself outside the hall of his lord.  Such an action usually led to resolution of a dispute because the lord could not bear the shame of a man starving himself on his doorstep.

The IRA began active use of the hunger strike in May 1917 to protest their status as political rather than criminal prisoners.  Under international pressure the hunger strikers were released.  Thomas Ashe was subsequently re-arrested and went back on hunger strike in Sept 1917.  The British Government initially ordered the forced feeding of fasting prisoners.  When Ashe choked to death during force feeding in 1917 his funeral became a major IRA recruitment drive.  The hunger strike as a modern weapon of non-violent resistance was born.

The world paid due attention and in India Mohandas Gandhi saw its potential.  As a form of non-violent protest it complied with the philosophy of satyagraha.  In 1929 Jatin Das died after 63 days on hunger strike.  On the same strike Bhagat Singh set a hunger strike record of 116 days and ended the strike when demanded concessions were granted.

Prison authorities have become more scientific about the force feeding of hunger striking prisoners.  As a result of direct stomach feeding via a Ryles tube Irom Sharmila was able to remain healthy despite 16 years refusal to ingest either food or water through her mouth.

One final thing about martyrs, they need to be special.  A good martyr every ten years or so serves as a beacon of defiance, bravery, resistance to oppression.  It serves as a rallying cry, a call to recruitment , an incentive for contributions to the cause.  In the middle east today Islamic groups create a handful of martyrs every month.  Too many martyrs for any individual martyr to stand out from the crowd.  Martyrdom is no longer special, it just become the norm and eventually it becomes meaningless.  A pointless death.  A waste of life.


Kevin Barry: Anonymous

In Mountjoy jail one Monday morning
High upon the gallows tree
Kevin Barry gave his young life
For the cause of liberty
But a lad of eighteen summers
Yet no one can deny
As he walked to death that morning
He proudly held his head on high

Just before he faced the hangman
In his dreary prison cell
British soldiers tortured Barry
Just because he would not tell
The names of his brave companions
And other things they wished to know
“Turn informer or we’ll kill you”
Kevin Barry answered, “no”

Calmly standing to attention
While he bade his last farewell
To his broken hearted mother
Whose grief no one can tell
For the cause he proudly cherished
This sad parting had to be
Then to death walked softly smiling
That old Ireland might be free

Another martyr for old Ireland
Another murder for the crown
Whose brutal laws may kill the Irish
But can’t keep their spirit down
Lads like Barry are no cowards
From the foe they will not fly
Lads like Barry will free Ireland
For her cause they’ll live and die


2 thoughts on “The thing about martyrs

  1. That was a great poem. As you can tell by my last name (Shey [O’Shea]), I am part Irish. My people came from County Kerry and County Roscommon.

    May 1981: Northern Ireland and Bob Jamieson of NBC News

    This story is about my traveling to England, Wales and Ireland when I was twenty-one years old. I was an observer at the Francis Hughes (a hunger striker) funeral in Bellaghy, County Derry, Northern Ireland.

    Back in 1980, 1981 and 1982 I lived in Ireland for a total of thirteen months. My dad paid for two trips and I paid for one trip to Ireland. In May of 1981, I took my hard-earned money and flew from Minneapolis to London (Gatwick Airport). I took a bus to Brighton and then to Southampton. In Southampton, I stopped by the police department and thanked the policeman who helped me the previous fall when I was temporarily down and out in Southampton; he helped me get a room at the Salvation Army.

    From Southampton I took a bus into Wales, took the ferry across to Ireland (Wexford) and took a bus to Carlow. In Carlow I stopped at the local college to see if there were any notices for rooms for rent. Somehow I bumped into this guy named Brian. Brian was an instructor at the college and he said I could stay at his place for the summer, because he was going to Africa on a mission trip in about a week.

    Brian lived in Athy*, County Kildare and we drove to his place; he let me sleep on the couch. The next day, Brian and I were watching the news and there was a story about Francis Hughes, a hunger striker, who had died at the prison in Long Kesh in Northern Ireland. Brian knew Francis Hughes’ family very well. Brian was originally from Northern Ireland. Brian’s first reaction to the news was that there could be riots in Northern Ireland. Bobby Sands, another hunger striker, had died a week before. This was all big news in Ireland; I later learned that the deaths of Sands and Hughes were big news in the United States as well.

    So Brian looked at me and asked me if I wanted to go on a road trip into Northern Ireland. I said, no problem. So we headed north and Brian and I had an intense discussion about the troubles in the North. We stayed at his sister’s place, I believe, in Antrim, County Antrim. The funeral of Francis Hughes would be in a day or so. Funerals in Irish culture are very important–everybody goes to funerals.

    The day of the Francis Hughes funeral, we drove out to Bellaghy, County Antrim. There were tons of people lining the roads. There were one or two British Army helicopters circling the neighborhood. Brian parked his car in a pasture maybe a mile or two from the Hughes family farm. We met a pretty reporter from the London Times newspaper–I think her name was Linda Melvern. Since she was English and she was in Republican (IRA) territory (historically, there have been tensions between the English and the Irish), she decided to hang out with us for most of the day–I think she felt safe being with us. It seemed like she was glad that there was an American in the outfit. She was really beautiful. A Northern Irishman, an English woman and an American: we were quite the team.

    We walked to the Hughes farmhouse and walked inside. I met Francis Hughes’ dad and mom and relatives.

    Brian, who knew the Hughes family well, said, “This is Tim Shey from the United States.” Mr. Hughes smiled and we shook hands.

    I said something like, “I am sorry for the loss of your son, Mr. Hughes.”

    We met a few more people and then walked over to the casket to see the body. The body of Francis Hughes was very thin, emaciated. I think he died after forty-some days without food.

    Brian told me that before Francis Hughes was captured by the British Army, he had dyed his hair blond and met these two British SAS (Special Air Services) men in a field. Hughes killed one SAS man and wounded the other; Hughes was wounded in the exchange of gunfire.

    There was one story about Francis Hughes where he was in this farm house; it was surrounded by British soldiers. Hughes managed to get a British Army uniform and put it on. Hughes walked out of the house disguised as a British soldier and walked up to the British and said, “Be careful. Hughes is inside the house.” Then he walked off and escaped.

    Before the funeral procession to the local cemetery, Brian gave me a black armband [looking at a video of the funeral, we were actually wearing white armbands; it was a long time ago–sometimes it is hard to remember all of the details]–we were “stewards”–we were supposed to help keep back the crowds of people from the funeral procession. The British Army helicopters kept circling the area. Brian said that they were taking photographs of the people in the funeral.

    Then several masked men appeared wearing black balaclavas (face masks); they escorted the coffin of Francis Hughes to the hearse. They followed the hearse to the cemetary. When they marched, they would chant, “Cle deas cle, cle deas cle.” It sounded like “clay jazz clay”, which means “left right left” in Gaelic (native Irish language).

    The funeral procession walked for a while and was blocked at some intersection. Brian and I had to help push these people out of the way. There was this Canadian news cameraman right there filming everything; I may have made it on the nightly news in Canada. So the procession was diverted to another route to the cemetery somewhere in or around Bellaghy.

    I don’t remember too many details about the cemetery and what went on there. I think the masked men fired a few volleys from their rifles at the grave of Francis Hughes. After the cemetery, the crowds eventually dispersed. The beautiful English reporter caught up with us; somehow she strayed-off and lost sight of us. The three of us walked through the town of Bellaghy. There were these Scottish Highlanders (soldiers) sitting down, lounging around, smoking cigarettes, talking–they didn’t seem too concerned about what was going on. There were no riots; there was a little trouble at the intersection where Brian and I were; I don’t know of any other trouble during the funeral.

    We said goodbye to Miss Melvern, got in the car and drove back towards Antrim. (Years later I read Linda Melvern’s article on the Francis Hughes funeral at the Iowa State University Library in Ames, Iowa.) On the way, we noticed this car on the side of the road. It looked like they were broke down: both men were outside the car looking at a flat tire. So Brian pulled over and asked them if they needed any help.

    They said something like, “Our car is broke down and we need to get to Belfast.”

    Brian said, “Hop in. We’ll take you to Belfast.” Belfast wasn’t that far away from Antrim.

    They both climbed into the back seat of Brian’s car. One guy was older than the other: his name was Bob Jamieson of NBC News. The other, younger guy was the cameraman. They were in Northern Ireland covering the Francis Hughes funeral. The cameraman said he was very tired: he had to carry that heavy camera all over the place all day long. Bob Jamieson looked familiar; I am sure I had seen him on TV before.

    So Brian drove them to Belfast to the Europa Hotel. Bob Jamieson and his cameraman were very grateful and thanked us.

    Later that summer, in July, I took a train to Belfast and stayed for two or three days and attended a funeral of another hunger striker in West Belfast–somewhere near the Falls Road. I had bought these Army surplus jungle boots back in the States before I came to Ireland. I was walking back from the funeral and these kids noticed my Army jungle boots and said, “Must be with the IRA.” I later was stopped by some British soldiers armed with rifles and they asked me a few questions. One soldier said, “Ah, my first American.” Another soldier looked at my boots and asked me if I had been in the military in the States. We had a short, friendly chat and then I proceeded to walk back to downtown Belfast.

    Brian and I drove back to Antrim and we stayed with his sister’s family for another day or two and then we drove back to Athy. Brian soon left for Africa and I stayed in Athy where I soon began to write my first novella: a story about a thirty-something man named Johnny O’Sullivan from County Kerry who wanders and works in Ireland and England; I incorporated my experience of the Francis Hughes funeral into the story. I was twenty-one years old at the time and was heavily influenced by William Shakespeare, James Joyce and William Faulkner. The novella came to 73 pages in length. I sent it to several publishers, but it was never accepted for publication.

    I ended up staying in Ireland that time for nine and a half months. After I finished writing and typing the manuscript (it took me seven weeks), I worked on a farm in Killorglin, County Kerry and then a farm in County Laoish and County Kildare for a short time. I later flew back to the States in February 1982.

    [Originally published by]

  2. Wow Tim, that is some story and a serendipitous set of events that enabled you to get so close to the heart of things. They were bad days in Ireland. The Europa hotel, where Bob Jamieson stayed was the most bombed hotel in the world. Dark days before the Good Friday peace accord. The current Brexit process in the UK is putting this peace at risk. Madness by idiots who have no memory. Maybe you need to republish!

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