The man behind the statue – who was Commodore John Barry and how did he become the father of the US Navy?


A new radio documentary about Wexford man Commodore John Barry, considered the founder of the US Navy, will be broadcast on Dublin FM radio next month.

The 45-minute documentary, ‘Celebrating Commodore John Barry – the Irishman who Became Father of the American Navy’, was created by radio producer Paul Wright who now lives with his family in the town of Wexford, having left Dublin there over four years ago.

Paul quickly became fascinated with the rich history of the South East and was motivated to pass on the story of Barry whose statue, donated by the American Nation, stands at Crescent Quay in the heart of Wexford town.

The 45-minute documentary covers key aspects of the life and career of Barry, who was born in southern County Wexford in 1745, although there is controversy over the exact location.

Wexford historian Bernard Browne, who contributed to the documentary, said: “There is a plaque on a house at a place called Ballysampson (not far from Lady’s Island), and some historians claim that is his place of birth. Other historians claim he was born in Roostontown, which is also in the Lady’s Island area. And there is another stream of opinion that holds that he was born in the general Rosslare Strand area. However, the majority of historians agree that he was born in the vicinity of Lady’s Island.”

Barry’s parents were James and Ellen Barry and he was the eldest son of several children born to them. At the time of his birth, criminal laws existed in Ireland which prohibited Catholics like the Barry family from owning land.

Historian Celestine Murphy said they were probably sharecroppers, engaged in very small subsistence farming on a large estate. “That’s the most likely scenario, and I think the most important person to Barry was his uncle Nicolas Barry, his father’s brother. Nicholas lived fairly close to the town of Wexford and he was a merchant. He seems to have brought Barry to the town of Wexford because we know from a letter to Barry from Wexford that he appears to have been educated at Wexford.

At the age of nine Barry went to sea as a cabin boy on a Wexford merchant ship, and over the next few years he learned the basics of seamanship, becoming an accomplished sailor.

In 1760, at the age of 15, he moved to Philadelphia in America and made the city his home. He then commanded several ships and became an extremely successful ship’s captain in the merchant marine industry.

He was such an accomplished sailor that in 1774 he achieved the world record feat of sailing a 200 ton merchant ship named The Black Prince 237 miles in 24 hours. It was the fastest sailing day recorded in the 18th century.

When the American Revolutionary War broke out between the colonies and Great Britain in 1775, Barry offered his services to the rebel cause and joined the new American Continental Navy. During the Revolutionary War he captured over 20 enemy ships.

In the documentary, various historians analyze why Barry did so well in combat with Bernard Browne commenting that he had “enormous self-confidence and a determination to win, I wouldn’t say at all costs, but there was certainly a determination out there to achieve victory!”

Maritime historian Pádraic O Brolchain of the National Maritime Museum of Ireland in Dun Laoghaire said: “You will always win if you have this fundamental belief that you can prevail, and I think that’s something Barry had.

“He held on, there was no flash, he was just determined and he didn’t freak out. He said, ‘Well, if we keep going and look each other in the eye, it will eventually weaken'”.

After the Revolutionary War ended in 1783 and the Continental Navy was disbanded, John Barry returned to the merchant navy, but his days in the navy were far from over.

In the 1790s, there was a growing need to establish an American navy, due to attacks on American merchant shipping by Barbary pirates. John Barry was the man President George Washington turned to to make the new US Navy a reality.

In February 1797, Washington called Barry to the President’s mansion to give him Commission Number 1 of the new United States Navy.

In the new radio documentary, retired US naval officer Liam Murphy speaks of the US president’s immense admiration for Barry:

“Washington chose to award Barry Commission number 1 on his (Washington’s) birthday in 1797, just weeks before he stepped down as president.

“Barry will not only be the captain of the warship of the United States, he will be the Commodore of the entire navy, and it is done in front of all these influential people, with all the prestige of Washington. Washington did it intentionally , because he wanted everyone to like Barry at least half as much as he did and to understand that Barry is the man!”

Commodore Barry’s contributions to the fledgling United States Navy included writing a signal book which established a set of signals to be used for effective communication between ships. He also lobbied for an independent navy department and government-operated shipyards, all of which were eventually realized.

But more importantly, he trained future naval leaders. To quote the documentary contribution of American maritime historian Tim McGrath (author of the 2010 biography, “John Barry–An American Hero In The Age Of Sail”): “Barry made his frigate United States the first naval academy in United States. Among his midshipmen and young lieutenants were Stephen Decatur, Charles Stewart and Richard Somers. Over time, it becomes apparent that Barry’s teaching of these young officers was instrumental and extremely effective in ensuring that there will be another generation of naval officers who will know what they are doing.

“He’s just remarkable with that – Charles Stewart commands the Constitution and he and Decatur won significant victories against the British in the War of 1812.”

The documentary was funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland with television license fees.

It includes two new songs about Barry – Sailor Boy and When Each Dawn Seems So New, composed by Cork City songwriter Cliff Wedgebury and performed in the documentary by acclaimed Wexford ballad Roger McGuire.

The documentary concludes by examining Commodore Barry’s ultimate legacy with American historian Liam Murphy summarizing it as follows: “Barry’s legacy is that he was Washington’s chosen instrument for the existence of the United States Navy and perform in the most professional manner.The men he trained proved the value of Barry’s training in later conflicts.

Wexford maritime historian Jack O’Leary adds: “I would say Barry’s legacy is essentially the United States Navy. I mean, as far as I know, studying history at the time, it was based on Barry’s teachings and thoughts and expertise. This is why he is considered by many to be the father of the United States Navy.

“Celebrating Commodore John Barry -The Irishman Who Became the Father of the American Navy”, will be broadcast on Radio City FM on Wednesday, February 23 at 3 p.m. and will also be available to listen to on YouTube.


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