On the morning of 20 September 1920, there was an encounter on a Dublin street between four young men, aged between 15 and 20. It lasted at most five minutes. Within seconds, one was dead, within days three were dead, and within weeks all four had died.

This is the story of how the deaths of those young men sparked a global propaganda battle.

One of them was immortalised in ballads, and his name appears on memorials, a flat complex and clubhouses to this day. Rival political parties lay claim to his memory. He received a State funeral, 81 years after his death.

The other three are forgotten, except on their gravestones.

Image - A portrait of Kevin Barry Courtesy: RTÉ Stills Library

A portrait of Kevin Barry Courtesy: RTÉ Stills Library

Sunday 1 November is the centenary of the execution of one of those men, 18-year-old Kevin Barry, UCD Medical Student and IRA Volunteer.

He was hanged at Mountjoy Jail in Dublin, after being found guilty of the murder of a British soldier during a failed attempt by the IRA to seize weapons from the soldier's unit on that Dublin street on 20 September.

The passing of the death sentence made his case known around the world, and there was a campaign to have the sentence commuted. There was a parallel campaign by the Dáil government to maximise the propaganda value of his plight, in the struggle with Britain for the future of Ireland.

The Ambush: Prelude


Kevin Barry had joined the IRA in 1917, as a schoolboy. By the summer of 1920, he had taken part in several raids to capture weapons and ammunition. One of those raids had been on the army garrison at King's Inns in Dublin, during which 25 British soldiers were surprised, locked up, and their rifles, machine guns and ammunition were stolen by the IRA. Barry's role in this raid got his potential noted by the IRA leadership.

After that raid and others, it was obvious to the British army leadership in Ireland that this was the main way that the IRA were seeking to acquire weapons and ammunition. With no outside powers or forces interested in supplying the IRA with what it needed to fight a war, almost every gun and bullet would have to be stolen or captured. The generals issued an order that soldiers were to hang on to their rifles at all costs in any encounter with the IRA Volunteers.

At the same time, the IRA was looking for any opportunity that presented itself, to steal weapons. The practices and routines of individual British army units were watched.

It was noted that one British regiment, the Duke of Wellington's, based at Collinstown Aerodrome (now Dublin Airport), routinely sent small parties of soldiers into Dublin city to Monk's bakery, at the junction of North King Street and Church Street, to collect bread supplies. It was decided that this ration party would be the target of the next arms raid.

The plan was for a large number of volunteers, between 20 and 25 in number, to swarm the ration party outside the bakery on 20 September, force them at gunpoint to surrender their rifles, and make off.

Barry had not been part of the unit selected to mount the raid, in fact he was only in Dublin because he had to sit an exam in UCD that afternoon. He insisted on taking part. His usual pistol had already been issued to another volunteer. He was given another weapon, later identified by the British army as a Model 1915 Mauser Automatic.

Before the morning was out, he would be let down three times: twice by the gun, and once by his comrades.

The Ambush

The ration party on that day, 20 September, consisted of an armed escort of six soldiers, and four unarmed soldiers to load the bread supplies: a sergeant, a driver, and two privates. They arrived at the bakery around 11.30am.

What happened next is disputed. Soldiers involved in the incident testified later that the volunteers began the shooting, after shouting "Hands Up!" and demanding they hand over their rifles.

Two key testimonies tally. The driver of the truck, Private C Barnes, testified at Barry's court martial that he had been looking under the bonnet of the vehicle when he saw a civilian carrying a pistol walk up, shout "Hands Up!", and fire a single round into the air.

Decades later, the officer commanding the IRA unit that day, Seamus Kavanagh, told the Bureau of Military History that it was indeed one of his men, but not Barry, that had fired the first shot, perhaps due to "overanxiety".

Kavanagh saw the soldiers in the truck immediately rise to their feet, rifles in hand. The plan had fallen apart at the first hurdle, the element of surprise was lost, and there would be no guns captured that day. He said he then gave the order to open fire, and retreat from the bakery.

Sergeant Archer Banks, in charge of the ration party, said at the court martial that he estimated ten to 12 shots in all were fired.

If indeed so few bullets were actually fired, the toll was fearful.

Five soldiers were hit. They were:

Private Harold Washington, aged 15
(He had lied about his age to enlist, a common enough practice.) Killed outright.

Private Marshall Whitehead, aged 20. Died later of his wounds.

Private Thomas Humphries, aged 19. Died later of his wounds.

Private William Smith. One of the unarmed men in the party, hit in the elbow.

Private Frank Noble. Another of the unarmed soldiers, hit in the ankle.

Image - The graves of Marshall Whitehead and Harold Washington (Courtesy: Stephen Farnell and Leonard Scott)

The graves of Marshall Whitehead and Harold Washington (Courtesy: Stephen Farnell and Leonard Scott)

Several volunteers were slightly wounded, but got away. Bob Flanagan's wound was the most serious, a bullet literally parting his scalp.

As the firing began, Kevin Barry said later that he had moved to the rear of the truck, pulled back the canvas, fired into the truck, and as he told his sister Kathy, "got that man". "That man", Barry's accusers said, was Private Whitehead, fatally shot in the stomach. Private Humphries had also been shot in the stomach, injuries consistent with being shot by men standing at ground level, firing up into the vehicle.

Image - The scene after the capture of Kevin Barry on 20 September 1920. Courtesy: RTÉ Stills Library

The scene after the capture of Kevin Barry on 20 September 1920. Courtesy: RTÉ Stills Library

Two soldiers in the armed escort told the court martial they had seen Barry firing into the truck.

In the last seconds of the ambush, Barry was in trouble. His gun had jammed twice, and had only fired two bullets. Trying to clear the second jam, he failed to realise the rest of the unit had retreated, leaving him alone.

He rolled under the truck to hide, but a woman in the crowd of onlookers pointed him out to the soldiers, actually out of concern that he might be run over.

He was taken prisoner, and brought in the army truck to the nearest base, at the North Dublin Union.


Kevin Barry, Prisoner on Trial

Barry was the first IRA man to be taken prisoner in action since the Rising.

At the court martial, there were three charge sheets, one for each count of murder.

The legislation he was charged under was the new Restoration of order in Ireland Act, ROIA. It overrode civilian courts, allowing military courts to try cases like Barry's, and to order internment and hand down death sentences.

There was a lot riding on this for the British authorities, as this would be the first case tried under the new legislation. They wanted Barry hanged as a deterrent to other IRA men, but also to show their troops that the legislation could and would defend them.

Barry did not offer a defence at his trial by court martial at Marlborough Barracks, as he did not recognise the legitimacy of the court. Trial records show he engaged in some cross-examination of several of the soldiers testifying.

His sister Kathy recalled that the officer in charge of the court martial said at the outset that they didn't even need to prove that Barry had killed any of the soldiers, they had only to prove he was one of a party that carried out an attack on them. Three soldiers had died, the court's contention was that every man who took part in the attack was technically guilty of murder.

The Fatal Bullet

The prosecution examined the case of the killing of Private Whitehead. Yet when one of the military surgeons who operated on the wounded soldiers, Lieutenant-Colonel FJ Palmer, gave his evidence, he told the court he could not find the bullet in Whitehead's body. He described the desperate efforts to save Whitehead's life, literally using his cupped hands to scoop out the blood and debris from the stomach cavity.

Then John Morgan, operating theatre attendant on the day, gave evidence that when cleaning the floor of the theatre after the operation, he found a spent bullet. He gave it to Palmer, who stated that he had "a conviction almost amounting to a certainty" that this was the bullet that had struck Whitehead. It had had to have been hidden in the blood and tissue that was so quickly removed from the fatal wound. Several witnesses testified that the spent bullet was the same type as the bullets found in Barry's gun after his arrest.

The Verdict, And The Stakes

Kevin Barry was found guilty of the murder of Private Marshall Whitehead.

The sentence was Death by Hanging.

Kevin Barry gave explicit instructions to the family through his sister Kathy, that there was to be no appeal against the sentence, and that instruction was followed.

There then developed two separate campaigns, one to have his sentence commuted on the grounds of his age, and the other to maximise the propaganda value of his case.

Those involved in the reprieve movement included Dublin's Catholic Archbishop, William Walsh, and Lord Mayor, Laurence O'Neill.

The British army insisted on the death sentence being carried out. The commanding officer in Ireland, General Mcready, argued that commuting the death sentence would be very badly received by the troops in Ireland. Three young soldiers had died. The general's fear was that soldiers would begin to inflict reprisals on the civilian population, if they believed the law would not protect them.

The army leadership knew that army soldiers on joint operations with the Auxiliaries and Black and Tans would have seen the latter two formations behave like bandits against the civilian population, and more importantly, get away with it.

And it wasn't only the discipline of British army troops in Ireland that the senior officers were concerned about. The same troops might well be needed later to conduct operations in support of the police in Britain, for example against striking miners, and if they had engaged in violent reprisals against civilians in Ireland, would they then feel any restraint if deployed back in Britain?

This was not theory, there was precedent; ten years before, troops had been sent by Winston Churchill to reinforce police units, during violent confrontations with striking miners in Tonypandy in South Wales. It could well happen again.

The Last Throw of The Dice

Several days before his date of execution, Barry was told by his superiors in the IRA, Michael Collins and Richard McKee, to swear an affidavit detailing how he had been treated in custody immediately after arrest. Barry complied, without much enthusiasm.

The affidavit gave details of how he claimed he had been threatened and physically abused, and offered a way of "getting off" if he gave up names of his comrades, which he refused to do.

The British did not deny that he was roughly handled by the troops and their officers in the immediate aftermath of the shootings. An army doctor put one of Barry's arms in a sling, after diagnosing a sprain inflicted by the soldiers who assaulted him.

The affidavit's publication in newspapers around the world, increased the calls for clemency. The acting president of Dáil Éireann, Arthur Griffith, called for Barry to be treated like a Prisoner of War. Given that the British did not consider themselves at war in Ireland, that was impossible.

The British were well aware of the sympathy internationally for the 18-year-old Barry, expertly encouraged by the Dáil Publicity Department. General Mcready asked why, if so much was being made of Barry's age, the British government was not countering Sinn Féin by pointing out that the soldiers who died were just as young if not younger?

No such counter-publicity was ever put forward. The hesitation might be explained by the context; the coverage of Barry's case abroad came just after the death of Terence MacSwiney after 74 days on hunger strike. The thuggish reprisals for IRA attacks from Auxiliaries and Black and Tans, like the sacking of Balbriggan, carried out on the same day as the bakery shootout, were also getting embarrassing coverage internationally.

Also worth considering is that perhaps the British could not see the point of highlighting the age of an 18-year-old in making a claim for clemency on the grounds of immaturity; it was not unusual for combat units in the British army during the recent Great War, to be led by 18-year-old officers.

The affidavit was the last move. Heavily increased security at the prison in the days before the execution meant an IRA plan to break Barry out was called off at the last minute, for fear of causing a massacre.

The family had feared that such an attempt would be made, and that the authorities would use the chaos as cover to get themselves off the hook by ensuring that Barry was "shot trying to escape".


Execution and Memory

Kevin Barry was hanged in Mountjoy Jail on 1 November, 1920.

He was buried in unconsecrated ground inside the prison walls, until he and nine other executed IRA prisoners were disinterred and given State funerals in October 2001.

Image - Women pray in streets as Kevin Barry is hanged

Women pray in streets as Kevin Barry is hanged


Image - A scene outside Mountjoy Prison on 1 November 1920

A scene outside Mountjoy Prison on 1 November 1920


Image - Crowds outside Mountjoy Prison, Dublin, during the execution of Kevin Barry

Crowds outside Mountjoy Prison, Dublin, during the execution of Kevin Barry


Image - Kevin Barry's grave (Courtesy: Glasnevin Trust)

Kevin Barry's grave (Courtesy: Glasnevin Trust)


Image - The 2001 State funerals of Kevin Barry and nine others

The 2001 State funerals of Kevin Barry and nine others


Image - The 2001 State funerals of Kevin Barry and nine others

The 2001 State funerals of Kevin Barry and nine others


The decision by then taoiseach Bertie Ahern to grant State funerals to Barry and the others generated controversy at the time, with accusations from opposition politicians that Mr Ahern was using the occasion to assert the Fianna Fáil ownership of the Republican tradition, over Sinn Féin's claims. Unionist politicians in Northern Ireland alleged that the taoiseach was reviving the ghosts of Republican terrorism.

Kevin Barry was the subject of ballads, one called simply "Kevin Barry", so famous internationally that it was recorded by Paul Robeson, one of the biggest music and film stars of the '20s and '30s. Decades later, Leonard Cohen sang it in concert.

No such ballads were ever recorded for Privates Washington, Humphries or Whitehead. Indeed, two of the three dead soldiers' names were entered wrongly on the actual court martial charge sheets just a few weeks after their deaths; Marshall Whitehead became Matthew, and Harold Washington became Henry.

Kevin Barry's name was adopted by the Fianna Fáil Cumann in Barry's Alma Mater UCD, where there is a permanent memorial to him. A Sinn Féin Cumann in Dublin bears his name. His name has been adopted by Gaelic sports clubs. A social housing flats complex near the site of the shootout, bears his name.

No one ever gets Kevin Barry's name wrong.

Listen to an RTÉ This Week report on this story:

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