Key figures of revolutionary period should not be reduced to just their deaths, says historian

Figures such as republican leader Dick Barrett should be remembered for their achievements, Gabriel Doherty says

Key figures from the revolutionary period such as republican leader Dick Barrett, executed during the Civil War, should be not reduced to just the circumstances of their death but should be instead remembered for their achievements, a historian has argued.

Gabriel Doherty of the School of History at UCC said there often appears to be a temptation to mark the centenary of the passing of significant figures from the Irish revolutionary period by focusing solely on the circumstances of their deaths, particularly if those were controversial.

He said no deaths were more controversial in this period than the execution of Dick Barrett and his anti-Treaty IRA comrades Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows and Joe McKelvey by the provisional government in reprisal for the shooting dead of pro-Treaty TD Seán Hales.

But to focus on Barrett’s death at the age of just 31 would be to ignore the well-lived years that saw him rise up the ranks within the IRB and the Irish Volunteers, and were it not for his achievements in those years, Barrett would not have been chosen for execution on December 8th, 1922, said Mr Doherty.


Speaking in Ballineen in West Cork at the launch of an updated biography of Barrett entitled Dick Barrett: Teacher, Soldier, Patriot by Michael O’Mahony, Mr Doherty said that even if Barrett had not been executed but had lived a long life, such a biography would have been merited.

It was important too to note the striking paradox about Barrett’s life that also marked the lives of many others of the revolutionary generation, namely that his life was worthy of study, not because it was extraordinary, but rather because, in many ways, it was typical of many of his contemporaries.

“When looking at the past – and historians must bear much of the responsibility or, if you prefer, blame for this error – we are encouraged or at least have become accustomed only to place a value on what was different or unusual or exotic or unexpected or at least the exception to the norm.

“However, what we should also cherish, perhaps even more so, is precisely that norm, is that which was familiar, that which was representative and typical, that which was – if one wishes to use the term and I think it is valid to do so – commonplace,” he said.

“To me, the paradox illustrated in the life of Dick Barrett and so many others of the greatest Irish generation is that, in fact, the values manifested by him and them in the way they lived their lives were not alone creditworthy to the highest possible extent but, more importantly, widely shared throughout Irish society at that time.

“In so many ways, Dick Barrett’s life conformed to the pattern that was familiar to so many of that and earlier and later generations in rural Ireland: he was a dutiful son and brother and friend; he had limited educational opportunities available to him but made the absolute most of them.

“He played Gaelic games – rather vigorously by all accounts; he assisted on the family farm; he was devout in his religious practice. In short, for much of his time on this earth, he lived the quiet life that was the lot of most Irish people of his time.

“But the crux came in his life and in the life of the nation, when circumstances changed and the call to action went forth, this quiet life revealed in profusion its hidden wonders – courage and daring, willpower and intelligence and above all heroism, wonders that had been nurtured in his youth as they evidently had been in the youths of his contemporaries.”

– The Dick Barrett Commemoration Committee is hosting a symposium in conjunction with the School of History at UCC on Saturday at Clonakilty GAA Pavilion, when Supreme Court judge Mr Justice Gerard Hogan will deliver a paper entitled Disputed Legacies: Legality and the Civil War

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times