Commodore John Barry (1745 - 1803)

John Barry was born in Ballysampson Co. Wexford, Ireland in 1745. His parents James and Ellen (Cullen) Barry were tenant farmers who were evicted by the local British landlord when young John was thirteen years old. This traumatic experience would in no small measure have a profound influence on his future carrier choices, loyalties and life's work.

As with other noble exiled sons of Ireland young Barry experienced first hand the cruelty and inhumanity of the British enacted  Penal Laws being vigorously enforced at that time. The stated intent of these laws, which were  primarily directed at the native catholic population was to, 1) deprive the native Catholics of all civil life, 2) reduce them to a condition of ignorance and, 3) to dissociate them from the soil.  These repressive and draconian laws, originally directed at the catholic population, were amended over time to curb the growing influence of the Presbyterians whose loyalty to the realm was suspect. 

After the family was evicted young Barry went to live in Rosslare with his uncle Nicholas Barry, the owner of a fishing boat. During the two years that Barry worked as a deckhand aboard the his uncle's fishing boat, he developed a fondness for the sea and for the tall and small ships that plied it's waters.  He also grew big and strong and learned all he wanted to know about the fishing business.

At age fifteen, restless and ready to move on, Barry's uncle found him a job as an able bodied seaman aboard a merchant ship plying the trading routes between Europe and the Caribbean. Two years later in 1762,  at the age of seventeen, he arrived in Philadelphia as first mate aboard a merchant vessel, a testament to his learning abilities, exceptional leadership qualities and maritime skills.

At that time, Philadelphia was emerging as a great maritime trading center offering better opportunities for ambitious young seamen like Barry who easily found employment in maritime trade. In 1766, at the age of 21, he was given control of his first vessel the trading schooner Barbados sailing out of Philadelphia. For the next number of years Barry honed his skills and built his reputation as captain of several merchant ships carrying goods back and forth to the West Indies and other places.   During this period he never lost a ship to pirates or the sea.

During that period of his life Barry endured two tragedies; the first being the premature death of his wife whom he had married at Philadelphia's Old St. Joseph's chapel in October of 1767. She died in February, 1774 at age 29 while he was at sea. The second tragedy which occurred in 1778 was on receiving news of his  brother loss at sea aboard  "a letter of marquee" vessel that did not return to port. Barry married his second wife, Sarah Keen Austin in July, 1777 in Old Christ Church in Philadelphia.

For a number of years leading up to the American Revolution, Philadelphia was the epicenter of a movement that would bring an end to British rule in the American colonies and usher in an independent, sovereign American nation. The ever growing fervor against British rule throughout the colonies erupted in a full-fledged revolution on April 9, 1775 at Lexington, Massachusetts  where, at sunrise, the first shots were fired. This historic event would be the beginning of another phase in the life of a remarkable man.

In December of 1774 Barry was made master of the 200-ton  Black Prince by Robert Morris, a close friend of Barry and a partner in a Philadelphia merchant shipping firm. It was aboard Black Prince on a return voyage from England that Barry set an 18th century record by travelling 237 miles by dead reckoning in a 24 hour period.

On the same day in October 1775 that the Black Prince docked in Philadelphia the Second Continental Congress decided to establish the American Navy. The war between the colonies and England was well underway by then.

Immediately on his return, Barry offered his services to the Continental Congress. By all accounts Barry held a deep rooted grudge against the British for the Cromwellian massacres in Wexford in 1645 and  for the inhumanity of British rule in Ireland he witnessed and endured during his childhood.

Barry's offer was eagerly accepted and the first task given him was to outfit the first two ship of the new Continental Navy. After he completed that task, in a most proficient manner, he was commissioned by John Adams the first officer of the Continental Navy and given command of the Lexington, the Continental Navy’s first warship, and tasked with disrupting British shipping along the eastern seaboard. 

Within one month on patrol Barry and his crew  had captured the H.M.S. Edward the first British warship captured in a sea battle by the new American navy. The captured warship was taken up the Delaware to Philadelphia for all to see and then put back in service as an American warship. The Lexington continued its patrol and in June of 1776, together with other American vessels, engaged a number of  British warships chasing an American privateer vessel the Nancy captured earlier from the British.  Under cover of  fog  the Nancy’s cargo and crew were  taken aboard the American vessels as the British warships were closing in. Two of the British warships ships pulled alongside the Nancy and as their crews were about to board the gunpowder barrels that Barry ordered fused exploded destroying the Nancy and the British warships

Unable to sail due to ice on the Delaware during the winter months, Barry was on hand to assist Washington ferry his troops across the Delaware river on Christmas Eve and again on New Year's Eve to attack British garrisons at Trenton and Princeton. He took part in both battles, which resulted in victories for the Americans that provided a major boost for the revolution and recruitments for both the army and navy.

Shortly afterwards he took commanded the 32-gun Effingham, Gen Washington ordered that it and other ships on the Delaware be scuttled to avoid  capture and use by the British after the fall of Philadelphia in September 1777.  Barry objected so strenuously that he had to apologizing to a member of the Navy Committee who had accused him of ‘failing in his duty’ ‘a liar’.  After the ships were destroyed  Barry used the Effingham's boats to conduct  raids on British transport and supply ships along the Delaware capturing two supply  ships the Kitty and the Mermaid and a warship the Alert for which he received a commendation from the Continental Congress for his courage and audacity.  Such was the damage inflicted on British shipping that British General Howe offered Barry £15,000 to discontinue these raids and bring the Effingham and her crew into British custody. Not being in his nature to put personal gain before patriotism he refused stating that he 'spurned the idea of being a traitor'.

In September of 1778, Barry took command of the  Raleigh a 32-gun frigate berthed in Boston. On his way to Virginia where the frigate was to undergo an overhaul  he was spotted and  given chase by the Unicorn and  Experiment two British warships with a combined total of seventy two guns. After a 48-hour battle and having sustained major damage to the Raleigh including a shattered mainmast and the loss of ten sailors he still managed to cripple the Unicorn.  As the Experiment closed for the kill Barry ordered the Raleigh scuttled rather that  surrendering it to the British. He saved two-thirds of his crew and guided them to safety in rowboats to Boston.

In 1780 Barry took command of the 12-gun brig Delaware and was sent to Haiti as part of a small American fleet. For the next year he plied these waters adding more British merchant ships to his very impressive resume.  

In 1781, Barry was given command of the Alliance a 36-gun frigate with order to take  John Laurens and Thomas Paine, Americas highest  ranking diplomatic delegation to France. The delegation was charged with soliciting increased assistance from the  French.  Due to difficulties securing crew members captured British sailors were used to fill out the roster. On the return trip a planned mutiny by the British sailors was discovered and quelled. Later on the return journey the Alliance engaged two British ships the Atlanta and the Trespassey in a ferocious battle that lasted for four hours. Shortly after the engagement began the Alliance being the heaviest of the ships was immobilized for the lack of wind. The two smaller British ships were able to move close to the Alliance and cause it severe damage.  Barry was wounded during the fight but refused to surrender. Eventually the wind came back up and  the Alliance was able to turn and fire its cannons at the other ships damaging both and causing them to disengage and sail away.

In December of 1781 the Alliance with Barry in command set sail for France with France’s General Lafayette and the French diplomat Count De Nouailes on board with orders to deliver them safely to the  French port of l'Orient.  He patrolled  the  waters of the English Channel for targets of opportunity before returning home in March of 1782. On his  next mission in August of that year he captured numerous vessels including nine merchantmen  en route from Jamaica to Britain with cargoes of rum and sugar. When sold off they made £620,000, a welcome boost to the rebel treasury.

Barry fought the last engagement of the war in the Alliance on March 10th, 1783 against the British frigate, Sybil. After considerable damage to both ships the Sybil disengaged and sailed off.

After the final peace treaty was signed with Britain in April 1783,  Barry returned to his trade once more and after a 30 month voyage that opened up trade to the Far East, he returned triumphantly once again to Philadelphia.  

In 1794, when President Washington ordered the construction of six frigate to protect US merchantmen from Algerian pirates he appointed John Barry from Ballysampson Co Wexford the senior commander of the US navy by declaring: ‘I, George Washington, President of the United States, reposing special trust and confidence in your patriotism, valor ,fidelity and abilities have nominated , and by and with advice and  the consent of the Senate, appoint you Captain of the Navy of the United States’.

As Senior Captain of the Federal Navy, a position he held for the rest of his life, he played a vital role in establishing the earliest traditions of the Navy in serving faithfully to protect the rights of the sovereign United States

For the last two years of his life he devoted much time to causes close to his Irish heart like the Hibernian Fire Company, The Friendly Sons of St Patrick and the Charitable Captains of Ships Club, founded to help the widows of sailors lost at sea. 

 On September 12th 1803, John Barry died, from asthma related complication, at his home in Strawberry  Hill in Philadelphia  On September 14t, 1803, he was buried with full military honors at  Philadelphia’s Old St Mary’s Cemetery.


Contributed by;  Tomás Ó Coısdealha


    He was there from laying the first keel to firing the last shot in the  American Revolution’

Tomás Ố hÓgáın   


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Cemetery AND grave location

Name:   Old St Mary’s Cemetery.                            PHONE NO.  (215) 923-7930

ADDRESS:   252 South 4th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106


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