Barry, Thomas Bernadine (‘Tom’) (1897–1980), IRA activist, was born 1 July 1897 in Rosscarberry, west Co. Cork, second child and son among eleven children of Thomas Barry (small farmer, then RIC member, and (following resignation from the force) shopkeeper in, respectively, Liscarrol, Killorglin, Rosscarberry, and Bandon), and his wife, Margaret Donovan, daughter of a Liscarrol businessman. Educated at Ardagh boys’ national school and Mungret College, near Limerick, he left school at 17, was employed as a clerk in a protestant merchant's in Bandon, and joined the British army in 1915 after falsifying his age. More committed, it appears, to the British army than he was later to say, he was mentioned in dispatches and served in Mesopotamia, Asiatic Russia (where he was wounded), Egypt, Italy, and France. Barry returned to Bandon in early 1919. He was to describe in his Guerilla days in Ireland a Damascus-like conversion to Irish nationalism on hearing of the Easter rising while with the Mesopotamian expeditionary force, but he was only accepted into the IRA with considerable caution. Initially tested in intelligence and training work, he took charge in mid 1920 of the new brigade flying column, which was used both to train officers and to stage offensive actions.
Barry adapted his military experience successfully to the demands of guerrilla warfare, becoming the most famed of column leaders during the Anglo–Irish war. In his memoirs, he poured scorn on the obsession of many with military titles and orthodox procedure, complaining of a ‘paper army’. He stressed the need for spontaneity, initiative, and knowledge of local conditions. ‘The reality’, he wrote, ‘was a group of fellows, mostly in caps and not-too-expensive clothing, wondering how to tackle their job and where they would sleep that night or get their supper’ (The reality of the Anglo–Irish war (1974)). He well realised that the war's character did not permit any close control from the IRA's GHQ in Dublin, hence increasing the importance of local leaders. Barry's tactics put strong emphasis on speed of movement and on the need to attack the enemy at his weakest point. The column's ambush successes were small in number but among the best-remembered of the war. Barry was to admit, however, that his own and his column's lack of experience with mines frequently weakened their offensives.
The column's first successful ambush was at Toureen (22 October 1920), followed on 28 November by the dramatic ambushing of a patrol of auxiliaries at Kilmichael while travelling from their Macroom base. A column of thirty-six men there divided into three sections and killed sixteen auxiliaries, with one captured and later shot, suffering two fatalities of their own. Controversy has raged since over whether a false surrender by the British force caused the brutality of some of the deaths. Together with the Bloody Sunday killings of a week before in Dublin, Kilmichael had a profound effect on the British military and political establishment, with the declaration in December of martial law for much of Munster and the implementation of wide-ranging internment, together with the authorisation of official reprisals.
After a short period in hospital with a heart condition, in early 1921 Barry led unsuccessful attacks on Kilbrittain, Inishannon, Drimoleague, and Bandon barracks. The seizure of Burgatia House, outside Rosscarbery, in early February, and the successful resistance made there to British troops, won much publicity but had little military significance. Barry was a leading figure in the brutal final stage of the war in the first six months of 1921, which saw widespread shooting of suspected spies and destruction of loyalist property. By March 1921 his flying column, with 104 men, was easily the largest in Ireland, and an explosives expert, Capt. McCarthy, had joined them.
The protracted engagement between Barry's column and encircling British forces at Crossbarry (19 March) came at a time when large-scale sweeps were making life increasingly difficult for the IRA; it consisted of a daring and courageous breakout. Crossbarry was the largest action of the war, and Barry was to regard it as even more important than Kilmichael. Soon afterwards, Rosscarbery barracks was successfully attacked by a party led by Barry, representing one of the few successful such initiatives in 1921. Isolated triumphs, however, could not hide the fact that pressure was increasing on the column, and Barry became increasingly critical of inactive regions. He was later to say that all Kerry did during the war was to shoot one decent police inspector at Listowel races and a colleague of his. Barry was strongly critical also of the lack of assistance from GHQ and of the divisionalisation policy. He visited Dublin in May, travelled around with Collins, and was present when two American officers demonstrated the Thompson sub-machine gun. He was more aware than most of his 1st Southern Division colleagues of the scarcity of arms and ammunition at the war's end.
During the truce, Barry became liaison officer for Munster, riling the British by insisting on his military rank, and criticising the IRA liaison men in Dublin for being overly deferential. He joined the overwhelming majority of the Cork IRA in opposing the Anglo–Irish treaty, but played a characteristically maverick role throughout the treaty split. His independent attitude was heightened by his dislike of Liam Lynch (qv), the republican IRA's chief of staff, and his continuing respect for Michael Collins (qv). He showed impatience at the long-drawn-out peace initiatives. In March 1922, therefore, he advocated armed confrontation with pro-treaty units over the occupation of barracks in Limerick, and on 18 June he submitted a resolution – which only narrowly failed – at the army convention, giving British troops seventy-two hours to leave Dublin.
At the beginning of the civil war Barry was arrested entering the Four Courts disguised as a woman; he escaped from Gormanston in early September 1922. For the rest of the war his actions mirrored its confused nature. In late October 1922 he led successful raids on the small towns of Ballineen and Enniskean, and later on Inchigeelagh and Ballyvourney. In December his column took Carrick-on-Suir, demonstrating the weakness of the Free State army, but his talk of advancing on the Curragh and of large-scale actions did not materialise. There is no evidence that he was acting in accordance with any coordinated plan. By February 1923 Barry realised that the Republican IRA cause was hopeless and he was involved with Fr Tom Duggan in efforts to get 1st Southern Division to declare a ceasefire. He journeyed to Dublin to put pressure on the intransigent Lynch in this connection, telling Lynch: ‘I did more fighting in one week than you did in your whole life’ (C. S. Andrews, Dublin made me (1979), 267–79).
Barry avoided capture in round-ups after the war, remaining on the run till 1924. Unlike many republicans, he did not turn to constitutionalism, remaining strongly militaristic. He was always an unreconstructed republican, though by no means a naive one. In 1924 he became attached to Cleeves Milk Co., based in Limerick and Clonmel, and from 1927 to retirement in 1965 was general superintendent with the Cork harbour commissioners. He strongly advocated preserving the independence of the IRA army executive during the republican split of 1925–7. Barry was instrumental in continuing the drilling of IRA members and was a strong supporter of armed opposition to the Blueshirts. During the 1930s he was arrested at various times for possession of arms and seditious utterances. He promoted an attack against a Freemasons’ meeting in Cork in 1936 and gave the orders for the killing on 4 March of that year of Vice-adm. Henry Boyle Somerville (qv). Barry was opposed to the use by Frank Ryan (qv) of IRA volunteers to support the republican cause in the Spanish civil war and to the proposals of Seán Russell (qv) for a bombing campaign in England. To maintain the link with traditional republicanism, he was elected IRA chief of staff in 1937. His plan, however, for the seizure of Armagh city, as part of a direct northern offensive, quickly collapsed due to a leak of information, and he soon resigned his position. He forcefully attacked the bombing of English cities in 1938, regarding attacks on innocent civilians as immoral and counter-productive. Barry enlisted in the national army on 12 July 1940, only to be demobilised a month later. In 1946 he stood as an independent candidate in a by-election in the Cork Borough constituency, finishing at the bottom of the poll. He was more comfortable the following year touring the US on an anti-partition platform.
In 1949 his Guerilla days in Ireland was published. It proved a best-seller and has frequently been reprinted. It is well written in a forceful and direct style, one memoir needing no assistance from a ghost writer. Age did not mellow him: lawyers and bank managers were threatened by him over matters relating to his own column, and in 1974 he published a fierce pamphlet, angry at perceived slights in the Anglo–Irish war memoir of Liam Deasy (qv). Barry did strive to achieve a public reconciliation with Collins's memory by unveiling the memorial to Collins at Sam's Cross in 1966. On the outbreak of the Northern Ireland crisis in the late 1960s, Barry took a militant line, castigating the argument that the Six Counties could be brought into the Republic by peaceful means, and asking when had peaceful means existed there. At the memorial meeting in Carrowkennedy, Co. Mayo, in 1971, he claimed that there was a perfect right at the opportune time to take the Six Counties by force. He remained opposed to IRA bombing of civilian targets. Barry died in the city of Cork on 2 July 1980. Early in the truce of 1921 he married Leslie Price (Leslie de Barra (qv)), one of the most active of Cumann na mBan members during and after the rising; they had no children.
While Barry always remained an influential figure in republican circles, he will be remembered best as the pioneer of guerrilla warfare, the hero of Kilmichael and Crossbarry. His military flair, individualism, and ruthlessness were well suited to the 1919–21 conflict; after that, his strained relations with colleagues and his lack of flexibility reduced his importance. While his life after the revolutionary era appears anti-climactic, Barry retained much of his charisma. In later years he was ever willing to remind politicians and historians how far Ireland had retreated from republican ideals. Barry was often prickly and autocratic, yet could be generous to old colleagues of either side of the treaty split; arguably the most intelligent but also the most intolerant of the revolutionary leaders.