(First published in 2009, the 238th birthday of the United States Navy is a good day to post it again.)
1745 was a busy year in the history of the misnamed British Isles, with Bonnie Prince Charlie doing his best to end the reign of the Hanover Dynasty in England, so I guess it is excusable that no note was taken of the birth date of John Barry in Tacumshane, County Wexford, Ireland. During his childhood John received, along with all the other excellent reasons given to Irish Catholics over the centuries to love Britannia, good reason to look askance at the British when his father was evicted from his poor little farm by their British landlord, and the family went to live in the village of Rosslare.
Yet the nameless landlord, completely unintentionally of course, did John a good turn, because it was in Rosslare that young John found his life’s calling: the Sea. Nicholas Barry, his uncle, lived there and was captain of a fishing skiff. John decided to follow in the footsteps of his uncle and seek his fortunes on water.
This was a completely rational choice on the part of John. The British imposed penal laws, summarized by the great Edmund Burke as follows: “For I must do it justice; it was a complete system, full of coherence and consistency, well digested and well composed in all its parts. It was a machine of wise and deliberate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.” Rendered helots in their own land, almost all ambitious Irish Catholic lads and lasses had to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Additionally, for a poor ambitious young man in Europe in the Eighteenth Century, the Sea offered a path to wealth and social advancement. If he was willing to work hard, learn to read, and learn enough math to chart the course of a ship, a poor sailor, with luck, could rise to be captain of a ship one day. Compensation for the crew of a merchant vessel was often based on a share of the profits, with the merchants who bankrolled the vessel usually taking between a half to two-thirds with the remainder being divided among the crew: the greater the rank, the larger the share. An able captain could eventually become a wealthy merchant. His daughters might marry into the aristocracy. His sons might become wealthy bankers and eventually be ennobled if they played their political cards right. Although this path was precluded to Irish Catholics by the anti-Catholic Test Act, a poor sailor in the Royal Navy might end his days as an admiral, and there were always a few admirals in the Royal Navy in the Eighteenth Century who had begun their careers in just such a fashion.
However, if the Sea offered opportunities it also had severe risks. Life aboard ship was cramped and unpleasant, with bad food and putrid water tossed in as a garnish. Discipline was often brutal and risk to life and limb was an every day occurence. According to Dr. Samuel Johnson, “No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.” Ports were filled with crippled sailors who eked out a miserable existence with any light work they could get, selling wood carvings and begging. As Lord Nelson noted, the average British sailor, due to a hard life, was dead by forty-five.
Defying all challenges, John flourished at sea. Flying through the ranks of cabin boy, seaman, able seaman and a mate’s rating, he proved himself tough and determined. It also didn’t hurt that he was as strong as a sea-going ox, and grew into a giant of a man, standing six foot and four inches in a time when the average height of an adult male was five feet and five inches. During his career he would suppress three mutinies aboard his ships single handedly, and his great physical strength was a key asset in the very rough world afloat. In 1766 he achieved his dream of becoming a captain and skippered the Barbados with a home port of Philadelphia. It was on the Barbados that he began his habit, that he kept up in peace and war, in having the day start with a reading from the Bible to the crew. Captain Barry fell in love with Phillie, a town where he could freely practice his Catholic faith, and a bustling, prosperous port. Continue Reading