Kevin Barry was a man of faith whose idealism, youth and execution made him a symbolic figure

This week, on the first of November, the Feast of All Saints, marked the 101st anniversary of the execution during the War of Independence of eighteen-year-old UCD medical student Kevin Barry. Last Sunday, on 31 October, Bishop Denis Nulty, Bishop of Kildare & Leighlin, celebrated Mass in Saint Patrick’s Church, Rathvilly, Co Carlow, which was the hometown of the late patriot. After Mass, Bishop Nulty officiated at a special blessing for the unveiling of a statue of Kevin Barry in Rathvilly, and this was attended by an estimated three hundred people including Kevin Barry’s niece Ruth Sweetman and nephew Kevin Barry.

During his homily Bishop Nulty said, “Kevin Barry’s execution at such a tender age of 18 was on November 1st, 101 years ago tomorrow. It caught the popular imagination and nationalist sentiment both in Ireland and worldwide. In the time leading to his execution Kevin received numerous visits of clergy who ministered to him spiritually. The last aspiration he prayed as he was led towards his execution was ‘Blessed Oliver Plunkett, intercede for me’. Interestingly Oliver Plunkett had been beatified earlier that same year, 1920. In an article to mark Plunkett’s beatification, the author Myles Ronan suggests Blessed Oliver Plunkett might be to us an inspiring ideal in the cause of God and country. It’s obvious that Kevin Barry had those same thoughts one hundred and one years ago tomorrow.

Drawing attention to the current COP26 meetings in Glasgow, the Bishop of Kildare & Leighlin continued, “On the eve of the commencement of COP26 in Glasgow and of course the initial stages of our synodal journey as Church, Pope Francis challenges us: ‘Let us not soundproof our hearts … keep us from becoming a ‘museum church’, beautiful but mute, with much past and little future”. Kevin Barry was deeply aware of his faith and the comfort and challenges that faith brought. What exactly happened in the ill-fated ambush of an army vehicle in September 1920 is unclear. It led to his arrest. The taking of life is always wrong, as clearly expressed by my predecessor at that time – Bishop Patrick Foley in his Lenten Pastoral of 1921. He wrote: ‘the life of a human being is so sacred and so protected by Divine and Natural Law that no private citizen has a particle of right to take it, except in necessary self-defence, and no public authority except for grave crime and after fair trial’.”

In conclusion, Bishop Nulty highlighted November as the Month of the Dead. He said “What kind of questions had Kevin with those who visited with him in those final days? No none will ever really know. What we do know is he was well visited upon by the Capuchin friars from Church Street, the priests from Hacketstown, the Dublin priests who were chaplains then in Mountjoy, including the aforementioned Canon John Waters. Let’s return to the scribe’s question put to Jesus 2,000 years ago around the most important of all the commandments? The key message forty years ago on that Thursday night in November for me as a young seminarian was we might only like some people but love everybody. And the challenge forty years on remains … loving God who you can’t see and sometimes don’t hear with heart, soul and strength doesn’t discommode us greatly; loving that neighbour who you see too much of and hear too often uproots us greatly. As for loving ourselves, well that’s often where the real challenge lies. In his final hours Kevin received Holy Communion and last rites, including absolution. He was ready to meet His maker. Today 101 years later each of us can only answer for ourselves how prepared are we to meet our maker? The month of November which begins tomorrow offers us an opportunity to fine tune those preparations, not in a cell awaiting execution in Mountjoy but in our homes, in our parishes and in our lives.”

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