His Brother's Keeper: Commodore John Barry, Father of the American Navy


On a fine spring day in 1787, John Rossiter’s merchantman, the Rising Sun, glided towards the Philadelphia waterfront after a successful voyage from County Wexford. The hold was full of Irish goods – flaxseed and linen – but Rossiter was happiest about the passengers standing on deck with him: Michael and Patrick Hayes, teenage orphans from Wexford, summoned by their uncle (and Rossiter’s good friend) to come live in Philadelphia.

The boys’ uncle was also a ship’s captain, who’d left Wexford twenty-seven years earlier to make Philadelphia his home. As well-respected as Rossiter was, this mariner was a legend for both his seamanship and heroics in the recent war for independence from Great Britain. Rossiter searched for him among the small crowd at the dock. At 6’4”, he was easy to spot, standing with his wife, their faces anxiously gazing at the Rising Sun. Rossiter pointed him out to the boys.

No sooner was the gangplank lowered than they were swept into the arms of John and Sarah Barry, who were ten years married but childless. Barry’s nephews became the sons they never had, and were the latest in a long slew of Irish immigrants who had found both shelter and guidance from the Barrys.

For Irish Catholics in the eighteenth century, charity began at home out of necessity. James Barry was a tenant farmer, similar in hardship and poverty to the life of a sharecropper in the post-Civil War South. When John was born in 1745, the Protestant Ascendancy – descendants of British colonists who made up the Irish Parliament –  was beginning its second century of running Ireland under the draconian Penal Laws, banning Catholics from owning land, practicing their religion, even speaking their native Gaeilge. In a few years, James and Ellen Barry had five mouths to feed and John, the oldest son, now about ten, was sent to sea, placed under the watchful eye of his uncle Nicholas, a ship’s captain who took advantage of a glitch in the Penal Laws: he could not own the goods in his hold, but he could own his ship. Nicholas Barry’s trade allowed him to work with his head held high, and the example he set for his nephew was as true as a compass. Each time he returned home, young John’s small wages were a godsend when he poured them on the family table.

For generations, Barry’s coming to Philadelphia was told as a Horatio Alger-like story of a happenstance arrival to the New World. In fact, he was sent there. By 1760, there was such an established Irish presence in Philadelphia that one official, scornfully describing them as “bold and indigent strangers,” warned Quaker and Anglican alike that “It looks as if Ireland is to send all its inhabitants hither.” Among them was Jane Barry Wilcox, an aunt or older cousin of John’s, whose husband was one of a small but growing list of Irish-born merchants. Whether young Barry stayed with Jane for just a few nights or used her home as a waystation in between voyages is not known, but over the next six years his ambition to equal his uncle was rewarded, as he rose from seaman to mate until, in 1766, he was given his first command, a schooner and a crew of five, making several voyages a year to Barbados.

A captain’s pay meant more money could be sent home. It also allowed him to marry a young Irish girl, Mary Cleary, and move into a small house near the Philadelphia waterfront (within the awful stink of the city tannery). Over the next decade Barry, climbed the riggings of his profession, hired by a succession of increasingly affluent merchants, even owning his own ship at one point. He and Mary moved to more upscale housing and took in a servant.

He joined the prestigious Society for the Relief of Poor, Aged, and Infirmed Masters of Ships, and Their Widows and Children, better known as “the Sea Captains’ Club.” As in other ports, Philadelphia’s mariners took care of their own, and their dues assured just that. But the club also provided Barry the opportunity to observe how to behave in the gentlemen’s dining room. While some members came from as rough and tumble a life as he, there were others, like Charles and Nicholas Biddle, equally at home on a merchantman’s deck and in a salon. With quiet intensity, Barry scrutinized their posture and language, right down to what fork went with what course.

It wasn’t long before Barry’s other brothers made their way across the Atlantic. Patrick was already an experienced mariner, while Thomas embarked on a quieter career as a clerk. When Mary died while John was at sea in February 1774, it was Patrick who was rowed out to his brother’s approaching vessel to break the news. Only twenty-nine, John Barry found himself a widower.

All of this took place beneath darkening political clouds. Barry’s ascendance occurred during the troubling years when the American colonies’ relationship with the British crown and Parliament were fraying. The Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts, the Tea Act and the Intolerable Acts all met with resistance in the colonies, particularly in Boston and Philadelphia, whose merchants based their opposition on their rights as British citizens. Where their Quaker counterparts urged passivity, most Anglican merchants were vociferous in their opposition to any new taxes and duties. Their opinions were shared by Barry and other captains over pipes and punch bowls at the City Tavern. Resistance to British authority was easy for an Irish-born captain like Barry to support. When hostilities broke, John offered his services to the nascent Continental Navy, while Patrick served as a privateer. Sadly, Patrick’s ship was later lost at sea in 1778; three years later, Uncle Nicholas informed John that both his parents were also dead.