McInerney and O’Brien: The men who made it possible to remember a hero

The new Barry Memorial and the men who made it happen

ANNAPOLIS, May 8, 2014 —  On February 22, 1797, John Barry received commission number one in the United States Navy from George Washington, backdated to 1794, recognizing his outstanding contributions to the formation of this nation. He was granted the rank of commodore, providing him the distinction of being the first flag officer in the US Navy. And on May 10, 2014, Commodore John Barry will be honored at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis with a brand new memorial.

Born in County Wexford, Ireland, Barry and his family were forced to leave the Emerald Isle to flee the oppressive rule of the British. It was no wonder then, when the Colonists rose up against King George III that the Irish sailor wanted in on the fight.

John Barry commanded many successful actions, secured many British prizes, and ferried precious supplies to troops. His actions saw him decorated and given repeated commands, including the position of chief officer of the Navy until his death in 1803.

While the Commodore’s accomplishments speak for themselves, his heroism and bravery unapproachable, the effort to secure his legacy in US History, and more importantly Naval History was a daunting task unto itself.

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Several years ago, two members of the Washington, D.C. Ancient Order of Hibernians set out to memorialize the memory of John Barry. Veteran monument builders and feather rufflers, they sought to have the memorial erected on the very grounds of the US Naval Academy. A task which many said, and insisted, could not be done, and should not be done.

It cannot be done, they said.

To John McInerney (left), and Jack O’Brien (right), “cannot be done” was never the right answer.

With Irish tenacity, the two men set out to secure the Commodore’s place in history once and for all. Along with the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the largest Irish Catholic fraternal organization in the US, and their chapters in Maryland, D.C., and Virginia, McInerney and O’Brien took on this project with a resounding and unflinching determination and resilience. No obstacle was insurmountable, no odds were too long, and no goal unachievable.

Through a network of politicians, retired and active admirals and captains, businessmen, and finally retirees with plenty of time to make calls, McInerney and O’Brien made progress. Despite all of the obstacles in their way, despite all of the roadblocks placed in front of them by those who did not wish to see this project through, they marched on, without being deterred, without being discouraged.

And there was much to be discouraged about.

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Not only was the Navy originally, and somewhat along the way, intransigent on the matter of a new memorial, there was the financial aspect.

The AOH needed to raise $250,000, the price tag the Navy and the engineers quoted, in order to even consider building the memorial.

So McInerney and O’Brien went to the AOH, and the AOH went to the Emerald Society, Friends of Ireland, and every other Irish group in the area, and around the country, to raise money for this project. They passed out fliers at the Maryland Irish Festival, they set up informational booths at fairs, they took out advertising, and they created awareness.

Over the last several years, there was not an Irish bar in the D.C. Metro area that did not see a fundraiser for the Barry memorial project. Of course there were large donations, but the funding for this project for the most part came through small gatherings, with music, pints, dancing, auctions, and fun. They ranged from family events in Crofton, to late night bagpipe sessions in DC. Countless raffles, baskets of cheer, contests, and t-shirts all went into that final total.

And of course there is always shameless promotion. McInerney and O’Brien carried fliers about the project with them wherever they went, they were there at the festivals talking to total strangers, having conversations, and creating awareness. All the while at their side, the AOH provided the connections and the drive to help see this project through. Members spent countless man hours being where McInerney and O’Brien could not, helping to spread the word, volunteering at community service events to raise awareness.

The money was raised, through numerous small donations, bar and ball room contributions alike, through tireless and unwavering drive and effort, the money was raised.

Without the leadership of McInerney and O’Brien, and their energy, and the energy they inspired in others, this project would not have left port.

Saturday, their project is unveiled to the public, but sadly one of them will not be there to witness it. On the night of Tuesday, May 6 John McInerney quietly passed away in the company of his friends and family. His efforts and his endeavors in cementing the legacy of the Irish in American history is but a small portion of his legacy. His titanic spirit and his gentle soul are what will be remembered by his friends and his family, the projects he completed a testament to his will and drive.

But never fear, John was able to behold his project in its completion. He and Jack O’Brien stood proudly beside it after the construction was completed, gleaming and beaming with pride as the sum of so many years of effort lay before them, completed.

While John will not be there, Jack O’Brien, whose spirit and heart matches that of his departed friend, will be in attendance, and he is well deserved of praise. With an easy smile, and a hand shake, Jack O’Brien would have you collecting money for the Barry Memorial out of your hat, or passing out informational fliers to strangers at bars. Quick with a story, and with a tremendous heart, Jack O’Brien is a man that anyone would be lucky to call a friend.

If you have not guessed, I am one of those who McInerney and O’Brien managed to trick into plying money from unwitting bar patrons, or completely witting fair-goers. I had the pleasure of working with both of these men, and the AOH, in their efforts to see the Barry Memorial project come to fruition. Apologies if at times I sound biased, it is because I am. I wanted to make sure that the historical community, and the Irish-American community understand the efforts that these men, and all those involved, exerted in making sure this project was successful. And if that means I have to take a day off of writing about 2nd Amendment rights, then I would gladly do so.

While John McInerney has passed, and we will remember him, Jack is to be equally commended and celebrated for his contributions and his efforts to this project. He and John were the kings of this endeavor, a point that I have knowingly repeated, but cannot stress enough.

There are of course many I am failing to mention whom this project could not have done without. But for now, I would like to honor the men in the picture above, who provided the wind that filled the sails, and the spirit to see the journey through.

The event is on Saturday in Annapolis, and though I believe tickets are sold out, if you stick around long enough I am certain you can find us in nearest Irish bar to the Naval Academy. Please drop by, have a pint, and pick Jack’s brain about Commodore John Barry, he would love to talk to you.

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  • Rich Kolasa

    John will not be there in body, but in spirit, I’m sure he will!