Barry, John Joseph (1924–94), ‘the Ballincurry Hare’, middle-distance athlete, was born 5 October 1924 in Joliet (near Chicago), Illinois, USA, eldest among four sons and a daughter of Michael Barry, gardener, from Knockview, Co. Roscommon, and Mary Jo Barry (née Cashin), from The Commons, Thurles, Co. Tipperary. When he was three his mother, who had inherited a farm from her father, took him back to Tipperary. Barry's father joined them permanently some seven years later. He was educated locally and, after leaving school, worked on the family farm. It was while serving with the LDF during the 1939–45 ‘Emergency’ that Barry's running ability was noticed and he was invited to join Ballincurry AC. He soon made an impact, winning cross-country championships at minor, junior and senior grades, both at local and at national level. It was a local journalist that first gave him the nickname ‘the Ballincurry Hare’. Barry joined Clonliffe Harriers towards the end of 1947 and his subsequent relationship with athletics promoter Billy Morton (qv) has often been likened to that of Matt Busby and George Best, for roughly the same reasons. He was a huge draw in Morton's Lansdowne Road athletics promotions, which were a feature of Irish sporting life in the late 1940s.
Athletics, although officially an amateur sport, involved a lot of ‘expenses’ and other under-the-counter payments, and the extra money was certainly a factor in Barry's increasingly extravagant lifestyle, as he found himself attracted to the dancehalls of Dublin, even though at this stage he did not drink. After being fired from his job with CIE because of the amount of time off he needed for his athletics commitments, he moved to Scotland in late 1947, where he competed in local races. He ran in the 1948 Olympics in London, but failed to do himself justice, finishing eighth in a first-round heat of the 1,500 metres, and failing to complete his 5,000 metres race after suffering a stitch due to what he identified as a lack of training. A reputation for tactical naivety, seen by many as central to his failure in the ‘48 Olympics, was one that would dog him throughout his athletics career. However, he recovered well from these disappointing performances and at the height of his career (1949–50) won the Irish national one-mile championship, the AAA three-mile championship (1949) and the US indoor one-mile championship (1950).
Barry was widely tipped to become the first man to run under four minutes for the mile, but ultimately his fastest time for the distance was the 4 minutes 8.6 seconds he recorded in a race at TCD in 1949. That year he broke the world record for a mile-and-a half when he clocked 6.33.6 in a race in Glasgow. On 9 June 1949, in one of Morton's promotions, he won a three-mile race in Dublin against a world-class field by twenty yards in a time (13 minutes 56.2 seconds) that was more than thirty seconds inside the previous Irish all-comers record. In 1950 he became the third Irish athlete – and the first middle-distance runner – to go on an athletics scholarship to the US, when he joined compatriots Jimmy Reardon and Cumin Clancy at Villanova University, graduating with a B.Sc. in economics (1954). He was not chosen to compete in the Helsinki Olympic games in 1952, primarily because he had not achieved an adequate standard of performance in 1951–2. Barry claimed that the Irish federation could not afford to pay to bring him and his Villanova colleagues from the US to compete, and rather optimistically maintained that he would have won gold in both the 1,500 metres and the 3,000 metre steeplechase. However, by this time his lifestyle had begun to take an increased toll on his athletic performances and his career was in decline. He retired from running in 1956, just as Ronnie Delany was beginning to make his mark on US athletics.
Barry remained in the US and worked at a succession of jobs including as a buyer, a passenger representative with an airline, and a rep for the Ford Motor Company. His personal life was as active as his sporting one, and formed part of his legend. He was married and divorced three times in America. In his own biography, The Ballincurry Hare, he frankly admits that he fell into a cycle of drink, drugs, and womanising, and outlines his own battles with alcoholism and the great help and support he received from his friends in Ireland, including former Olympic athletes Ronnie Delany, Noel Carroll (qv), and Dave Guiney (qv). In 1976 a false report of his death in the US resulted in extensive obituaries appearing in the Irish national newspapers and on television. He settled back in Ireland in the late 1970s, where he worked for some time as a representative for a haulage firm and lived in Dublin until his death.
A superb natural athlete, he lacked discipline and tended to pay little attention to matters such as diet and training routines, and this undoubtedly contributed to a career that could be seen as marked by underachievement and disappointment. However, he blazed a trail for Irish middle-distance runners in the US. Until his emergence on the scene Ireland had no great tradition of top-class middle-distance running, but in his wake a succession of talented Irish runners went to the US, and Villanova University in particular. Many went on to be coached by the same man who coached Barry in the US: Villanova's James F. ‘Jumbo’ Elliott. He was also an Irish pioneer of indoor running, as the first Irishman to win the mile event at the US indoor championships in Madison Square Gardens, New York; an event that Irish runners have since often dominated. Perhaps the greatest testament to his natural ability is the fact that ‘his reputation as one of the great characters of sport survived long after the four-minute mile had become commonplace’ (Ir. Independent, 31 Dec. 1994). He died 30 December 1994, leaving two daughters. There is a memorial to him in his home village of The Commons, Co. Tipperary.