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Homily of Bishop Denis at the Kevin Barry Commemoration Mass, St Patricks Church, Rathvilly 31.10.21


A few hours ago the clocks slipped back one hour! In the early hours of what my father always called “new time” we gather here in Rathvilly to begin a day of celebrations, a year later than planned, commemorating the centenary of the execution of Kevin Barry who has huge connections to these parts. I compliment Msgr. John, Niamh Barry and the Commemoration Committee for the sterling work done to date and the very kind invitation to join with you today.

It is not for me this morning to canonise Kevin Barry, but no doubt his idealism, his youth and the circumstances of his execution contributed significantly in making him a symbolic figure, at home and abroad, in the fight for identity and freedom. Kevin was undoubtedly a man of faith. One of the last priests to attend him in his cell was a Canon John Waters, a granduncle of one of our own priests Fr. Matt Kelly of Kill.

No doubt Kevin had his questions, like the scribe in today’s gospel with his own question on the primacy of love. The scribe summed up Jesus’ response: “he is one and there is no other”[1]! Roll the clock on 2,000 years. What about us? Loving God is often the easy bit, it’s the neighbour bit or even loving ourselves that kills us! And why is loving God so easy, is it because we’ve left him up there on the pedestal, removed from our human experience … the neighbour is too real … and what we see in the mirror can be too disturbing!

God can be comfortably at a distance and you know this isn’t the incarnate God, the Word becoming flesh and sharing our story in everything but sin. For failing to love the incarnate God, the very near neighbour and indeed ourselves, we pray for forgiveness this day of commemorations …


A centenary celebrates 100 years and today we are marking that centenary 101 years later, as last years planned celebrations were another casualty of Covid. Briefly I am going to bring you back forty years to 1981. In our first year at seminary in Maynooth we had weekly Spiritual talks, normally on a Thursday evening. Most of them are long since erased from memory but I do recall one that distinguished for us the difference between liking and loving someone. It always brings me to this morning’s gospel – we hadn’t to like everybody, but God dammit we have to love them! Not easy, when their habits disturb you, not easy when their accent grate, not easy when their hygiene habits differ. And that was then just the seminarians – seventy-three of us in first year sharing rooms in Long Corridor of Maynooth College and sometimes that corridor wasn’t near long enough!

Kevin Barry’s parents were Tom Barry of Tombeagh, Rathvilly and Mary Dowling of Drumquin, Hacketstown. Born in 1902, following his dad’s death in 1908, the family moved to the farm out at Tombeagh when Kevin attended Primary School here. While his secondary education was all Dublin, his values were formed and honed here at Rathvilly. It was those values that made him so resolute and determined at such a young age.

He is remembered in song as ‘just a lad of eighteen summers’ who had spent six formative years of his all too short life, in Tombeagh. It was the party piece of my late uncle, also called Kevin. Kevin Barry’s execution at such a tender age of 18 was on November 1st, 101 years ago tomorrow. It caught the popular imagination and nationalist sentiment both in Ireland and worldwide. In the time leading to his execution Kevin received numerous visits of clergy who ministered to him spiritually. The last aspiration he prayed as he was led towards his execution was “Blessed Oliver Plunkett, intercede for me”. Interestingly Oliver Plunkett had been beatified earlier that same year, 1920. In an article to mark Plunkett’s beatification, the author Myles Ronan[2] suggests Blessed Oliver Plunkett might be to us an inspiring ideal in the cause of God and country. It’s obvious that Kevin Barry had those same thoughts one hundred and one years ago tomorrow.

On the eve of the commencement of COP25 in Glasgow and of course the initial stages of our synodal journey as Church, Pope Francis challenges us: “Let us not soundproof our hearts … keep us from becoming a ‘museum church’, beautiful but mute, with much past and little future[3]. Kevin Barry was deeply aware of his faith and the comfort and challenges that faith brought. What exactly happened in the ill-fated ambush of an army vehicle in September 1920 is unclear. It led to his arrest. The taking of life is always wrong, as clearly expressed by my predecessor at that time – Bishop Patrick Foley in his Lenten Pastoral of 1921. He wrote: “the life of a human being is so sacred and so protected by Divine and Natural Law that no private citizen has a particle of right to take it, except in necessary self-defence, and no public authority except for grave crime and after fair trial[4].

What kind of questions had Kevin with those who visited with him in those final days? No none will ever really know. What we do know is he was well visited upon by the Capuchin friars from Church Street, the priests from Hacketstown, the Dublin priests who were chaplains then in Mountjoy, including the aforementioned Canon John Waters. Let’s return to the scribe’s question put to Jesus 2,000 years ago around the most important of all the commandments? The key message forty years ago on that Thursday night in November for me as a young seminarian was we might only like some people but love everybody. And the challenge forty years on remains … loving God who you can’t see and sometimes don’t hear with heart, soul and strength doesn’t discommode us greatly; loving that neighbour who you see too much of and hear too often uproots us greatly. As for loving ourselves, well that’s often where the real challenge lies. In his final hours Kevin received Holy Communion and last rites, including absolution. He was ready to meet His maker. Today 101 years later each of us can only answer for ourselves how prepared are we to meet our maker? The month of November which begins tomorrow offers us an opportunity to fine tune those preparations, not in a cell awaiting execution in Mountjoy but in our homes, in our parishes and in our lives. 

[1] Mark 12:32

[2] Ronan, Myles V., ‘Blessed Oliver Plunkett’, in the Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Vol. XVI, July-Dec, 1920, pg. 275.

[3] Pope Francis, Address at launch of Universal Synod, 10 October 2021

[4] Bishop Patrick Foley, Lenten Pastoral, Quinquagesima Sunday, 1921