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


Bats with seven-foot wingspans and colorful snakes sailing alongside the Asia dotted his description of the tricky passage through the Sunda Straits. When they finally reached Canton, Barry kept Patrick by his side in hopes of keeping him out of the taverns and brothels, and he succeeded, it seems, until their departure. While in Macao, Patrick escaped his uncle’s supervision. His last entry in his journal merely reads, “Maddam: full of shame” – and we will never know why.

Barry returned home with his fortune remade, and actually swallowed the anchor over the next five years. With Sarah’s blessing, their estate, Strawberry Hill, became home for the Hayes brothers when back from their voyages. Patrick even fell in love with and married Sarah’s niece, Betsy Keen.

Now Barry’s correspondence with family and friends flourished, as did his willingness to help those in need. A regular stipend was sent to his sister Margaret. As perfect strangers showed up at Strawberry Hill, carrying letters of introduction from this relative or that acquaintance, Barry found himself a one-man employment service, finding work for craftsmen at shipyards and positions for clerks in counting houses. Young sailors always won a berth if they carried a recommendation from John Barry. When the city was decimated by the first in a series of yellow fever epidemics in 1793, Barry’s letters of recommendation about a young Mr. Shannon’s “integrity and sobriety” landed him a position at the Bank of the United States, while another started working for another successful Irishman, the printer Matthew Carey.

Not all of Barry’s charges lived up to his standards. When another “John Barry” asked assistance in getting a berth on “a Ship bound to the East,” Barry immediately interceded, securing him a second mate’s position on an Indiaman bound for “Maddras or Calcutta.” The grateful sailor left Philadelphia with a full hold, leaving a pregnant wife. Months later, Barry learned the man’s talents belied his name; for his wretched performance to his duties he “was left behind at Bengal,” abandoning his wife and baby. “I understand she goes out nursing,” Barry sadly told a mutual acquaintance.

Philadelphians also knew where to send any unwanted Irish castaways. When a young lass arrived to serve an indenture to a rich wastrel of such low character that she wanted to run away, the pompous buffoon sent her to Barry’s door.

That said, Barry was first and foremost an American.  When an old acquaintance from Wexford wrote him about buying land in the Mohawk Valley, Barry all but ordered him to Philadelphia: 

I am much at a loss to know whether you have a family or not and what your views can be for a man of your years to bear yourself in the woods unacquainted I presume with cutting down trees or building log houses far removed from any place to educate your children if you have any…  If you can make convenient to spend a few weeks with me at Strawberry Hill within three miles of Philadelphia you cannot refuse my request as you would have a good dale of time on your hands this winter.

After another Irish friend looked to return to the old sod after a lifetime in the West Indies, Barry was genuinely perplexed; after all, he believed “There is everything the heart could ask for here.”

When President Washington appointed Barry first among captains of the new United States Navy – created ostensibly to protect American shipping from the Barbary pirates – Barry was justifiably proud, anxious to live up to his old friend’s expectations. It was thought the new navy’s ships would be built in months. They took years. By the time they sailed into combat in 1797 it was against a different enemy, French privateers in the Caribbean. Beset by chronic asthma and gout, Barry was no longer the hero of the hour. Past his prime and openly derided by President Adams and his staff, Barry was relegated to serving as “Mr. Chips” to the next generation of naval heroes: Stephen Decatur, Richard Somers, and Charles Stewart among them.

Nor was there smooth sailing at home. While Patrick’s career emulated his uncle’s successes as a merchant captain, Michael’s was tragically cut short. His ship was lost at sea on 1801. The Barrys, particularly Sarah, were heartsick. When the old commodore, yearning for one more chance to restore his reputation as a fighting sailor, finally received an offer from President Jefferson to lead a squadron against the Barbary pirates, he was too ill to accept, “being on his last tack.” He died months later.

One of the last entreaties he received from Wexford came from a cousin, Nancy Merriman Kelly, born just days after his own birth so many years before. Her husband Michael, at 59, had joined the “Boys of Wexford” at New Ross on June 5, 1798, and was one of the first killed in three days of fighting against superior British forces. For years, Barry’s father had given her “half a Guinea” out of the money Barry sent home; could he send that to her, “Being in Such Need?”