One of Ireland’s Republican’s greatest assets and one of Great Britain’s greatest falters was the First World War.
Since the formation of the British Army during the restoration period and throughout its colourful history, over half the British Army at any one time was and is composed of Irish men.
For those who volunteered or were conscripted during World War One, many Irishmen later went on to play significant parts in either combating the British forces in Ireland or the republican IRA.
One of the IRA’s most enigmatic commanders who were formerly employed by the British Army during World War One was Tom Barry.
Born in County Kerry and son of a Royal Irish Constabulary policeman, Barry was educated for a period at Mungret College in County Limerick between 1911 and 1912. The reason for his short stay was that he ran away back home without informing the staff of the college.
In 1914 at the age of 17, Barry’s introduction to war became the vocation which would shape the majority of his adult life.
Barry later noted:
“In June, in my seventeenth year, I had decided to see what this Great War was like. I cannot plead I went on the advice of John Redmond or any other politician, that if we fought for the British we would secure Home Rule for Ireland, nor can I say I understood what Home Rule meant. I was not influenced by the lurid appeal to fight to save Belgium or small nations. I knew nothing about nations, large or small. I went to the war for no other reason than that I wanted to see what war was like, to get a gun, to see new countries and to feel a grown man”
The following year, 1915, Barry enlisted in the Royal Artillery at Cork and became a soldier in the British Army. Barry’s service saw him fight across a number of fronts which included Mesopotamia. Rising to the rank of Sergeant, he was offered an officer’s commission in the Munster Fusiliers, but refused. Whilst serving in Mesopotamia (Iraq) Barry heard of the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916.
Following the armistice of 1918, thousands of soldiers were de-mobbed from the forces and returned to a land where there were no ‘homes fit for heroes’ as Lloyd George had promised. Unemployment, poverty and a feeling of being thrown to the wind prevailed, and in this boiling economic and social despair, nationalistic sentiments flared and grew.
Returning to Cork, Barry became involved with ex-servicemen’s organisations. Knowing of Britain’s brutal war against Irish nationalism, Barry joined the 3rd West Cork Brigade of the IRA which fought during the Irish War of Independence.
Having extensive former military training and experience, Barry was involved in Brigade meetings, training exercises and was a flying column commander. The West Cork Brigade became famous for its discipline and efficiency.
One of the most notable actions of the Irish War of Independence was that of Barry’s ambush on the 28th of November at Kilmichael, where Barry’s flying column virtually wiped out an entire platoon of British soldiers. The following year, Barry and his 104 men broke out of an encirclement of British soldiers which numbered over 1000. The tactics used by Barry not only ensured that the British Army stationed large numbers of troops in County Cork to capture Barry but also made West Cork ungovernable for the British.
At the end of the Anglo-Irish War, the work of Barry and the IRA was not complete as the new Irish Free State lurched towards civil war.
Throughout the negotiations which proceeded the truce, Britain had demanded that Barry be turned over to them. Michael Collin’s refused the demands but joked afterward that he was sorely tempted.
Barry thoroughly opposed the Anglo-Irish treaty as he believed that it was against all that the IRA had fought for. Subsequently Barry fought on the IRA side during the Civil War which raged between 1922 and 1923 and was imprisoned by the newly formed Irish Free State following the battle for Dublin in July 1922.
In September 1922 Barry escaped from custody and travelled south in order to take command of an anti-treaty IRA division. Throughout the later part of 1922 Barry captured a number of towns in Southern Ireland. However, due to lack of men and equipment, Barry was unable to hold these positions in the face of Free State attacks. Further to this, Barry quarrelled with Liam Lynch who was a prominent IRA member, arguing that the Civil war be brought to an end as the IRA wouldn’t win. As the IRA failed to hold out, Barry was arrested by the Free State shortly before Aiken’s order to ‘dump arms’ in 1923.
Following the Civil War, Barry was released in 1924 and served as Superintendent of Cork Harbour Commission from 1927 until 1965.
In 1940, Barry was made responsible for the intelligence for the Irish Army’s southern Command. He was subsequently denounced by the IRA in 1941 for writing for the Irish Army’s journal.
In 1949 Barry published his memoirs of the Irish War of Independence titled ‘Guerilla Days in Ireland’ which described his brigades’ exploits throughout the conflict. The book sold high numbers and became an influential guide on the tactics of guerrilla warfare.
Barry died in Cork’s hospital in 1980 and was survived by his wife, Leslie de Barra, whom he married in 1921.