On this date in 1920, 18-year-old Irish Republican Army Section Commander Kevin Barry was hanged in Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison for the murder of English Private Harold Whitehead in an IRA ambush just six weeks prior to the execution.
Denying the authority of the British (civilian) court, the young medical student went undefended, insouciantly reading the newspaper in court as the government built its case against him. His was the first execution of the Irish War of Independence, and stoked Irish nationalist sentiment on the island and abroad.
Refused a request to be shot as a soldier, Barry nevertheless went jauntily to his fate, his bearing making great gains for IRA recruitment and fixing his own name in the firmament of Irish independence martyrs. Britain’s insistence on treating him as a murderer rather than a prisoner of war was widely received as an insult to the movement he represented.
It was not until 1989 that Barry’s short life received a biographical treatment, Kevin Barry and His Times, by the hanged man’s nephew. But a 1920’s song celebrating Barry has survived since that time as a popular hymn of Irish Republicanism.