Recent passings in the Irish and Irish American communities.
William “Bill” Barry
1927 – 2018
Bill Barry, who grabbed Robert F. Kennedy’s assassin’s gun and prevented many other deaths on that fateful night in 1968, passed away on October 9, at age 91 in his New York suburban home.
To the end of his life, Bill unfairly blamed himself for what happened to Robert F. Kennedy on the dreadful night of June 5th, 1968, at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
Back then, presidential candidates had no secret service protection and former NYPD and FBI Agent Bill Barry was the only bodyguard for the Senator.
The crowd at the Ambassador that night was hugely excited. Kennedy had just won California and the Democratic race against Hubert Humphrey was suddenly neck and neck.
When his speech finished, Kennedy leaned over to his bodyguard and friend Barry and stated, “Look after Ethel,” his notoriously crowd-shy wife, who was pregnant at the time and being swamped by well-wishers.
Barry did so and seconds later Kennedy exited through the kitchen where the killer Sirhan Sirhan was waiting. The Palestinian refugee opened fire. The second Kennedy in five years received fatal wounds. There was mass hysteria.
Barry alone kept his cool. On hearing the shots, Barry, a few yards behind Kennedy, rushed Sirhan and saved many lives by knocking Sirhan’s gun out of his hand. As the crowd tries to attack Sirhan he handed him over to two supporters, footballer Rosey Grier and aide Jack Gallivan, saying, “Take this guy. Get this guy off in a corner where people can’t hit him.”
He was devastated by Bobby’s death and found it hard to talk about it. He was among the closest non-family member friends the Kennedys had. He believed if he had been beside Kennedy he might have seen the gun as he was trained to do and saved Kennedy.
He met Bobby when he was an FBI agent detailed to meet and protect the then New York Senator when he traveled around the state.
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was enraged Barry was getting so friendly with the hated Kennedys. He ordered him to Mobile, Alabama. Barry quit. He opened his own successful security firm and was soon a Kennedy confidant. He remained close to the family after R.F.K’s death.
Courtney Kennedy, Robert and Ethel’s daughter, spoke to Irish America about the relationship between the Kennedy family and Barry. “He was a great and much loved friend of our family. Bill was extra special to me as he was my godfather. He was always there whenever anyone of us needed him. He was an enormous comfort to my mother after my father died. He went through all of the struggles and great joys of our lives of with us, and when my father used to recite the St. Crispin’s Day speech by King Henry V, and he said the words, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” we knew he had Bill in mind. We will always love and miss him.”
“He’s a substantial guy — very, very highly regarded and well-liked by people in law enforcement and government,” then-DA Robert Morgenthau said in an interview some years back.
Barry expanded his own security firm and worked for a time as CEO of the New York racing authority. He became a close friend of Governor Hugh Carey.
In the early 90s, he encountered another famous Irish American, Bill Flynn, Chairman of Mutual of America and they became fast friends. When Tom Moran took over as CEO the relationship continued. Ironically all three have died in 2018 within months of each other. Flynn had become deeply involved in peace efforts in Northern Ireland and was often on dangerous ground during visits there. Barry became his de facto bodyguard, but eventually much more than that, a trusted advisor to the small group seeking to bring American involvement to the peace effort.
In the critical phase leading up to the IRA ceasefire, Barry was a key member of the Irish American group. Indeed, there is a historical photograph of Adams telling the Americans that the IRA ceasefire was about to be announced. Sitting next to Adams is Bill Barry.
“Bill Barry was one of the silent contributors to the N.I. Peace Process. Relying upon his longtime relationship with Senator Ted Kennedy, he brokered the introduction of the Senator to Bill Flynn which led to Gerry Adams being allowed into the US for the first time in 1994,” said Ed Kenney, a retired FBI officer who was part of the Mutual of America team working on the N.I. peace process.
He died on October 9th after a life well lived. He was one of a kind but always gentlemanly, with a great Irish sense of humor and fun. I was privileged to know him. May he rest in peace. – Niall O’Dowd
Note: Bill Barry died within days of Juan Romero, 68, who was a teenage busboy working in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in June 1968 when Kennedy, moments after giving a victory speech in the California Democratic primary, came walking through and was shot in the head by an assassin. Romano rushed to Kennedy and held him as he lay on the floor mortally wounded, uttering his last words: “Is everybody okay?” He later said he had struggled to keep the senator’s head from hitting the floor. Mr. Romero died on October 1, from an apparent heart attack.
Irish-American Merrill Lynch executive – and husband to best-selling author Mary Higgins Clark – John Conheeney died in October, aged 89. While he was mainly publicized as the beloved, supportive companion of Clark’s literary career, Conheeney made his own mark on the world in the finance industry, being inducted into the Future Industries of America Hall of Fame in 2006.
Born to Rita and Thomas Conheeney in 1928, Conheeney was raised in an Irish-Catholic neighborhood of Jersey City, with a close-knit extended family of dedicated tea-drinkers and bagpipe players. He attended St. Cecilia’s High School in Englewood, where he received training from legendary football coach Vince Lombardi. Conheeney went on to earn his bachelor’s degree from Manhattan College, and then his M.B.A. from Tulane University.
More than 40 years in the futures industry saw Conheeney as CEO and chairman of Merrill Lynch Futures, as well as husband of 45 years to Jean Conheeney. However, this role sadly came to an end with Jean’s death in 1994, just after John’s retirement from Merrill Lynch.
He met celebrated suspense author Mary Higgins Clark at a St. Patrick’s Day party in 1996 – arranged by Clark’s daughter, Patricia, who told her mother beforehand, “I’ve found him!” The two married in late November of the same year after a whirlwind courtship. “He’s got great strength and humor and kindness,” Clark praised her groom to the New York Times, citing the words of one of John’s colleagues on their marriage, “Tell Mary, now she really has everything.” Clark has referred to Conheeney as her “spouse extraordinaire” in all her novels’ acknowledgements since the start of their relationship, and he happily accompanied her on many book tours as her proudest supporter.
Predeceased by Jean, his parents, and his sister Rita, Conheeney is survived by Clark, children John, Barbara, Patricia, and Nancy; stepchildren Marilyn, Warren, David, Carol, and Patricia, and 17 grandchildren and step-grandchildren. – M.G.
Coleman O’Toole, who was featured in Irish America’s 2013 Profiles In Courage issue, passed away on June 29 at the age of 42. Cherished son of Robert Edward O’Toole and Frances Rita (Doherty) O’Toole, Coleman was born on April 25, 1976 in Dorchester, MA and was named after his grandfather Coleman Francis O’Toole and his uncle Coleman Vincent O’Toole. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at 16, Coleman dedicated the rest of his years to living life to the fullest and spreading joy and laughter to everyone he met. Coleman attended Milton Academy from kindergarten through high school and then Skidmore College, where he was a gifted sculptor, radio DJ and actor. Graduating in 1998, he went on to become a founding member and Senior Vice President of Fovea Floods, an independent avant-garde theater company, appearing in a variety of productions, from the original work Paul Pry, to Bertolt Brecht’s Baal. An avid reader and world traveler, Coleman always had time to devote to helping and caring for others, especially his three beloved nephews, Owen Ulysses O’Toole, Callum Flynn O’Toole and Rory Sean O’Toole. Coleman is survived by his parents and by his one younger brother Christian Liam O’Toole. – C.O.
Patsaí Dan Mag Ruaidhrí
King of Toraigh Patsaí Dan Mag Ruaidhrí (known as Patsy Dan Rodgers) died in October at the age of 74. In his capacity as ruler of the tiny island off the coast of Donegal, Rodgers operated as an ambassador, greeting visitors as they arrived and putting in a great deal of effort to make sure that the island received proper attention and support from the mainland. Born in Dublin, Rodgers was adopted at the age of four and taken to live on Toraigh, where he soon became fluent in Irish and enthusiastic about all the customs and history that made up his new home. Encouraged in his artistic endeavors by English artist and frequent Toraigh visitor Derek Hill, Rodgers became a respected painter, whose works showcased the hidden beauty of the island year-round. In 1993, he was nominated by the children of the previous king, Padraig Óg Rodgers, to assume their father’s role, and after being elected, he did, serving as Toraigh’s protector, advocate, greeter, and a whole host of other functions for about 25 years. Rodgers was presented with an honorary master’s degree by the University of Ulster in 1997. Earlier this year saw the publication of a book on his life, entitled Rí Thoraí – From City to Crag – Patsy Dan Rodgers, by Dr. Art Hughes, a professor at the school. The most recent exhibition of Rodgers’ artwork, held in Donegal this past summer, celebrated his 50th year as an artist and completed the portrait of the complete Renaissance man. Toward the very end of his life, Rodgers maintained a passionate dedication to the home where he was raised, if not born. “I love the place so much,” he told BBC News NI in an interview while he was being honored in Donegal for his work. “I pray the culture and this island lives on because it’s my passion.” Rodgers is survived by his wife Caitlin and their four children. – M.G. ♦
Editor’s Note: On behalf of the team at Irish America Magazine, we would like to publicly apologize and to extend our condolences to Joan Moran, wife of Tom Moran who we eulogized in the previous edition of the magazine as we neglected to mention that she survives Tom.