Barry and surviving Volunteers in 1972

Tom Barry (1897 – 1980) is a legendary figure in Cork. Taking command of a ragtag group of volunteers in 1920 he turned the 3rd West Cork Brigade of the IRA into the most efficient, brave and feared of those groups opposed to British rule during the War of Independence.

Last night the Everyman Theatre in Cork was packed to see the stage depiction of Barry’s own account of those times. Plenty of those in attendance will have grown up with those who had been witness to, or indeed party to the atrocities, reprisals and counter-reprisals of those vicious times.

A remarkably small but energetic cast managed to bring to life many of the key events of the conflict. Lots of bangs of bombs, crashes of guns. Throughout the narrator, playing the Barry of later years, kept the storyline on the rails, concentrating on key moments and turning points in the conflict. The most famous set piece was the Kilmichael ambush in November 1920 where Barry’s flying column wiped out a full platoon of the hated Auxiliaries. Controversy has raged across the years, some commentators and historians claiming that Barry’s men killed every last man in cold blood after they had thrown down their arms. Barry relates that there was a false surrender after which trickery he ordered his men to keep firing until he ordered them to stop. 

It’s indeed rare I go to see a play but even I could appreciate several clever devices used by the director. When a scene might have otherwise have been short of numbers the narrator himself would jump in, grab a rifle and march about, for example. There were several points at which the actors would suddenly go into slow-motion mode for a number of seconds (not easy) before returning to normal speed. On one occasion the director had three of the cast freeze, tableaux-like, for several remarkable minutes while the narration continued. The sudden appearance of iconic figures such as Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera drew instant recognition from the audience.

Full of pathos, regrets for the many lives lost, but lightened by the occasional touch of humour this play touches the Cork audience deeply. The action finishes as the Treaty with Britain is signed, though this was of course to mean Civil War and the further deeds of Barry and the IRA. A must-see for anyone remotely interested in Irish history. I wonder if it would play as well in Dublin?

PS – My cousin Mary recalls when, as a tax officer many years ago, the elderly Barry visited her over his tax affairs. She erroneously awarded him a small rebate, and afterwards advised her boss of the error. He, being an old rebel himself, said that ‘We will overlook the matter’ 🙂