John Barry, An American Hero

John Barry: An American Hero in the Age of Sail By Tim McGrath. Illustrated, maps, endnotes, bibliography, index, 621 pp. Westholme Publishing, 904 Edgewood Road, Yardley, PA 19067. $35.00

Review by Blake A. Magner, IRISH EDITION reprinted with permission

Among others, two of the most important people to found and develop the United States Navy were John Adams and John Barry. Who? John Barry? Despite his lack of notoriety he is regarded as the “Father of the American Navy.”

Born in Ireland, Barry went to sea as a very young man. Little is known of his childhood. His travels brought him to America and Philadelphia prior to the Revolution. Here he kept up his trade working his way up to become a successful merchant captain. He commanded the most prestigious ship in the American colonies and during one Atlantic crossing his ship logged an incredible 237 miles in one twenty-four hour period. That was the fastest known sailing in the eighteenth century.

When the Revolution began Barry assisted in the assembling of the Pennsylvania navy. Though eager to go to sea he was of more value on land and was passed over numerous times for a command. Finally he was placed in command of the Lexington which captured the first enemy warship taken by the Continentals. He then went on to command the Raleigh and the Alliance. Without a command during the winter of 1776-77 he led a naval battery at the battle of Princeton.

Following the Revolution he remained at sea when on a trip to China he helped open trade with that nation. He was commissioned by President Washington in 1794 becoming the first commissioned officer in the United States Navy. He was later given the title commodore. He died on September 12, 1803.

Tim McGrath has penned an outstanding volume. It is not a dull old biography as many are, but rather a terrific story of an Irish-American hero. The text is fun to read, full of great tidbits of information. Westholme, whose books I have reviewed before, has once again done an outstanding job of publishing. The illustrations are crisp and clear. I strongly recommend this volume to anyone with an interest in the U. S. Navy, sailing, or American history.

So the next time you walk behind Independence Hall in Philadelphia stop and look at the statue that stands there. It is John Barry. If you have your walking shoes on, wander down to St. Mary’s churchyard at Fourth and Locust. Just behind the church in the small graveyard is John Barry’s simple grave. And the next time you travel across the Commodore Barry Bridge you will know who it is named for.

John Barry was a man that all Irish can be proud of.

Historical Happenings

Congratulations to President Boyle for his article on Irish Slavery in our last issue.  We should all do our best to educate people to the trials and tribulations, as well as the glories of our predecessors.  The great thing about this article is the interest it inspired.  We received one e-mail from a history professor in Oklahoma who wrote that Shay had mixed up the two Kings James.  The professor noted that James I was really the one who started Irish slavery while James II was the last Catholic King of England and asked for a correction to rescue James II from being an enslaver of Roman Catholics.  We also received an e-mail from a respected historian in Brooklyn that the article looks to be plagiarized from the author, John Martin and the author should have received more credit. We also received several e-mails asking for sources where they could learn more about the subject.  All these e-mails were welcome since it gave us the chance to respond.  First of all, the Kings James are easy to mix up for while James I was, in fact, the one who began  selling the Irish into slavery, it was Cromwell who increased it and James II who kept it going!  In truth, before he was even King, James II was the Duke of York and head of the Stuart family’s Royal African Company which, between 1680 and 1688, sent 249 shiploads of 60,000 slaves to the Indies and American Colonies, more than 14,000 of whom died in passage.  Few realize that for 100 years after the post-Cromwell restoration of the Crown, during the reigns of King Charles II as well as James II, there were more Irish sold as slaves than Africans.  As for the source of the information, Shay credits the Cape May, NJ AOH meeting and he does refer to the book by John Martin urging the reader to look further into the subject.  It should be noted here that the article by John Martin appears in many places on the internet from a Rastafarian News blog to Irish American web sites and not always properly credited.  However, it’s in Martin’s article that we find that, The Irish slave trade began when James II sold 30,000 Irish prisoners as slaves to the New World.  His Proclamation of 1625 required Irish political prisoners be sent overseas and sold to English settlers in the West Indies.  Factually, in 1625 James II hadn’t even been born yet, and I’m sure that Mr. Martin mixed up the James boys as well.  However, when James II became King in 1685, he had already profited from selling Irish and was unable to overrule his Puritan Parliament.  But our President is right, more people should learn this little-known part of our history.  A good place to begin is with the book, To Hell or Barbados, The Ethnic Cleansing of Ireland by Sean O’Callaghan which is available on Amazon.com.

Back in the September 2007 Hibernian Digest, we told the story of 57 young Irishmen who reportedly died of cholera while working on a railroad spur about 20 miles west of Philadelphia and ended up in a mass grave hastily dug beside the tracks.  In that article we speculated that anti-Irish sentiment at the time may have resulted in a more violent end for these young men and that only the location and examination of the remains would verify that.  A shin bone, found in 2009, convinced diggers that they were at the proper location and exploration continued.   After several years of fruitlessly scouring the area for the men’s final resting place, seven sets of remains have been uncovered and the latest bodies do show signs of a violent end. On 20 August, Lori Murphy reported on Irishphiladelphia.com an update to the story and in the August 24 edition of the Irish Echo, our friend Ray O’Hanlon featured the news under a banner headline IT WAS MURDER!  According to Ms Murphy, two skulls unearthed at a probable mass grave near Philadelphia this month showed signs of violence, including a possible bullet hole. Another pair of skulls found earlier at the woodsy site also displayed traumas, seeming to confirm the suspicions of two historians leading the archaeological dig.  Professor Watson, chairman of the history department at nearby Immaculata University who has been digging for nearly a decade with his twin brother Frank to unravel the 178-year-old mystery said, This was much more than a cholera epidemic.  He told the Echo, their skulls show signs of a violent death.  The men suffered very bad blows to the head while one of the skulls had what appears to be a bullet hole. Anti-Irish nativist sentiment made 19th-century America a hostile place for these workers, who lived in a shanty in the woods while laying track.  It is now believed that when some of the workers fell ill, they sent for help and a group of nuns came to administer to them.  Meanwhile when word got out that some of the workers had cholera, anti-Irish prejudice and fear of the disease prompted an attack by nativist vigilantes.  That theory is now supported by the recovered remains.  Janet Monge, an anthropologist working on the project, said, I don’t think we need to be so hesitant in coming to the conclusion now that violence was the cause of death and not cholera, although these men might have had cholera in addition. She added, Last year, when we only had two skulls to examine, I was a bit hesitant in claiming that we were looking at traumatic death, but this year, in every specimen that we examine, it really seems to indicate that they were victims of blunt-force trauma around the time of death.  Check out Duffy’s Cut on the internet for more information – it’s a remarkable story!  And we agree with our friend Ray, it was murder!

Another remarkable story has just been released by Harolyn Enis in her book When Ireland Fell Silent.  As a historian, I rarely, if ever, read fiction.  The only exception is books by Morgan Llyewelyn who creates a fictional person or persons to live out and tell the story behind historical events as did John Steinbeck in Grapes of Wrath.  Well, we have another like author in Harolyn Enis.  I was drawn to her book by its subject – the Great Hunger.  As a student of that subject for many years and having written and lectured extensively on it myself, I thought to do  a critical analysis and expose another revisionist historian who minimizes the catastrophe and calls it a famine rather than the genocide that it was.  Surprise of surprises, I found that I couldn’t put the book down.  It is not only factual in every detail, but her style of writing put me in the cottage beside the Reilly family that she created to take us through the horrors of hunger.  I even welled up tears at her telling of the American Wake.  More than the formal  facts format of most histories, you will find this one easy to read and, more important, easy to comprehend, even though it will never be easy to understand the rationale for the Hunger.  This is so much better than a pure history, it is a true history for even though the family is fictitious, it allows you to experience anxiety, frustration and desperation as they experience the historically factual hardships imposed by a greedy colonial administration.  More importantly, it explains the survival of our Irish culture despite the tragic times.

I contacted the author to offer my congratulations and she told me that her son, Brian, started reading the book and after the first 100 pages expressed the opinion that the Irish should not have died passively without a fight.  After reading more, he offered a profound evaluation: The more I think about it, he said, it was HOPE that kept them passive.  By the time hope was gone and they realized that the British were not going to help them, they were too weak.  If they had known British intentions from the beginning, they would have been more aggressive.  It was Hope that did them in. An astute observation!  To read this book is to experience An Gorta Mor.  It will be available on Amazon.com in October, check out the review in this issue.

Don’t forget to check out the histories on AOH.COM and NYAOH.COM and until next time, keep the tradition alive.