Ireland’s Wars: The Sack Of Balbriggan And Kevin Barry

For the first time in a while we must now turn back to the Irish capital. Soon enough I hope I will get the chance to talk about what the Dublin Brigade and Collins’ “Squad” had been up to in the intervening time, ahead of momentous events to occur before the end of 1920, but today’s topic concerns other major incidents of note. On the 20th of September 1920, two ambushes occurred in Dublin, one in the county and one in the city, that would both have consequences greater than the event itself.

The first that we will discuss took place in the town of Balbriggan, north of Dublin City itself, near the northern border with Meath. That day two members of the RIC stopped into Smyth’s (or Smith’s) Pub in the town for some refreshments. The men were brothers from Galway: Constable Peter Burke, who had withstood an IRA attack on a barracks in in Clare in 1919, and Sergeant Michael Burke (named William in some accounts, possible he was Michael William), a veteran of World War One who had served in the Irish Guards and Machine Gun Corps. Peter had been working in an instruction camp based in nearby Gormanstown, and was heading back in that direction: according to family accounts, the two were celebrating Peter’s recently approved promotion to the rank of District Inspector, and were joined by comrades from the “Auxies”.

There is no clear account of what occurred in the pub. It has been variously claimed that the RIC party became raucous enough that local police were called to try and calm things down, and after they departed the scene Republican Police got involved. Others claim that trouble kicked off when the owners of the pub refused to serve the men. The facts are that some manner of disturbance broke out that ended with Peter shot dead and William badly wounded. There seems to be a general consensus that the killings were not a planned event insofar as the RIC being deliberately targetted, but were instead a result of an impromptu confrontation that escalated to the point of gun violence. 

Balbriggan was not considered a republican heartland, but the attack was apparently carried out by the IRA, with some claiming the fatal shots were fired by Daniel Brophy, a high-ranking member of the Fingal Brigade who had fought with the 5th Battalion in 1916. There is a record of some disputes within the Fingal Brigade, and with GHQ, over alleged inaction in the area. This may or may not have been encouraged by Collins, who allegedly wanted Balbriggan kept “quiet” so it could be used as a centre for recuperation of city-based units, but other accounts deny this. Perhaps Brophy, if it was him, took the action he did that day of his own volition, in an attempt to bring Balbriggan into the war proper. Others claim it was other members of the local IRA who did the firing that night. Either way, Peter Burke was killed, his brother wounded, while whomever had done the shooting vanished into the night.

Some of those present returned to the camp at Gormanstown with the story of what had happened, and a force variously identified as RIC, Auxiliaries, Black and Tans or all three was rapidly assembled and travelled in several trucks to Balbriggan. What commenced has become known as the “Sack of Balbriggan”, and while that term has been applied to other atrocities in Ireland before this with a degree of hyperbole, in Balbriggan that day the term fits a bit more appropriately.

Among the things that happened were British forces firing indiscriminately as they went about the town; the burning of up to thirty or more residential buildings, with their inhabitants left temporarily homeless and entire streets reduced to ashes; the looting and burning of several commercial buildings; the destruction of a hosiery factory that employed a large proportion of the town; and the general harassment and physical assault of various civilians.

The worst happened to two local IRA Volunteers, Sean Gibbons and Jim Lawless, who were discovered in their homes and dragged to the local RIC barracks. There they were brutally beaten, before being stabbed to death. Their bodies were then dumped on one of Balbriggan’s streets. The death toll from the night did not end there: a veteran of the Royal Navy named Jack Straw – more than likely an alias – living in the area was accused of leading the British forces around the town as they went on their rampage, as well as leading the same to other Volunteers outside of Balbriggan at a later point. He was shot after an IRA court martial before the end of October, with Daniel Brophy among the executioners.

Hundreds of people were left without a roof over their heads. Maybe 400 people were left without work. The estimated property damage was over £200’000 (equivalent to £90 million today). And, worst for the Dublin administration, the event was more widely reported than other reprisals thus far in the war had been. This was largely due to Balbriggan’s proximity to the capital and its cadre of journalists, along with a multitude of first-hand accounts that rapidly emerged from the town. This brought widespread media attention, helped by the availability of photography to document the aftermath, with pictures of the burnt out houses soon available.

Massive international condemnation followed, with committees as far as America called to investigate and raise funds for relief. A number of uncomfortable parliamentary debates in London were also inevitable. Opposition figures were outraged, while the government and its appointees desperately attempted to downplay the situation, with General Macready claiming to have visited Balbriggan and seen no sign of any destruction, while Hugh Tudor seemed to think the main problem was that the summary executions of Lawless and Gibbons were not “dignified” enough. No-one ever faced any punishment for what had occurred. Few were fooled, or satisfied, by the government’s efforts to downplay the situation. The damage was done.

With one very notable exception to come before the end of the year, the destruction visited upon Balbriggan may have been the worst reprisal of the war, and it was not forgotten. Yet again, the wanton ill-discipline of British reservists combined with the semi-approved reprisal policy only ended up alienating the local population and making the administrations position, both internally and in the eyes of the international community, weaker. But too many high-ranking members of the British political and military leaderships refused to accept this.

Yet even for all of this, an event of arguably greater resonance was occurring in the city on the same day. That morning, in Bolton Street on the city’s northside, a party of seven British soldiers, a sergeant and six privates of the Duke of Wellington’s regiment, travelled by truck to a bakery to pick up a supply of bread. In the process of doing so, they were attacked by members of the Dublin Brigade, engaging in their first flat-out exchange of fire with the military in the war.

Just what the objective of this impromptu ambush was remains somewhat disputed, but was probably just a stick-up job: the soldiers were to be surrounded, called upon to surrender, and their arms taken, before the Volunteers absconded into the streets surrounding the area. Such attacks were incredibly dangerous to carry out in the city, with British reinforcements never far away, so it is unlikely that the IRA was aiming to draw even more attention to themselves by opening fire. But something went wrong. While the British were surrounded and appeared to be laying down their arms, a shot rang out, possible from the driver of the lorry who was unaware of the larger situation. In response, the IRA opened fire themselves, hitting most of the truck’s occupants in the process. One, a Private Harold Washington, was killed then and there. Four others were wounded, two to later die of their wounds.

The firing attracted the attention of a nearby patrol of the Lancashire Fusiliers, who rushed to the scene. The ambushers had scattered by that point, all save one: an 18-year-old Volunteer named Kevin Barry who had only joined the operation the previous day. In the course of the attack his gun had jammed, and he had dived for cover underneath the truck. He was discovered there shortly after, with his comrades initially unaware that he had been left behind.

Barry was a Dublin native. While a student of Belvedere College, he had joined the 1st battalion of the Dublin IRA aged only 15, and continued his service after enrolling in UCD to study medicine. His duties included being a courier and taking part in various training camps, before he graduated to raiding for arms. He was involved in a number of such raids, and impressed his superiors enough that he was appointed a section commander in the summer of 1920.

After his arrest, Barry was taken to the North Dublin Union for interrogation. There, by his own account, he was beaten and tortured by members of the British military, who sought the names of his comrades in the IRA. It appears to be the case that Barry refused to name any names or give any other information, not even when the likelihood of his execution was put to him. His trial took place on the 20th October. Barry refused to recognise the military court assembled. He was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death.

Barry’s situation caused both a national and international outrage. His age was a common rallying cry, and appeals from clemency came from all quarters. The IRA and the Dail, as far as Arthur Griffith, insisted that Barry was a prisoner-of-war and entitled to legal protections as such. Barry’s involvement in a previous raid for arms where those British taken prisoner were released without harm was raised as proof of an apparent double-standard being followed. And, of course, it was pointed out by many that the execution of a man so young would only hurt British interests in the long-run.

On the British side they insisted that Barry was not a soldier as he wore no uniform and fought for an entity that was not recognised as a sovereign state; that the men killed in the raid were all around the same age or even younger than Barry (Washington turned out to be only 15, though how he had been able to enlist drew less attention); that the IRA had routinely killed unarmed police as part of the war, so efforts to paint it as purely a struggle between opposing military groups were false; and that justice had to be done to Barry, regardless of the consequences, or else the entire British campaign, and the morale of British forces, would be undermined. Barry was one of a very few members of the IRA captured in the act of executing an ambush, and his fate was sealed the moment he was discovered. The recent memory of the hunger strikers and the cave-in of the administration then must also have played a part in the hard-line stance.

Barry went to his death on the 1st November. He had hoped for a firing squad, but was hung instead, another aspect of the affair that rankled with nationalists: the 1916 leaders had been shot as soldiers, and rebels hadn’t been hung since the Fenian days. By all accounts Barry faced his end bravely and with good cheer, expressing satisfaction that, if he was to die, at least it would be for the cause.

To say that the entire affair, with Barry’s hanging only a week on from the death of Terence MacSwiney on hunger strike, was a massive propaganda coup for “the Republic” – and, conversely, a propaganda disaster for the British – is an understatement. Barry rapidly entered the canon of near-deified republican martyrs, his age, handsome demeanor and attitude towards his own death all contributing to the depiction. “Kevin” became the most popular name for newborn boys for a time. Masses held for him were huge affairs (another British blunder was holding the execution on a Sunday, when every pulpit had the chance to lambast them). He was made the subject of numerous songs, most notably the ballad “Kevin Barry”, that remains one of the most famous republican songs to come from the era. In time to come, buildings, streets, GAA clubs and more would bear Barry’s name.

On the other side, the British were vilified and condemned: in the pursuit of enacting what they understood as justice, they merely continued the erosion of whatever popular support they still held in the country. Irish nationalists of various hues took affront at the labeling of Barry as a murderer, especially when acts like the Sack of Balbriggan went unpunished. More than one British commentator would lament that the three young soldiers killed in the incident had no songs written about them. It was simply not that kind of war for the British, with Barry a hero to their enemies, and their own dead a largely forgotten list of casualties. At a time when high-ranking members of the British establishment were embracing a mistaken belief that they had turned the tide in the war, the execution of Barry showed the reality: that the British were increasingly clinging on to their position of authority in Ireland, a position whose weakness was not aided by the hanging of teenagers.

Both the the Sack of Balbriggan and the ambush on Bolton Street  – and the events surrounding them – were terrible affairs for the British. Between them, four members of their police and military were killed, and while they were, in roundabout ways, able to inflict three deaths in return, none of those deaths were worth the cavalcade of negative publicity and public reaction that resulted. Balbriggan showed that the administration was happy to informally condone the targeting of entire towns and their uninvolved populations as reprisals for their losses, while the Barry affair showed both the weakness of the British military in Dublin, and the self-harming nature of their militarised judicial system, that hanged one rebel and probably created many more.

And the hits just kept on coming. Only two days after both of these events, another destructive encounter occurred, this time in the west of the country. It would be one of the worst days of the war for the Crown Forces.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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9 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Sack Of Balbriggan And Kevin Barry

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