Garden City — You’ve probably heard of Captain John Paul Jones, Revolutionary War figure, but you might never have heard of his contemporary — fellow naval hero Commodore John Barry.
Yet, contends Liam Murphy, former U.S. Navy officer, retired Westchester County emergency manager, and heritage editor for TheWildGeese.com, an Irish historical website, Commodore Barry’s accomplishments are as impressive.
“Both were essential for our War of Independence,” Murphy told a monthly meeting of the Irish Cultural Society at the Garden City Public Library Sept. 17, but they were markedly different.
“It’s like asking: Who was the greater ballplayer: Ted Williams (baseball) or Red Grange (football)?” Murphy said. “Their styles were that different.”
Barry’s achievements include commanding ships that won one of the first as well as the final naval battle in the Revolutionary War and capturing more than 30 British vessels.
Born in Ireland, Barry is probably best known among Catholics. Many Catholic school students learned about him among notable Catholics in U.S. history. The Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) have also celebrated Barry’s life and accomplishments.
Beyond Catholic circles, Murphy noted, four U.S. Navy warships have been named in his honor. The U.S. Naval Academy has “Barry Gate,” recognition long sought by the AOH. The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point has a “Barry Hall.”
A park was named in his memory in Brooklyn. There are statues of Barry in Washington and outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
Part of the gap in public awareness between the two maritime heroes, Murphy said, is that Jones wrote frequently about himself and had a flamboyant style while Barry “never used two words when one would do.”
Barry was born in 1745 in poverty in County Wexford, Ireland, which had endured centuries of British rule. Catholics suffered under British Penal Laws and the people of Wexford still felt the effects of one of the frequent famines that afflicted Ireland.
His uncle, who worked in shipping, arranged for Barry to serve as a cabin boy on a merchant vessel at 10. Barry learned his way around ships, developing into an accomplished seaman, and grew to a height of 6’4”. He ended up in Philadelphia.
“At the age of 21, he decided that the only way to get ahead was to become a captain,” Murphy said. He did so, serving successfully and traveling frequently to the West Indies and later as far away in England. In London in 1775 he learned of planned actions against the American colonies and brought the news to the Continental Congress.
“He placed himself at the service of the Continental Congress,” Murphy said. Barry’s first task was outfitting the battleships for the Continental Navy.
When the Continental Congress commissioned its Navy in December of 1775, Barry was among the first commissioned officers.
When he was briefly without a ship, Barry helped General Washington organize the crossing of the Delaware Dec. 26, 1776, and also served as an artillery man in the Battle of Princeton Jan. 3, 1777.
He commanded several ships but was best known for the 36-gun continental frigate, Alliance. Observing Barry’s exploits, the British offered him command of any British ship of his choice to switch sides.
Barry replied: “Not the value and command of the whole British fleet can lure me from the cause of my country.”
In addition to his military victories, Murphy said, Barry’s exploits included capturing a ship carrying overcoats that were provided to the Continental troops and successfully transporting a shipment of gold from France to America to pay the wages of American and French forces during the Lexington campaign. He also carried General Lafayette back and forth from France.
Following the war, Barry resumed his civilian sea career and was a promoter of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, Murphy said. When President Washington formed a Navy for the new United States of America, he chose Barry as his senior captain.
During his tenure, Murphy said, Barry supervised the design and building of the fleet which was instrumental in the U.S. campaign against the Barbary Pirates and later the War of 1812, Murphy noted. He also mentored the captains who would lead the fleet.
He was married twice — once to Mary Cleary, until her death in 1774, and to Sara Austin. They had no children, but raised nieces and nephews as their own. Both of his wives were Protestant but both “were converted to Catholicism based on the example of their husband.”
(Portrait of Commodore Barry by Gilbert Stuart, 1801)