Though an island, Ireland has never been a naval power.
But it has sent many a youngster to sea over the centuries, none more important than John Barry, a man whose life’s work helped launch the mightiest navy the world has ever seen.
Commodore Barry was for years known as the “father” of the United States navy. This epithet first surfaced in a biographical sketch of Barry published in 1813, 10 years after his death.
But for many Barry aficionados there has long been a lingering sense that the title was a little loose, not quite taut and shipshape and that for too long Barry’s reputation had played second fiddle to that of John Paul Jones of Continental Navy fame.
That changed just before Christmas when President Bush put his name to a long running congressional initiative recognizing Barry as “first flag officer” of the United States navy.
The signing ceremony for House Joint Resolution 38 took place on Thursday, Dec. 22, almost 10 years after the resolution was first drafted and 202 years and three months after the Wexford-born Barry passed into the history books – though not from memory.
So now the Wexford-born Barry is both a father and a first.
But what exactly does first flag officer mean?
According to Dr. Michael Crawford of the U.S. Naval Historical Center in Washington, D.C., there has been a widely prevailing view that the congressional effort was aimed at securing a posthumous promotion for Barry who, during the Revolutionary War, was the first captain of an American ship to clap irons on a Royal Navy opponent.
“This was not the awarding of a posthumous honor, but simply the recognition of an historical fact,” Crawford told the Echo.
“As the first commodore in the navy, Barry had the right to fly his own personal flag. The resolution doesn’t make him the first flag officer, but merely recognizes that he was,” he said.
Still, there’s a lot to be said for fully-fledged recognition, even 200 years on.
According to Crawford, the rank of commodore in Barry’s time was more of an honorary title. As a captain, Barry had achieved the highest attainable official rank of his day.
Indeed, there was no rank in the service higher than captain until the Civil War, a conflict that produced the U.S. navy’s first admiral, David Farragut, the man who uttered the never to be forgotten line, “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.”
Barry, who needed little prompting himself when it came to going flat out under full sail, was called a commodore because at one point he commanded not one, but a squadron of ships.
In those days, a squadron would have been made up of a significant portion of the newly independent nation’s entire navy.
Barry, who at 6-feet-4 had no problem standing out in any town, adopted Philadelphia as his home in America so there was little surprise that he was swept up in freedom’s tide.
And he lost no time in helping turn the tide of war in America’s favor after receiving his commission from Congress.
He took command of his first ship, the 14-gun brig Lexington, on a December day in 1775. And not just any day, but one that would loom large in future U.S. naval history: the seventh.
In April 1776, as captain of the Lexington, Barry captured the sloop HMS Edward, thus making sure of his position in history as the first American naval officer to lay hands on one of King George’s ships.
Barry’s war career continued at full tack and he continued to be a scourge as far as the British were concerned. By the end of 1776, he had captured several more ships, was promoted to captain in what was still the Continental Navy and was awarded command of a new frigate, the Effingham.
Other ships followed: Raleigh was one, Alliance another. As captain of the latter vessel, Barry notched up an impressive record. Between 1781 and ’83, he captured no fewer than three hostile privateers and three Royal Navy ships.
Alliance, with Barry at the helm, also braved the Atlantic and sailed into the Royal Navy’s backyard when it carried American diplomats to France.
The end of the war resulted in a brief pause in Barry’s naval career, though he remained at sea in the merchant service.
But President George Washington had other plans for a man who, though he was still under 40, more than qualified for old sea dog status.
In June 1794, Barry was put in charge of training the first cadets at the U.S. Naval Academy. By virtue of this posting, Barry was now senior captain in the new federal navy.
He was formally awarded Commission Number One in the United States Navy by Washington in February 1797. The commission was backdated to 1794.
In addition to overseeing the academy, Barry was also assigned the job of building the 44-gun frigate United States, in its day the most powerful ship in the fleet.
Barry would command the United States in the Caribbean during what became known as the Quasi-War with France between 1798 and 1801.
It was during this time that he attained the honorific rank of commodore because he commanded the U.S. Navy’s entire force assigned to the West Indies station.
After returning to Philadelphia, Barry continued to serve shore duty until his death on Sept. 13, 1803, a day long since recognized by the Ancient Order of Hibernians in particular as Commodore John Barry Day.
“He was born in Ireland, but America was the object of his devotion, and the theater of his usefulness,” Dr. Benjamin Rush, a member of the first Congress and signatory of the Declaration of Independence, said at Barry’s graveside oration. “Barry is a great hero of mine,” said Dr. Crawford of the Naval Historical Center.
“His reputation really needs no polishing. He was quite glorious as he was.”