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Friday, 12 October, 2001, 20:53 GMT 21:53 UK
Kevin Barry: Hijacking the patriot's legacy
On Sunday 10 men executed by British authorities during Ireland's war of independence 80 years ago are to be given a state funeral with full military honours in Dublin.

One of their number, Kevin Barry, has become one of the Irish Republic's most important patriots.

BBC Dublin correspondent Kevin Connolly examines the attempts by today's Irish political parties to hijack his legacy.

There are no sad songs for Thomas Humphries, no streets named after Harold Washington or statues of him to make little children wonder who he was and what he did. Politicians do not call on us to remember Marshall Whitehead and to try to be more like him.

They were English infantrymen, as it happens, but think of them as history's foot soldiers, three among millions of civilians in uniforms who passed through hundreds of armies in dozens of wars throughout the twentieth century.

Kevin Barry was immortalised in a republicans folk song
Kevin Barry was immortalised in a republicans folk song
They never knew that for themselves, because they never saw much of the century.

They all died in September 1920 when a small party of soldiers collecting the morning bread for their barracks in Dublin was ambushed by the IRA.

The youngest of them was 15, the oldest 23. At least one was an orphan, another was the son of a widow. One bled to death in the street outside the bakery. The others clung to life for a few days or a few hours, then they, too died.

And that is that. All that is known of Thomas Humphries, Harold Washington and Marshall Whitehead. The bare contemporary accounts of their deaths give no clue as to how they lived life, or how they left it.

We can be reasonably sure though that no-one ever wanted to kill them in particular, they died because they wore British uniforms in Ireland as the war of independence reached its bloody climax.

Medical student

They are a footnote to Irish history only because in the IRA party which killed them was a young man called Kevin Barry.

Patrick Moran was also executed
Patrick Moran was also executed
We know a great deal more about him. He was a medical student, a staunch republican and in the jargon of the time, a citizen soldier.

The story goes that on the day of the ambush at the bakery he had been to Mass in the morning, and was due to sit his first-year medical exams in the afternoon.

He was not to know it, but his own life did not have much longer to run.

He was arrested in the street outside the bakery, tried by court-martial and sentenced to death.

He attracted some sympathy in Britain because he was only 18, and because he claimed he'd been mistreated by interrogators who wanted the names of the other IRA men involved in the ambush.

All appeals on his behalf failed, apparently on the grounds that while he was young, one of his victims was younger still.

Thomas Whelan's mother was outisde Mountjoy jail during his execution
Thomas Whelan's mother was outisde Mountjoy jail during his execution
Kevin Barry was hanged at Mountjoy Prison in Dublin in November 1920, achieving the grim immortality of the republican martyr.

A rebel song written almost immediately afterwards preserves for us a curiously two-dimensional image to set alongside the old photograph of a pleasant-looking young man with an infectious smile.

In it he is "softly smiling", "calmly standing to attention", "proudly holding his head on high".

Vicious conflict

Almost instantly in other words he had become an impersonal icon of the Irish republican struggle - remembered not for what he did, but for what was done to him.

Patrick Doyle was executed at Mountjoy Jail
Patrick Doyle was executed at Mountjoy Jail
That too makes him something of a symbol of Ireland's war of independence, whose vicious and bloody detail is often forgotten.

It was a conflict in which members of the security forces were often shot while they were defenceless - at home, or off-duty - and in which official reprisals were frequently bloody, disproportionate and illegal.

"Kevin Barry" is not the only rebel song which glosses over the details - like a boy soldier bleeding to death outside a bakery - in favour of stirring generalities about nationhood.

Political roots

Still most of the Ireland's main political parties can trace their roots to the republican which led the struggle against British rule. And the stories of the ten executed rebels have a powerful resonance even today.

Fianna Fail, the movement led by the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern styles itself "The Republican Party" and would certainly see itself as the inheritor of the struggle Kevin Barry symbolises.

Cynics see Mr Ahern's enthusiasm for the state funerals (which coincide with his party's annual conference) as a rather desperate attempt to paint his party a deeper shade of green to head off a growing electoral challenge from Sinn Fein.

And of course, they'll be at the funeral too - alone among Ireland's political parties they draw no moral distinction between killing in the troubles in the 1920s and killing in the 1970s or 80s.

They clearly believe that Kevin Barry's political legacy belongs to them.

It is not of course the kind of issue that decides elections even in a country where history is seen as unfinished business - but you can't help feeling that Mr Ahern might find that tinkering with the past is a complex and unpredictable business.

So remember Kevin Barry executed when he was really no more than a child. And remember that he didn't just die for Ireland - he killed for Ireland too. And remember Thomas Humphries, Harold Washington and Marshall Whitehead too.

See also:

07 Oct 01 | Northern Ireland
Row over patriots' reburial
03 May 01 | Northern Ireland
IRA men's bodies to be exhumed
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