Tom Barry, Irish Republican




Tom Barry

Born 1 July 1897 Killorglin, County Kerry
Died 2 July 1980 (aged 83) Cork
Allegiance  United Kingdom Template:Country data Irish Republic Flag.svg  Ireland
Service/branch  British Army Template:Country data Irish Republic Flag.svg Irish Republican Army Republic of Ireland Irish Defence Forces
Rank Commandant General
Unit Irish Republican Army
Commands held Officer Commanding, 3rd (West) Cork Brigade, Irish Republican Army Chief of Staff, Irish Republican Army Operations Officer, Southern Command, Irish Defence Forces
Battles/wars World War I Irish War of Independence Irish Civil War

General Thomas (Tom) Barry (1 July 1897 – 2 July 1980) was one of the most prominent guerrilla leaders in the Irish Republics ground forces, the Irish Republican Army, during the Irish War of Independence


Early life

Thomas Bernardine Barry was born in Killorglin, County Kerry. He was the son of a Royal Irish Constabulary policeman. Four years later, Thomas Barry Senior resigned and opened a business in his hometown of Rosscarbery, County Cork. Barry was educated for a period at Mungret College, County Limerick from 25 August 1911 to 12 September 1912. The reason for his short stay is indicated by a reference from the school register of the Apostolic School, Mungret College; ‘Went – Home (ran away) without knowledge of superiors – no vocation’. In 1915, during World War I, he enlisted in the Royal Field Artillery at Cork and became a soldier in the British Army.

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. Above all I went because I knew no Irish history and had no national consciousness.

He fought in Mesopotamia (then part of the Ottoman Empire, present day Iraq). He rose to the rank of sergeant. Barry was offered a commission in the Royal Munster Fusiliers but refused it. While outside Kut-el-Amara Barry first heard of the Easter Rising.

War of Independence

On his return to Cork he was involved with ex-servicemen’s organisations. In 1920, Barry joined the 3rd (West) Cork Brigade of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) which was then engaged in the Irish War of Independence (1919–1921). He was involved in brigade council meetings, was brigade-training officer, flying column commander, was consulted by IRA General Headquarters Staff (GHQ), and also participated in the formation of the IRA First Southern Division. The West Cork Brigade became famous for its discipline, efficiency and bravery, and Barry garnered a reputation as the most brilliant field commander of the war.


The Kilmichael Ambush on 28 November 1920 was, a turning point of the war as theAuxiliaries, previously thought “invincible”, were defeated by an IRA column – a fact which had a very negative impact on British morale.


Crossbarry Memorial, Crossbarry, County Cork. In March 1921, 104 Irish Republican Army volunteers under the command of Tom Barry attacked and later escaped from an encircling manoeuvre by 1,200 British soldiers and Black and Tans.

On 28 November 1920, Barry’s unit ambushed and killed almost a whole platoon of British Auxiliaries at Kilmichael, County Cork. In March 1921 at Crossbarry in the same county, Barry and 104 men, divided into seven sections, broke out of an encirclement of 1,200 strong British force from the Essex Regiment. In total, the British Army stationed over 12,500 troops in County Cork during the conflict, while Barry’s men numbered no more than 310. Eventually, Barry’s tactics made West Cork ungovernable for the British authorities. “They said I was ruthless, daring, savage, blood thirsty, even heartless. The clergy called me and my comrades murderers; but the British were met with their own weapons. They had gone in the mire to destroy us and our nation and down after them we had to go.”

Civil War

During the negotiations that preceded the Truce that ended the war, the British had demanded that Barry be handed over to them before progress could be made on other matters. Michael Collins refused, although he afterwards jokingly told his fellow Cork men that he had been sorely tempted. Barry opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 6 December 1921, because, according to him, it betrayed the Irish Republicand partitioned Ireland. He fought on the Republican side in the Irish Civil War (1922–1923) and was imprisoned by the Irish Free Stateafter the Battle of Dublin in July 1922. Barry had voiced the opinion that, at the start of the Civil War, while the Republican side was stronger, they should have taken over Dublin and the major cities and forced a new confrontation with the British. In September of that year, however, he escaped from an internment camp at Gormanston in County Meath and traveled south, to take command of the anti-Treaty IRA Second Southern Division. In November 1922, he led his men in the capture of a string of towns across the province of Munster, including Carrick on Suir, Thomastown and Mullinavat, taking the Free State garrison there prisoner. However, due to a shortage of men and equipment, he was unable to hold these places, evacuating them before National Army reinforcements arrived. After this point, Barry increasingly argued with Liam Lynch, the Republican commander in chief, that the Civil War should be brought to an end, as there was no hope of victory. In March, Barry proposed to the IRA Army executive that a ceasefire should be called, but he was defeated by 6 votes to 5. The anti-treaty campaign was belatedly called off by Frank Aiken in May, after Lynch had been killed in a skirmish with Free State troops. Barry was arrested shortly before Aiken’s order to “dump arms”, on 24 May 1923.

Subsequent IRA career

After the defeat of the Anti-Treaty IRA in the Civil War, Barry was released in 1924. He served as general superintendent of Cork Harbour Commission from 1927 to 1965. In March 1936, Barry was involved in the shooting dead of Vice-Admiral Henry Somerville. Four men burst into Somerville’s family home at Castletownshend, Cork and fired a revolver. Somerville was targeted for recruiting local men to join the Royal Navy. In 1937, he succeeded Seán MacBride as chief of staff. Barry claimed that they had sabotaged a planned IRA offensive in Northern Ireland. Barry would assert in later life that he opposed both the 1930s bombing campaign inEngland and IRA contacts with Nazi Germany. In fact, in January 1937 he had taken a trip to Germany seeking German support, which was assured to him subject to the condition that the IRA limit its actions to British military installations once war was declared. Financing was to be arranged through the Clann na Gael in the USA. The Army Convention in April 1938 adopted Seán Russell’s S-Plan instead. Barry resigned as chief of staff as a result, but remained in contact with German agents at least to February 1939. In 1940, Barry was made responsible for Intelligence in the Irish Army’s Southern Command, a position he held, with the rank of Commandant, for the duration of World War II (see The Emergency). In 1941 he was denounced by the IRA for writing for the Irish Army’s journal, “An Cosantóir”. He was an unsuccessful candidate at the 1946 Cork Borough by-election. Barry was supportive of the Provisional IRA campaign but expressed reservations about some of their tactics.



Cover of 1968 edition of Barry’s memoir

In 1949, Barry published his memoirs of the Irish War of Independence, Guerilla Days in Ireland. It describes his Brigade’s exploits such as the ambushes at Kilmichael and Crossbarry, as well as numerous other less known actions which were directed against the British Army, Black and Tans, the Auxiliary Division and the Royal Irish Constabulary. It became a classic account of the war and an influential guide on guerrilla warfare. Barry took part in a fiftieth anniversary commemoration of Kilmichael on 9 August 1970.


He died in a Cork hospital in 1980 and was survived by his wife, Leslie de Barra (née Price), whom he married in 1921 and who was the director of organization for Cumann na mBan and later President of the Irish Red Cross. She died in 1984.


Tom Barry in popular culture

  • Bobby Sands wrote a poem about Barry after his death, entitled Tom Barry. It was published posthumously in the collection Prison Poems.
  • In Ken Loach’s film The Wind That Shakes the Barley the character of Teddy is partly based on him, although Teddy fights on the other side in the Civil War.
  • A stage adaptation of Tom Barry’s war memoir Guerilla Days in Ireland was performed in the ‘Theatre By The Lake’, Gougane Barra, in West Cork in August 2011. It was written and directed byNeil Pearson, and starred Brendan Conroy as Barry.