The Power of Prayer …and the curious incident on the eve of his death.
On the 1st of November 1920 a young 18 year old Dubliner, Kevin Barry, was hanged in Mountjoy Prison. Much has been written on the affair and can be easily accessed elsewhere.
Sufficient to say it was an unusual event even by the standards of the Irish conflict.
His trial took place in the form of a military court martial where, it was admitted by Barry, that he took part in a raid outside Monk’s bakery which resulted in the first British soldier to be killed in what is now referred to as the Irish War of Independence. He was to be the first Irishman to be sentenced to death since the Easter Rising over four years earlier and it’s quite possible that he died for a murder which he did not commit.
The resulting outrage was confused by a variety and sometimes conflicting emotions. Some claimed he was a soldier engaged in a war and therefore should have been treated as a prisoner of war. The authorities claimed he was clearly dressed as a civilian therefore this was simply a charge of murder or more precisely an accessory to a murder as he had fired off a few shots before his gun had jammed. As far as Barry’s age was concerned, they pointed out that of the three soldiers that died, one was also eighteen and another was possibly as young as sixteen. In any event, the British Authorities got round some of the legal niceties by trying him for treason.
It appeared that the soldier/civilian argument seemed to become more important than the unjust verdict which was produced by the military court. Some even arguing that he should have been shot rather than hanged.
Why the form of his execution should have been in dispute seems almost perverse in the circumstances, but not as curious as an incident that happened on the eve of his death.
Mountjoy was an older prison and not particularly secure. Michael Collins had already planned a breakout and escape even before the verdict was handed down. However the case quickly attracted a great deal of international publicity, particularly in the USA, and it had received almost universal condemnation. In the midst of the uproar the planned escape was delayed by those on the political wing of IRA to whom the controversy was seen as a political advantage. To maximise this advantage it was decided to move the escape to the night before the execution, a decision that Collins furiously objected to.
Demonstrations were held in Dublin, newspaper editorials thundered, leaflets were printed and distributed, petitions were organised, some unions had even discussed strike action.
The Catholic Church on the other hand organised masses and vigils.
On the eve of the execution the good women of Dublin organised an all-night vigil around the perimeter of Mountjoy prison. Thousands attended. An inner circle walked around the prison with candles and silent prayer while the outer circle knelled and recited a continual rosary.
The Power of Prayer, it seemed, would save Kevin Barry.
A nervous prison governor asked for a detachment of soldiers. The military obliged but wisely kept the men at a discreet distance… all of these fever pitch events led to the intended breakout and freeing of Kevin Barry being called off at the last minute.
It was said that Michael Collins deeply regretted having given into political pressure over the raid for the rest of his short life.
Less than two years later in August 1922 Collins was assassinated in an ambush at Béal na Bláth in his home county of Cork.
There is a peculiar Scottish angle to all of this. According to Sean Cronin in “The Story of Kevin Barry” the ballad, simply called “Kevin Barry”, was composed anonymously in November 1920 by an expatriate Irish worker in Glasgow and sung in Glasgow Irish pubs for many months before finally appearing in Dublin.