The Irish Famine Emigrant that founded the US Navy!

Wexford in Ireland has over 200KM of Coastline, dotted with tiny hidden bays, long golden stretches, and quirky little harbours each one with its own stories of pirates, smugglers, and shipwrecks. One area is known as the Graveyard of 1000 ships due to the amount of ships lost there over the centuries. So it may come as no surprise to learn that the fishermen who work off this coast are exceptionally talented seamen. Many too have inherited their living and talents from a long line of fishermen going back centuries. This is the tale of one such fisherman who climbed to such heights he is still remembered across the world today.

Stamp with image of John Barry

James Barry grew up in Rosslare, a small fisherman he knew his trade well. When he met farmers daughter Ellen Cullen, he decided to try his hand at farming and so when the two married, they rented lands from Ellens Landlord in the small township of Tacumshane. Life was hard however, The people who live in Tacumshane today make their living from a combination of Dairy farming and tourism. But back in 1745, the newly married James and Ellen struggled to pay their rents from the meagre crops they grew in the sandy unsuitable land.

As their children arrived in quick succession, life became harder. 2 girls, a son, another girl, and another son, by the time their youngest James arrived they found themselves in that impossible situation, feed themselves and lose their home or pay their rents and starve. So the fed themselves and were promptly evicted from the farm. Luckily for them, James had his fishing trade to fall back on. They moved to Rosslare and James began working on his Uncles boats.

As the children grew older, it was the youngest boy John, who showed a flair for life on the boats. Almost from birth he had been around the sea, sharing his mother’s lap with the fishing nets she repaired for extra money and his playground and schoolyard was the small harbour and Rosslare Strand so beloved today by Dubliners looking to escape the dust and dirt of City life during the summer months.

He wouldn’t have been much older than 5 or 6 before he began working on the trawlers as they headed out to sea. It seemed a natural progression for him to head for Wexford Town and try to get work on one of the larger Merchant Ships that docked there. I imagine, he was snapped up, and at the tender age of only 12 years old Johns life on the seas had begun properly as he became a Cabin Boy.

An exciting life for a small boy he sailed to places unimaginably exotic to a small child from Ireland, Africa, Spain, The Canaries Islands and across the ocean to America. With each journey, he gained recognition and over time he progressed through the ranks, eventually becoming a First Mate.

It while he was visiting America that he met his first wife. Irish like himself, Mary Cleary was her name. They built a home in Philadelphia and life was good. John still made regular trips home, and when his sister and brother in law passed away, he brought their children to Philadelphia to be raised by himself and Mary.

All the while, John was working hard and his reputation was impeccable. But no one is immune to tragedy and we can only imagine his heartbreak, when his beloved wife Mary, passed away, leaving him to raise his niece and nephew alone.

Throwing himself into his work, he was only 31 when he received his first Captains Commission from John Hancock, the President of the Continental Congress the following year. Bittersweet perhaps, but a huge achievement all the same.

He was a religious man and started every day, by gathering the crew around him as he read a passage from the Bible. As their Captain he took his duties very seriously and held his crew in high regard. Unlike many ships captains, Captain John Barry’s crew always had decent food and clean water, their quarters were kept spotlessly clean and while the men could relax and have fun on shore leave, while on his ship, drunkenness was frowned upon.

John Barry married again an American woman called Sarah and she moved in to take care of the children as he took a more active role on the seas as the American Revolutionary war took hold.

Fighting against the British Navy, no doubt emboldened by his own experiences as a young boy in Ireland. He really began to shine, winning battle after battle and even seeing off 3 mutinies in the midst of it.

He was credited with winning the final sea battle of the American Revolution but not before the British navy offered him £100,000 to come fight for them. Outraged he declared that all the money in the British treasury nor command of its entire fleet could tempt him to desert his adopted country!

When he was 52, in 1797, he was awarded the Title of Commission Number 1, thereby earning him the title of Commodore Barry. He is recognised as, not only the first American commissioned naval officer but also as its first flag officer.

He retired from active duty 4 years later due to failing health, but remained Head of the US Navy until his death two years later and is buried with full honours the city of Philadelphia, his epitaph reading:

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.