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