Commodore John Barry

Commodore John Barry, “Father of the American Navy.”
Commodore John Barry, “Father of the American Navy.”

By April Drew, Contributor
August / September 2007

From Irish immigrant to Commander of the American Navy, John Barry is a hero to remember.

There are many Irish men and women whom one could declare a hero of our time but none is so profoundly remembered as Commodore John Barry, known to those in the nautical world as “Father of the American Navy.”

Barry was born in a thatched cottage in a small rural village called Ballysampson in County Wexford in 1745. Son of a modest Irish farmer, Barry, towering at six foot four inches, left Ireland’s most southeasterly shore and traveled the Atlantic in search of adventure. He encountered more than he could have dreamed and rose in the process from cabin boy to senior commander of the entire United States fleet.

It was Barry’s uncle Nicholas who taught the aspiring captain everything he needed to know about life at sea. A fisherman himself, Nicholas allowed his nephew to join him on his boat as a cabin boy and there he worked his way up from seaman to able seaman and eventually a Mate’s ranking.

Barry’s experience with his uncle befitted his plan to cross the Atlantic and work in maritime trade.

Eventually making Philadelphia his home in 1760, Barry gained enough experience to take on the role of commander abroad the Barbadoes in 1766 and there amplified his knowledge enough to command several other merchant ships that he sailed to the West Indies.

Before his reputation began to precede him, the burly Irishman made nine round trips to the West Indies and back without incident, becoming somewhat of a hero. Huge crowds would gather to welcome Barry and his crew home to Philadelphia upon their return from seafaring. In 1772, his flawless reputation came to the attention of one of Philadelphia’s top business-owners, Reese Meredith. He asked Barry to command his full-size vessel Peg, a very prestigious job for a young captain at the time. His business associations didn’t stop there. Robert Morris, a revolutionary financier, assigned Barry to a 200-ton ship called the Black Prince. It was during his time sailing the seas on the Black Prince that Barry recorded the fastest day of sailing of the 18th century. He traveled 237 miles in a 24-hour period.

Barry’s life wasn’t all happy sailing. The commander, who married his first wife Mary Cleary in 1767, lost her to illness seven years later at the sweet age of 29. Barry was at sea when his wife died. (He remarried in 1777 but never had any children of his own; however, his new wife Sarah Keen Austin and Barry raised two young boys from Barry’s deceased sister Eleanor.) Four years later he suffered another heartbreak when his brother disappeared at sea and was never heard from again.

War of Independence

At the outbreak of hostilities between England and the colonies, Barry offered his services to Congress. His ship the Black Prince was purchased by the government and named Alfred, in which John Paul Jones, as a lieutenant, first hoisted the American (Grand Union) flag. Awarded a captain’s commission in the Continental Navy by President of Congress John Hancock in 1776, Barry was sent to command his first warship, the Lexington. Having had reservations about the British from a young age (his family was evicted by their English landlord and forced to relocate to the village of Rosslare), Barry knew it was his duty to serve his adopted country against their mutual adversary. After a very successful one-hour battle at sea with the British warship Edward, Barry reported to Congress the following;

“I have the pleasure to acquaint you that all our people behaved with much courage. This victory had a tremendous psychological effect in boosting American morale, as it was the first capture of a British warship by a regularly commissioned American cruiser,” he wrote that April.

Hazel-eyed Barry always stood tall against British assaults on Philadelphia, sometimes using small ships and always destroying any British boats coming his way. He even went as far as capturing several of their shipping fleets in lower Delaware.

At an auspicious time in his career, Barry docked up his ships and went to work under General John Cadwalader at the Battle of Trenton and even fought in the Battle of Princeton.

The Irish commander always showed consideration and kindness to his crew regardless of where they were. In 1778, following two days of unvarying battle, his ship at the time, the Raleigh, had its foretopmast cracked. Barry was forced to steer off course into unfamiliar waters in Maine’s Penobscot Bay with no land in sight. Nevertheless, Barry guided 88 of his men to safety in
rowboats to Boston.

Barry’s legacy is never-ending. Aboard the Atlanta on May 28, 1781, he was wounded in fighting but urged his crew to remain firm, and in the midst of severe damage the English gave up. When the English captain came on board the Atlanta, as was the tradition when surrendering, Barry offered him compassion: “Your King ought to give you a better ship. Here is my cabin, at your service. Use it as your own,” he said.

Barry commanded several continental journeys in the following warships: the Lexington, the Effingham, the Raleigh, and the Alliance. Unlike many of Barry’s equals, he survived all his sea encounters and after his final battle in 1783, he got involved in maritime trade. He would sail to the Orient, specifically China, and return with local treasures, which he in turn would sell to the Philadelphians who longed for such luxuries.

Although Barry spent most of his years occupied with nautical subjects, he still found the time to be a member of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, the Hibernian Fire Company, and the Order of the Cincinnati. Earlier in his career he enrolled with the Charitable Captains of Ships Club, an organization set up to help widows and orphans of men lost at sea.

Barry also penned a book of sea signals in 1780, which was used for successful communication between ships in the same regiment. His last active day of duty was on March 6th, 1801, but he remained head of the Navy until he died.

Although his existence was full of danger and adventure at sea, it was a long battle with asthma that finally took Barry’s life from him on September 12, 1803 at his country home “Strawberry Hill,” three miles north of Philadelphia. Barry’s remains are located in a little cemetery behind Old St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Philadelphia.

A statue in his honor was donated to the city of Philadelphia 100 years ago by the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick and erected in front of Independence Hall. There is also a statue in Washington, D.C. and another in his Irish home of County Wexford. A recent celebration took place to mark the 100-year anniversary of the Philadelphia statue on May 27. As throngs of Irish-Americans had gathered to witness the erection of the effigy in 1907, swarms more gathered to participate in its centennial anniversary in May. President Ronald Reagan in his era  declared September 13, 1981 as John Barry Day, and President George H.W. Bush repeated the act in 1991.

Barry’s legacy is remembered in more than just statues. Four naval ships also carried his good name, including a World War II destroyer, the U.S.S. Barry DD933 a Forest Sherman class destroyer launched in 1955 and now in a museum in Washington, D.C., and the DDG52, an Arleigh Burke Missile Destroyer currently in service. A more recent memorial is the Commodore John Barry Bridge, which is part of Route 322 between Pennsylvania and New Jersey.  The bridge crosses the waters of Delaware River South, waters once governed by the plethora of gunboats ruled by the Irish Commodore.

Barry was regarded as the Father of the American Navy because of his skill in training young officers, a title bequeathed on him not by recent generations of followers, but by his contemporaries, who were in the best position to know him.

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