On 30th June 1915, Thomas Bernard Barry from Cork (but born in Kerry) joined the British Army at Athlone and enlisted in the Royal Field Artillery, going on to serve with the 14th Battery in the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force and Egypt. Barry is better known for his subsequent exploits as Tom Barry, a leading I.R.A. figure and I.R.A. Chief of Staff in the 1930s. Barry didn’t conceal his British Army training and his memoir, Guerrilla Days in Ireland, included details of his military service. His claims to insubordination, including at the time of the Easter Rising, are borne out by his own military service records (as Gunner Thomas Barry, Royal Field Artillery, Service Number 100399).
Tom Barry’s service records including a list of offences (note ‘Irregular Conduct’ on 27th May 1916, during the Easter Rising).
Record of Barry’s enlistment.
Details of Barry’s military service.
Barry is probably the most prominent of those who fought during the first world war and subsequently fought in the I.R.A., but there were many others including the likes of Emmet Dalton and Erskine Childers and even a Victoria Cross winner, Martin Doyle.
The complex relationship between the Irish and service in the British Army is a recurrent theme in Irish history. In the post-famine era, Irish republicans frequently either specifically joined for, or later utilised, British Army military training for their own purposes. Individuals like William Harbinson, famously (if somewhat obscurely) James Connolly and more recently the likes of the Catholic Ex-Servicemen’s Association in the 1970s have illustrated how Irishmen did what Connolly summarised as “…learn all he can and put his training to the best advantage…“. The contribution of British military training to the capacity of Irish republicans to counter the physical control of Ireland by Britain is one obvious outworking of this relationship.
However, the traditional imperial practice of harvesting soldiers from the impoverished communities under it’s control, both at home and abroad, is indelibly rooted in Irish communities (both Catholic and Protestant) for whom military service and the risk of death were often taken as the last refuge from starvation and utter poverty. In some contemporary politics, what was a crushingly brutal experience for many is once again pressed into service as some sort of parable of lost imperial greatness captured by an obsession with glorifying the brutal slaughter of millions by the European royal families to no apparent purpose between 1914 and 1918.
Given the extent to which poetry is seen as the voice of the first world war, here are a few lines from a poem by an independent Orangeman from Belfast, shipyard worker Thomas Carnduff, from his poem about his own experiences entitled ‘Ypres, September 1917 (A Memory)’:
Light breezes, scented with North Sea spray,
Breathe murmurs of remorse,
And leafless shell-scarred branches sway
Above each mangled corpse.