Barry, a skilled seaman and staunch supporter of colonial resistance to overbearing British authority, was but one of its many newly commissioned officers, but he would go on to become one of its most celebrated heroes.
Captain Barry was born in the town of Tacumshane, Co. Wexford, in 1745. Almost nothing is known about his family and early life, except that he went to sea at an early age, landing in Philadelphia in 1760 at the age of 15. He found employment at a shipbuilding outfit and soon began training aboard seagoing merchant vessels. At 21, he captained his first ship and soon grew wealthy in the thriving trade between the colonies, the West Indies, and Europe. Not surprisingly, he came to resent the efforts of the Crown to reassert control over the colonial economy and impose new taxes.
Barry volunteered his services to the Continental Congress soon after the Battle of Lexington and Concord in April 1775, but his commission did not take effect until December. His orders were to provide Washington’s army with transportation and maritime protection from a vastly superior British navy. And, if the opportunity arose, he was expected to sink or capture British ships.
Such an opportunity arose on April 7, 1776 when Barry captured the British tender Edward. It was the first such seizure of a British warship by an officially commissioned American vessel. Given a new ship, the Effington, Barry soon captured two more British ships. These proved badly needed morale boosters as the war in mid-1776 was not going particularly well for the colonists. Matters looked even more grim in the fall of that year when Gen. Washington was forced to evacuate New York City. But in late December, with Barry handling the maritime logistics, Washington crossed the Delaware River and scored two key victories at Trenton and Princeton, N.J. During this campaign, Barry actually joined the Continental Army and served as an aide to Washington. Tradition has it that Barry soon received an offer from commander Lord Howe to switch to the British side. “Not the value or command of the whole British fleet,” responded Barry, “can lure me from the cause of my country which is liberty and freedom.”
Barry’s fame rose over the remaining years of the war as he enjoyed tremendous success raiding British ships and seizing sorely needed supplies. The public was equally impressed with his bravery, as evidenced in a May 1781 clash with a British frigate. Badly wounded early in the clash, Barry was brought below for medical treatment. Yet when he learned that the British had gained the upper hand and demanded his surrender, he directed his men to carry him back to his command post on deck. Rebuffing the demand to surrender, Barry then rallied his men to victory. When not earning glory on the high seas, Barry also found time to supervise the building of new ships for the Navy.
Fittingly, Barry had the honor of fighting in the last naval engagement of the war. In March 1783, while on a return voyage from Cuba, his ship came under attack from three British warships. Barry sunk one and then eluded the other two, successfully delivering his cargo: a small fortune in gold that proved to be of enormous importance to the economic recovery of the war-ravaged American economy.
When the war ended a few months later, Barry returned to civilian life in Philadelphia and resumed his merchant seaman career and active membership in the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, an Irish fraternal and charitable society he helped found several years earlier. In 1787, Barry attended the Constitutional Convention.
Duty called a second time in 1794 when in the midst of a growing conflict with the Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean Sea, Congress formed a regular Navy. Barry was named the senior officer, a position that carried the title commodore. From that date until his death in 1803, he oversaw the building up of the Navy and directed its operations against the French (in the Quasi War) and the ongoing conflict with the Barbary pirates. He died while still in active service as the highest-ranking naval officer and was widely hailed as the “father of the American Navy.” Statues honoring Barry were subsequently erected in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Wexford, Ireland.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
Dec. 6, 1921: Anglo-Irish treaty signed, ending the War for Independence and establishing the Irish Free State as a self-governing dominion within the British Commonwealth.
Dec. 6, 1933: A federal judge lifts the ban on James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses”. Published in 1922, it had been banned in the U.S. and Britain as obscene.
Dec. 7, 1972: The Dial removes from the Irish Constitution the clause granting the Catholic Church a “Special Position” within Irish society.
Dec. 10, 1941: Two days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Flyer Colin Kelly sinks a Japanese destroyer to become first hero of World War II. Killed in the raid, he is awarded posthumously the Distinguished Service Cross.
Dec. 7, 521: St. Colum Cille, Irish saint, is born in Gartan, Co. Donegal.
Dec. 8, 1939: James Galway, flutist, is born in Belfast.
Dec. 8, 1966: Sinead O’Connor, singer and activist, is born in Dublin.
Dec. 9, 1898: Emmett Kelly, circus clown Weary Willie, is born in Sedan, Kan.