Rewind - Commodore John Barry

By Sean Heffernan

For this week’s piece we are hopping on the No 2 Bus Éireann route from Enniscorthy to the bus stop at Wexford O’Hanrahan Station.

We will be hopping on the 383 bus from here to Tenacre Cross and then taking a walk along country roads to Tacumshane, near Lady’s Island in the South-East of the county.

Rewind 1

Commodore John Barry

It is here that one the most famous Irish emigrés, Commodore John Barry, was born.

This erstwhile military man was born on March 25, 1745, but only spent a few years in this area.

His parents were poor tenant farmers and when they fell behind on their rent they were evicted.

From here they decamped to a new dwelling in Rosslare, not far from the sea.

The area was one of the key spots along the coast that contained a fort with heavy guns, as the royalist forces did their best to try and ensure those pesky Spanish and French marauders did not step one foot on Irish soil.

This is now where the Rosslare Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI) base is located.

The young John Barry got his first taste of the water via his uncle who was the captain of a fishing boat. On occasion he was taken out to sea and these occasions he cherished and could not wait to do.

As he got older he spent more and more time out on the water learning the craft of seafaring, and he decided at the age of 16 that he would make it his life profession.

It was also at this age the Wexford native decided to leave these shores and headed for Philadelphia in the good old United State of America on a 5,200 mile trip most likely via what was then called Queenstown and we now know as the port of Cobh.

He began his career on the water as a cabin boy working for various ships that sailed from “The City of Brotherly Love”.

The pay was almost non-existent and the hours long, but Barry would have known that to get his foot in the door this de facto apprenticeship had to be endured.

A lot of boys who took on this role had no understanding of how a boat worked or travelling on the sea, whereas in contrast this 16-year-old had seen many hours of seafaring work at that point.

His ingenuity and foresight on the job soon earned him the regard of ships’ captains and before long he had graduated to the rank of sailing master where he gained an excellent reputation for his navigational skills. It saw him move to various different ships as he started earning monies beyond his wildest dreams such was the quality of his abilities to chart course.

Remember this was a time when there was very few if any navigational aids or maps and it relied an awful lot on a person’s instinct as to whether or not a successful voyage was completed.

When the American War of Independence broke out on April 19, 1775 the renowned sailor did not need to think twice before volunteering to fight on the US side in their battle to free themselves from the grip of the British Crown.

It was in the hands of an English landlord that his family had been evicted from their house and plot in Tacumshane and his anger towards all things English was beyond palpable.

One of the first tasks he was put to work on was in retrofitting ordinary fishing boats into battle mode, putting armoury, gins and other additions onto the vessels.

Fourteen years after he first set foot on US soil the Wexford man was made Captain of his first ship and he was to be the head man on Navy boats such as The Delaware, The Lexington and The Raleigh amongst others.

His growing reputation soared when he became the first captain in the US Navy to commandeer and take control of a British vessel. During the course of the American Revolution it is said that he overpowered a whopping 20 British ships which proved key to his side winning the war and declaring independence on September 3, 1783.

In between all of this he also found time to write an influential and highly regarded book of signals that helped simplify the ways ships communicate on the high seas.

On February 22, 1797 President George Washington enshrined his position as top rank in the US Navy when he appointed him Commodore.

It was in this role that he worked night and day to ensure his adopted country had a strong battalion of ships and highly skilled servicemen so it could defend itself as best as possible from attack.

The son of a tenant farmer who became one of the most acclaimed personnel to have ever joined the US Military passed away in 1803 and was buried with full military honours.

So the next time you visit Wexford Town, why not take a moment to stand at the Commodore John Barry statue and pay your respects to such a fine man, just as President John F Kennedy did when he toured Ireland in 1963.

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