John Barry is known as the “Father of the United States Navy”. Even with such an impressive title, not much is known about this Irish-born American war hero.
On March 25, 1745, John Barry was born into a family of tenant farmers in Tacumshin, Ireland, located in Wexford County. His family was evicted from their home, however, and forced to move in with his uncle in Rosslare. John’s uncle, Nicholas Berry, captained a fishing boat and frequently took John with him. Eventually John was employed on the ship and quickly moved up through the ranks. This work led John to become an effective and well respected seaman.
Once John reached adulthood he moved to Philadelphia in 1766. The colony of Pennsylvania was known for its religious toleration at the time, so he likely chose it to avoid prevalent anti-Catholic discrimination. This, coupled with the city’s status as a trade center, made it the obvious choice for a ship captain.
Once established in the colonies, Barry took his first command on the Barbadoes, a ship that ran trade routes between Philadelphia and the West Indies. Under his command, the Barbados made nine flawless trade expeditions. This shining record garnered him a reputation as an effective and reliable captain with the major merchant houses in the area, and he was made captain of several larger ships.
On his return from one of his trips to England, Berry learned that the Colonies had declared war against Great Britain. Since he was friends with several revolutionaries and resented the British for their treatment of his homeland, Barry was quick to volunteer his services. His first assignment, turning the shipping vessels of the colonies into warships, was done so efficiently that he was made a captain in the Continental Navy on March 14, 1776. With this commission, he was given command of his very own warship, the Lexington, which he then used to decimate the English ship the Edward during his first battle. For his success, he was then appointed to the Effingham, one of the three massive warships under construction by the Continental Navy.
While waiting for the ship, Barry served as a member of the Continental Army, fighting in the Battle of Princeton. During this time he was also approached with a hefty bribe and an offer to join the Royal Navy as a captain under the condition that he would forsake the Continental Navy and turn the Effingham over to the British. Barry's loyalty ran deep, however, as he staunchly refused the offer.
The rest of John Barry’s career in the Continental Navy was defined by three battles. The first of these three was his loss aboard the Raleigh off of the coast of Maine. Overpowered by superior forces, Barry was forced to retreat, but found himself in an area with unfamiliar terrain, in which he couldn't find a safe place to port. Trapped, he decided that the British should not be allowed to take the Raleigh, so he lit it on fire and evacuated his crew. Two-thirds of his crew made it back alive, as he made it his priority to save as many lives as he could.
The next battle of significance occurred off the coast of Newfoundland where Barry, aboard the Alliance, took down two British ships. Early in the fight, due to lack of mobility, Barry and his troops were losing badly. Rather than surrender, he kept fighting with the same amount of tenacity he always had, and when his ship regained mobility he won decisively. When the commander of the ships came before him to surrender, Barry accepted him graciously and told the commander that the Crown should’ve given him a better ship. He then allowed the commander to use his cabin until they returned to port.
The third, and his final fight was off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida. While Barry was escorting a Spanish transport ship, carrying money for the Continental Congress, they were set upon by a British ship. To protect the transport, Barry attacked and decimated the enemy ship.
After the war ended Barry went back to the trade business for a couple years, but was called back into active service when George Washington created the United States Navy. Upon its creation, Washington decided to name Barry the senior captain. He was given this commission on February 22, 1797, making him the first commission in the U.S. Navy. During his career, he acted as commodore and led many naval fleets into battle. He was also in charge of the creation of the first naval fleet, and went on to train many of the able seaman that fought in the War of 1812.
John Barry’s contribution to both the war effort and the creation of the navy are invaluable. Without Barry’s strong loyalty and powerful leadership, many decisive conflicts may have ended very differently. His life showcased the undying spirit of the Irish people and the contribution of such spirit to the creation of the United States of America. Beyond that, his career in the military was the first of many Irish Americans to lead the American armed forces, paving the way for future Irish leadership in the United States.