Marathoner will honor Irish American hero

Tom McGrath in training. On Friday, he will run 250 miles, from Manhattan to Annapolis.
Tom McGrath in training. On Friday, he will run 250 miles, from Manhattan to Annapolis. (CLIFF ADLER)
Posted: July 21, 2012

Tom McGrath, owner of the Black Sheep Pub in Manhattan, is an ultra-marathoner of some repute. A native of Ireland who first came to the United States in 1969 to play Gaelic football, he has, among other astonishing accomplishments, run across the United States in 53 days, run 24 hours nonstop numerous times, and completed several 1,000-mile solo runs. Many of his runs are dedicated to charity, such as raising money for the pediatrics unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

On Friday, McGrath, 61, will embark on another long jaunt on behalf of a worthy cause. He will run 250 miles from Manhattan to Annapolis, Md., to raise money and awareness for a memorial to Commodore John Barry at the Naval Academy.

The run will conclude next Friday, and the following day, after a short jog, McGrath will attend a ceremony at the proposed memorial site. McGrath will average about 30 miles a day, or more than eight consecutive marathons.

"Commodore Barry has to be one of the greatest heroes that ever left Ireland," McGrath says. "He came from poverty in County Wexford and rose to such a height that he was entrusted with the construction and leadership of the U.S. Navy by President George Washington. He really is a perfect example of a human being who was a credit to the human race."

For years, various Irish American groups have sought to give Barry his due. There is a commanding statue of him, erected in 1907, behind Independence Hall, and, of course, one of the bridges spanning the Delaware bears his name, but for a man who was arguably the father of the American Navy, there was scant evidence of his contributions at the Naval Academy.

At 6-4, Barry was a towering figure at a time when most men stood only 5-5. After rising from cabin boy to skillful merchant seaman, he was quick to enlist in the service of his adopted country when the oppressed colonies broke from Great Britain.

Barry was the first to capture a British war vessel on the high seas, and he seized two British ships after being severely wounded in a ferocious sea battle. He turned down a British bribe to betray the Continental forces, and he also fought on land at the Battle of Princeton.

"He fought 20 naval battles, and he won 20 battles," says John E. McInerney, a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and co-chairman of the memorial project. "After the revolution, Washington named him first captain of the U.S. Navy and personally gave him commission No. 1, along with the responsibility for organizing the Navy and building the first ships."

McInerney and Jack O'Brien, his fellow member of the AOH John F. Kennedy Division in Prince George's County, Md., approached Annapolis officials several years ago with a proposal for a Barry memorial. Their idea was first rejected as "inappropriate" because the powers-that-be at Annapolis were unfamiliar with the extent of Barry's accomplishments and not eager to clutter the grounds with more statues and memorials.

A second attempt was also rebuffed. But a major letter-writing campaign, joined by historians, distinguished Americans, members of Congress, governors, and even leaders of the Catholic church, such as the archbishop of military services, won the day. Along the way, naval officials became more aware of the depth and magnitude of Barry's patriotism (unlike his contemporary John Paul Jones, "Silent John" Barry was not given to self-promotion) and his contributions to the inception of the Navy.

"There was a lot of give and take, and they worked with us in good faith," McInerney recalled, speaking of the Navy and the administration at the academy.

"It's taken some time to bring them around and win their confidence," said fellow cochairman Jack O'Brien.

When the Navy finally consented, it wound up giving the memorial a prime spot, right next to the main pedestrian gate, through which most of those visiting Annapolis pass. That gate has already been renamed the Barry gate, and a wrought-iron arch bearing Barry's name was dedicated in January, representing the first phase of the memorial.

Inside the gate will be a circular plaza with an eight-foot-high granite memorial that will feature a bas-relief of Barry's bust, a bronze plaque engraved with his commission from Washington (what McInerney calls "the birth certificate of the Navy"), and, below that, another plaque summarizing his life, his feats, and his importance.

The entire memorial is expected to cost more than $200,000. The AOH and other organizations supporting the cause, including the Commodore Barry Irish Center in Mount Airy (which netted about $12,000 from a fund-raiser over Memorial Day weekend), have raised about $180,000 toward that goal. McGrath's run should augment that amount considerably.

Along the way, McGrath will stop at various Irish and Catholic fraternal organizations, including AOH Division 39 in Tacony on Sunday. Then, on Monday, he'll make his way to Center City, with visits to the Irish Memorial at Front and Chestnut, Old St. Mary's Church in Society Hill (where Barry is buried), and the statue of Barry behind Independence Hall.

After that, McGrath will run across the Ben Franklin Bridge with an escort and make his way south to Bridgeport, where he'll cross the river again via the Commodore Barry Bridge and head to West Chester. From there, he'll head south to Newark, Del., and eventually Annapolis.

"I'm on a mission, and I have to complete this mission," McGrath vows. "It's an honor and a privilege to do this.

"When you run for hours on the road, chemical changes take place in your body. Your energy level drops, your legs get heavy, your muscles get sore, your mind gets weak, and you start asking yourself why you're out there. And it's then that I'll turn for inspiration to Commodore Barry, the battles he fought and the loyalty he showed to his adopted country as he helped lead America to freedom.

"Any pain or agony I may experience will be minuscule compared to what he went through."


Contact Art Carey at acarey@philly.com. For more information and to make a pledge, visit www.barryrun.com .

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