Kathleen Barry Moloney was the eldest of seven children. Her parents Thomas and Mary (née Dowling) and her aunt Judith ran a prosperous dairy that included an eighty-six acre holding at Tombeagh, Hacketstown, Co Carlow and a retail outlet below the family home in Fleet Street.
When Thomas Barry died in 1908 the Barry family found themselves split between their homes in Dublin and at Tombeagh. The Barry family were staunch republicans, in particular the older Barry Children. One brother, Michael, was active in the Carlow Brigade and the girls, particularly Kathleen, in Cumann na mBan. She joined the UCD branch captained by Eileen McGrane, while continuing to help her mother raise six younger siblings and run the family business.
She joined the university branch of Cumann na mBan in 1920 and was close to the most senior republicans including Michael Collins, Austin Stack, Richard Mulcahy and Éamon de Valera throughout the 1920–24 period. She opposed the Treaty. Kathy Barry refused to play a subsidiary role as the Civil War got under way with battles in the streets of Dublin.
There was no way, as the Civil War got under way in battles at the Four Courts and then the Hammam Hotel, Kathy and her ‘sisters’ were going to allow Cathal Brugha dictate a subsidiary role for them. They were determined to play their full part, a man’s part.
As the war intensified over 1919-1920, Kathy Barry’s time was increasingly taken up with the independence struggle. ‘My life,’ she told the Bureau of Military History, ‘like that of every other republican, centred round the activities of the IRA.’ An anti-treatyite, during the Civil War she ran communications between anti-treaty commander Liam Lynch in Cork and the Dublin IRA.
Todd Andrews remembered her as a daring and charismatic figure whose fashionable clothes and lipstick made her stand out like an ‘apparition’ in the wilds of west Cork. She also acted as general secretary of the Irish Republican Prisoner’s Dependents’ Fund until 1924, making trips to the US and Australia to raise funds.
In the 1930s, with her husband out of work and with children to feed she secured a publicity job with the ESB . A committed trade union activist and republican radical, she supported Clann na Poblachta and campaigned against the execution of republican prisoners between 1939 and 1944.
Very little of Kathy Barry’s remarkable life is recounted in her witness statement to the bureau. It is devoted mostly to her brother Kevin Barry, executed in Mountjoy Gaol on 1 November 1920. She never gave the statement about herself they requested. A decision she came to regret: ‘I did Kevin’s story for them, but I could not face any more,’ she wrote to Oscar Traynor sometime after suffering a stroke in 1958.
‘I have an urge to put on paper for my grandchildren the beginning to the end of the Civil War. Unfortunately I only write with great strain which is bad for me and the B of MH is closed.’ Indicative of what might have been was a remarkably vivid letter she wrote in January 1923 to her future husband Jim Moloney. He was then director of communications under Liam Lynch.
‘My dear,’ it begins, ‘I’ll take your ring anytime you want me to and I’ll wear it if you want me to and I’ll do anything you want me to.’ As the letter continues, it is clear there had been a row: ‘All the horrid things you said that night,’ she wrote, ‘you told me I wasn’t a woman at all so I decided if I ever got a chance when the war was over I’d vamp you and so you see whether I was or not.’ Yet this was no ordinary lover’s tiff.
The Civil War began on 28 June 1922 with the National Army’s shelling of the Four Courts, then headquarters of republican forces. The overwhelmingly anti-treatyite Dublin Brigade under Oscar Traynor took over various building in the city, including several hotels on O’Connell Street. Forced to evacuate within days, the last contingent was with Cathal Brugha in the Hammam Hotel. With them were five members of Cumann na mBan including Kathy Barry, Linda Kearns and Muriel MacSwiney.
The occupation and subsequent retreat from the hotel took up several pages in Kathy Barry’s letter. ‘Your attitude with regard to the Hammam is based really on a wrong impression. First of all, the men didn’t allow us to stay, we just stayed.’ Moloney was furious at her willfulness. The women had refused to leave. ‘Dev kind of carried me across the room and then he put me down and turned round to see if there were any more neurotic girls.’
Kathy Barry crawled behind a door and hid in a ‘beastly dirty place’. Other women stood outside the hotel all night, rushing the backdoor in the morning. Brugha eventually relented: ‘On Tuesday night he said he should never have been able to keep it up so long if he hadn’t had Muriel and me stay and I said it wasn’t fair to drive us to mutiny in order to be let stay and he said ‘It wasn’t. If I had to do it all again I’d let you stay without the mutiny.’
Nonetheless, Brugha kept a close eye on the women, ensuring that no breach of propriety took place. ‘I had to dodge Cathal all the time. He approved of me making tea and Bovril, but not of me filling sandbags in my leisure moments.’
Not all the men were so conflicted by the women’s presence. ‘You may disapprove of me all you like for refusing to go when I was told but you mustn’t disapprove of the men. And you can ask Jack O’Meara, Ned Reilly or Dan Keeffe if we hindered the fight or kept them from holding out as long as they would otherwise have done. They were great, they were sports and let me do heaps of things.’
By 5 July, the Hammam was on fire and all were forced to leave. Brugha chose to die rather than surrender: ‘He rushed out and turned up the lane with his revolver. The Staters couldn’t be blamed for shooting him because he wanted to be shot. He wasn’t trying to get away. He was trying to give his life and he succeeded.’
For Kathy Barry, the events were a heady, frustrating experience: ‘I love those three days at the end because I felt I was nearly as useful as a man and you don’t know how helpless a feeling it is to be a woman when you feel you ought to be a man.’
Her letter stands as a passionate defence of the lengths to which Cumann na mBan women often went in wresting a place for themselves in the fight for a republic. One they fully expected would grant them equality.