Our History: Irish immigrant had role in creating country’s navy

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Very few, if any, are aware of the role of an early Irish immigrant who became a close and almost indispensable friend to President George Washington — and worthy to be called “Father of the American Navy.”

John Barry’s story, though acknowledged now, has long been obscured by his contemporary, John Paul Jones. For his nautical skill, Barry may be known as an equal, but he exceeds Jones because of his 17 years of service and fidelity to nurturing it whereby he has been deemed “Father of the American Navy.”

Born the son of a poor Irish farmer in 1745, Barry was brought up in Wexford, Ireland — a place in southeastern Ireland known for centuries for its strong maritime tradition.

Forced to relocate, the Barry family moved to the village of Rosslare where an uncle, Nicholas Barry, was captain of a fishing skiff and where John Barry, young as he was, decided to follow the sea. Starting out as a cabin boy, he was quick to rise and become an able seaman and eventually a mate. Tall and muscular, he was viewed as a respected seaman.

But after learning at a young age about the massacre of 3,000 in 1649 by an invading force headed by English Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, he developed his lifelong enmity toward the British.

He was in the span of 58 years to rise from cabin boy to senior commander of the entire U.S. fleet.

Barry first adopted Philadelphia as his new home. Two things convinced him to make his choice:

1. Religious freedom, a legacy of William Penn, allowed Barry to worship as a Roman Catholic.

2. The city had a growing population and the potential of becoming a great maritime trade center. Trade between the West Indies and Philadelphia by captains such as Barry honed their skills and knowledge of schooners.

Barry lost his first wife when she was 29. He later remarried and he and his second wife were to raise and care for two young boys left by his deceased sister.

When war broke out with Great Britain, starting the American Revolution, Barry was given the task of outfitting the first Continental navy ships. For his labors, the Marine Committee awarded him a captain’s commission in the Continental navy. His new ship, the Effingham, was under construction and this led Barry to offer his services to the Continental army. The commander of the Philadelphia militia, Gen. John Cadwalader, chose Barry as his courier. His task was to convey wounded prisoners while carrying a dispatch to British Gen. Charles Cornwallis under a flag of truce.

Barry went back to sea in March 1778. Using a squadron consisting of several small craft — barges, rowboats and longboats — he surprised two armed sloops and a schooner. All three were captured. After completing these tasks, Barry was soon awarded a captain’s commission in the Continental navy.

Barry captured many British prisoners during the Revolution. His commands included the Lexington, the Effingham, the Raleigh and the Alliance. He was, however, wounded. When the surviving British commander of a battered British ship presented his sword, Barry received it but returned it with a message: “I return it to you, sir. You have merited it and your king ought to give you a better ship. Here is my cabin at your service.”

The final battle of the revolution was the last sea battle of the Continental army. After the War of Independence, on June 5, 1794, the secretary of war informed Barry that he had been selected by the president to be captain of the federal navy.

On Feb. 22, 1797, Washington summoned Barry to the Presidential Mansion on Market Street in New York City to receive commission No. 1 in the Navy, dated June 4, 1794 — the date of his original selection. A formal ceremony was held on Washington’s birthday.

It was Barry who was to outfit and supervise the construction of the first frigates built under the Naval Act of March 27, 1794. His contributions to the Navy were numerous. He was to suggest the creation of the U.S. Department of the Navy, which was realized in 1798. He also initiated the establishment of government-operated Navy yards.

He was to remain in active duty until March 6, 1801, and was head of the Navy until his death Sept. 12, 1803.

Joan Brown Wettingfeld is a historian and freelance writer.

Updated 11:02 am, October 12, 2011
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