Tadhg Barry… “Always Keeps in the Background”.

The 2021 Spirit of Mother Jones festival will include an interview with Donal Ō Drisceoil, author of Utter Disloyalist: Tadhg Barry and the Irish Revolution. This will be shown on Cork Community Television (www.corkcommunitytv.ie) on Friday evening 26th November beginning at 7:00 pm.

Tadhg Barry…….”always keeps in the background”.

RIC Intelligence report


On Tuesday 15th November 1921, at Ballykinlar internment prison, known by some as the “World’s End Camp” close to the Co Down coast, a rifle shot suddenly split the afternoon silence. A man standing near the prison fence, waving farewell to departing friends fell backwards, mortally wounded near the heart. Unarmed, of no threat to anyone, Tadhg Barry lay dead.

Young sentry, Barrett’s single bullet ended in a shocking manner the life of man who had been 20 years in the engine room of the Irish revolution. He was the final IRA fatality of the brutal regime in this camp, in which at least eight internees died (three shot, and five from malnutrition) during 1921. These included Patrick Sloan and Joe Tormey, two friends from Moate, Co Westmeath both killed on 17th January by the same bullet.

Barry was older than most of the two thousand or so internees, a father figure in the transition of Cork from a Union Jack bedecked city at the turn of the 20th century, towards the ungovernable rebel cockpit of the War of Independence by 1921. From the strategic framework of constructing a revolution beginning with Gaelic culture and language to Gaelic games, from secret brotherhoods to Sinn Fēin, from journalism to socialist ideas, from trade union organisation and negotiation to developing the military hardware and intelligence around the dirty business of fighting a war in the streets and laneways of his native city, his fingerprints were obvious to those who knew.

Historian and author Donal Ō Drisceoil, who has constantly shone a light on Tadhg Barry describes him as “a doer”.

To observers he seemed to have been around forever, always smiling, low key, unassuming yet possessing the razor sharp wit of his native streets, his progress through the myriad groups and local activist alliances in the political ferment always gathering momentum.

Tadgh Barry front row left alongside Tomás MacCurtain. Terence McSwiney, back row, second from the right.

The Royal Irish Constabulary intelligence reports were very uncomplimentary and vindictive; Barry was variously described as “a leading Cork City extremist”, “notorious Sinn Feiner”, “in touch with all the leaders prior to the (1916) rebellion”, “mischievous, socialist, bolshevist……generally of the Napper Tandy type”. And most of all, Barry “always keeps in the background”. Tadhg Barry was a marked man!

Born in 54 Blarney Street on 25th Feb 1880 into a working class family, Barry was educated at the local Blarney Street school and the nearby North Monastery. Afterwards he worked at various jobs and then in 1903, he emigrated to London for a while.

Soon after his return, he became very active in the Gaelic Athletic Association (G.A.A.). He engaged in reorganising the GAA County Board and helping to establish the various playing competitions as well as the infrastructure of the main playing ground along the Marina known as the Cork Athletic grounds, now the home of the impressive Pāirc Uí Chaoimh stadium!

His efforts to promote hurling at his rugby playing alma mater resulted in the North Mon School becoming by 1916 established as a vital hurling nursery for the game for the future decades. He also encouraged the playing of camogie in the city and even found the time to manage a ladies team. Tadhg was especially associated with encouraging hurling in the Sundays Well, and Blarney Street areas, and was involved with the original Sundays Well/St. Vincent’s GAA Club in Cork.

A voracious reader, he worked as a journalist writing as “An Ciotóg” (a left-handed person!) for the Cork Free Press, the newspaper of the All For Ireland League (AFIL), which dominated Cork politics at the time.

Although deeply embroiled in the local rivalry in Cork between the Irish Party led by John Redmond and All For Ireland League (AFIL), led by William O’Brien who had a strong labour base in Cork, Tadhg Barry later abandoned O’Brien who had supported the British recruitment efforts at the outbreak of the First World War.

Barry spent much time strategically subverting this recruitment for the Great War effort from 1914 onwards. He had been among the first in Cork to join the Irish Volunteers and worked alongside Terence MacSwiney, Tomas MacCurtain and Sean Hegarty who were active following the split of the Volunteers from John Redmond.

As the political ferment in the city increased, his contribution to the separatist organisations along with his pleasant demeanour and approach engendered a better collective and cooperative spirit among the various activists. Following the failure of the Cork volunteers to rise in 1916, Barry refused to give up his gun and, although dismayed at events, he simply continued working for the revolution in practical ways. He openly advocated military options and his “seditious” speeches resulted in jail terms yet he kept working to reactivate a “new” Sinn Fein and organise the companies of volunteers into a fighting force.

He began to realise more and more that organised Labour provided the key element to the coming revolution. Barry had helped to arrange meetings for socialist trade union leaders such as James Larkin and James Connolly in Cork back in 1914 – 16. Now one leader had been executed after the 1916 Rising and the other was in America. Having returned to journalism, he wrote weekly for the Southern Star, newspaper under the pen name of “Neath Shandon’s Steeple”.

Tadhg’s increasingly radical left wing analytical articles for the Irish Transport & General Workers Union (ITGWU) Voice of Labour along with his urgings for independent Irish led trade unions combined with workers growing militancy across the country suggests that he was more and more exploring this avenue of potential for revolution. The effective general strike of 23rd April 1918 against conscription organised by the Labour Congress, even if that particular bus carried many passengers, clearly pointed to the latent power of organised Irish workers.

As a full time trade union organiser from 1919 in the rapidly growing ITGWU, he concentrated on organising rural and town workers and travelled throughout the county of Cork as the One Big Union enjoyed a huge growth in membership and challenged the power of the traditionally unionist business community to set wages for a once subservient and cowed workforce. Barry’s left wing views developed and he openly wrote of the day when the workers would govern Ireland in “the interests of Irish workers” but managed to reconcile this with his Catholic beliefs.

Cork ITGWU Union Banner for Tadgh Barry.

The Catholic Church actively opposed socialism and god-less communism, and Barry as a union negotiator seems to have identified with an element of the Church’s social teachings, which justified the payment of fair wages by responsible employers. However this approach by the Union and the Church sought to reduce the potential growth of awareness of class conflict and the analysis of the fundamental basis of capitalism. Whether Barry’s revolutionary language and actions would have developed or indeed survived in the new state is unclear?

In the local elections of January 1920, Barry was elected on a Sinn Fein/ITGWU slate as an Alderman to the Cork Corporation for the north west of the city, where he lived. He carried out his many work roles through 1920 as his comrades, MacCurtain and MacSwiney and others died in the bitter war between the Crown forces and Republicans in Cork. (Barry and MacSwiney were both 40 years old when they died, Barry lived just over 50 days more than his comrade.)

Tadhg Barry was arrested for the final time on 31st January 1921 and was detained at Ballykinlar Camp on the north east coast of Ireland. Each of his three extended periods in jail after 1916 were spent in appalling prison conditions. He missed out on the final months of the War of independence and was shot dead only twenty four days before all prisoners were released after the signing of the Treaty on 6th December of that year.

Following his death, the entire Sinn Fein/IRA/Trade Union/GAA/ Gaelic societies and Catholic Church united for what turned out to be the last time to provide Tadhg Barry with arguably the largest Irish funeral ever seen as his remains were transported from Co Down, through the many towns on the way and the streets of Dublin and Cork to St Finbarr’s cemetery in Cork. Photographs of the enormous funeral march from Dublin and Cork show densely packed streets everywhere.

He was then largely forgotten, except by his own family and close friends!

Tadgh Barry Grave at St. Finbarrs Cemetery (Incorrect age at death).

Tadhg was the main earner in the Blarney Street household which contained his deceased sister’s three children and he also supported his brother Patrick who had health issues. While some monies were paid out to the family following Tadhg’s death, the official military correspondence about military medals and pension penny pinching reflects poorly on the new Irish State. Tadhg’s active invisibility to those who did not know and his more vocal public socialist views were perhaps a convenient excuse for deliberate bureaucratic inertia!

Tadgh Barry Road, named in 2013.

The tragedy is that Tadhg’s voice was never heard in the independent Ireland taking shape when voices advocating social justice were so badly needed!

Dr Donal Ō Drisceoil has recently penned ‘Utter Disloyalist: Tadhg Barry and the Irish Revolution’ published by the Mercier Press which tells the full story of the life of Tadhg Barry. In 2011 he had also produced an excellent booklet Tadhg Barry (1880-1921) The Story of an Irish Revolutionary.

The Cork Mother Jones Committee will commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the death of Tadhg Barry in November 1921. Donal has provided an extended interview with committee member Ann Piggott about Tadhg Barry which will be broadcast during the 2021 Spirit of Mother Jones Festival. In addition we will show the documentary Tadhg Barry Remembered, produced in 2013 by Frameworks Films in collaboration with the Cork Council of Trade Unions.

Both films will be shown on Cork Community TV on Friday evening 26th November commencing at 7:00 pm.

It will be followed by a Q&A with Donal Ō Drisceoil for those attending at the Maldron Hotel. (subject to existing Covid-19 regulations at that date).

Author, Donal Ó Drisceoil, beneath Shandon Steeple, 2021.

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