Tom Barry

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Summer 2004), Letters, Letters, Volume 12



—Liam Ó Ruairc’s interesting review of the work of Peter Hart and Meda Ryan (HI, 12.1, Spring 2004) mentions Tom Barry remaining a member of the IRA from the Civil War until 1938 and also his being a ‘staunch’ supporter of the Provisional IRA. Like so much with Barry’s life the reality is more complex. For a man with such a hard-line reputation he repeatedly took actions that belied this image. During early 1923 Barry was involved in attempts to broker an end to the Civil War, which many of his anti-Treaty comrades regarded as suspect. During July 1923 he made a dramatic proposal to the IRA Executive that the organisation destroy all its arms and equipment in order to prevent another round of inter-nationalist conflict. When his proposal for ‘decommissioning’ was rejected he resigned from the IRA leadership and subsequently left the organisation.

Throughout the 1920s he was regarded as a potential rival by the IRA and was thought to be involved in IRB-linked efforts to form independent republican groups based in Cork. Barry did not actually rejoin the IRA until late 1932, after Fianna Fáil had come to power in that year’s general election. Initially he engaged in talks between de Valera and the IRA in order to secure IRA support for the government; when this effort failed he reapplied to join the IRA. After some discussion the IRA leadership felt that Barry’s reputation would be an asset to them and accepted his application. However, he made it clear that he was both sympathetic to Fianna Fáil and opposed to the IRA’s adoption of left-wing social policies. While he later became more critical of the government and was jailed by it during 1935, he told his colleagues that if de Valera declared a republic in the 26 counties the IRA would have no right to oppose it militarily. Ironically, during this period Frank Aiken of Fianna Fáil publicly revealed that Barry had wanted the IRA to disarm in 1923 and accused him of ‘running around trying to make peace’ while his comrades had been fighting the Free State government.

While IRA chief-of-staff during 1937 Barry made clear his opposition to the proposed bombing campaign in Britain and explicitly condemned the proponents of this campaign’s courting of Nazi support. Finally, Barry certainly remained strongly republican all his life but he was both openly and privately critical of the Provisional IRA. He felt that an Ireland ‘free and overflowing with milk and honey’ would not have been worth the cost of the Birmingham bombing of 1974. In 1976 he refused to sign a letter of support for republican prisoners, arguing that the Provisional IRA had lost support because of its own recent activities, activities that he as an old IRA man could not countenance. The correspondence is undated but I suspect it was written in the aftermath of the Kingsmills killings of January that year.


—Yours etc.,
NUI Maynooth


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