1803 – Death of John Barry, a native of Ballystampson, Co Wexford, Commodore in the US Navy and renowned as the Father of the American Navy.

John Barry, credited as the “Father of the American Navy” dies in Philadelphia, PA. Barry was born in Ballystampson, Co Wexford on 25 March 1745 to a poor tenant farming family who were at one stage evicted for inability to pay rent.

Barry was an exceptional sailor and military tactician. Over his 17 year service in the Navy, he was involved in numerous battles with English forces both on land and sea. In 1794 he was appointed the senior Captain of the newly established United States Navy.

It’s a shame that John Barry is not better known – in America and Ireland – because Barry’s story, while hardly unique, is fantastic. He grew up poor in Ireland. His family was forced to leave their farm, evicted by the landlord, then moved to the coastal town of Rosslare. He was drawn to the sea, began working on merchant ships as a young boy and eventually sailed into Philadelphia, where he settled.

When the Revolutionary War broke out John Barry, who was then captaining merchant ships, volunteered for and was given the task of outfitting fighting ships. He had a successful war as commander of a number of ships and even fought as a marine with Washington at Trenton and Princeton, while his ship was in dry dock. Barry’s success during the war was rewarded later by President Washington, who made Barry the first head of the new United States Navy.

A 6 ft. bronze statue of Commodore John Barry stands in Franklin Square, Washington, D.C. Another large statue of Barry stands directly in front of the formal entrance to Independence Hall in Philadelphia, PA. A statue of Barry overlooks the Crescent Quay in Wexford Town; it was a gift to the town from the United States and was delivered by a United States Navy Destroyer USS John R. Pierce (DD-753). The statue was unveiled in 1956, and each year a parade and wreath-laying ceremony takes place at the statue to celebrate “Barry Day”, commemorated by the Irish Naval Service and the Minister for Defence.

John Barry’s grave is in a beautiful setting and well maintained in Old St Mary’s Church yard. The epitaph on his tomb, restored in the 1870s, is poetic. It begins with:

Let the Christian, Patriot and soldier
Who visits these mansions of the dead
View this monument with respect.
Beneath it are interred the remains of
Father of the American Navy.
He was born in the County Wexford in Ireland
But America was the object of his patriotism
And the theatre of his usefulness.

Barry is not the only prominent Irishman buried at Old St Mary’s. Thomas Fitzsimons from Wicklow, who signed the Declaration of Independence, and General Stephen Moylan from Cork, who during the Revolution was Quartermaster General, Aide to General Washington and finished the war as a Brigadier General, are both buried there. These two, along with Barry, put Old St Mary’s high on the list of important places in Irish-American history.

Photo: Sculpture of Commander John Barry, Founding Father of the United States Navy, Wexford Town, Photo credit: Paddy Donovan

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