Kilmichael ambush

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 5 (Sept/Oct 2012), Letters, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 20

Sir,—In his review of Terror in Ireland (HI 20.3, May/June 2012) Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc maintains that my chapter about the Kilmichael ambush failed to address the ‘wider debate about historiography’ and the ‘serious questions regarding Hart’s methodology, and in particular his claim to have interviewed an unnamed Kilmichael veteran at a time when all known participants in the ambush were dead’.
This is not true. I named all of Hart’s interviewees except one, an unidentified scout. Hart’s critics have insinuated that, as all ‘known participants’ in the ambush were dead by the dates he gave for one of his interviews, he must have fabricated the evidence. The real problem, however, was not Hart’s methodology but the assumption that all the Kilmichael participants had been identified. My chapter identified three previously unknown participants (Michael O’Dwyer, Tim Keohane and Cornelius Kelleher) whose names have come to light since this accusation was made. Michael O’Dwyer was named as a Kilmichael participant by Barry himself. Keohane’s presence at the ambush was verified by his company captain, and he was recommended to the Bureau of Military History (BMH) as a credible interviewee by Liam Deasy and Dan Holland, two former Cork III Brigade officers. Holland and Deasy were also members of the local Old IRA committee in West Cork who verified military service pension applications. Kelleher was a dispatch carrier who made an unsuccessful attempt to reach the ambush. The obvious significance of Kelleher’s testimony is not that he might have taken part in the ambush but simply that, if one previously unknown dispatch carrier was sent to the ambush site, it is perfectly possible that others could have been there as well. There is no definitive list of Kilmichael veterans, and no way of establishing when the last one died. There could be others yet.
Ó Ruairc also suggests that the testimonies of Ned Young and Tim Keohane support Barry’s version of events. This is not so. None of the interviews used by Hart or myself—apart from one article by Stephen O’Neill—do. It was only after considerable coaxing by Father Chisholm that Young would even discuss the circumstances surrounding the decision to execute all the Auxiliaries rather than take prisoners. Eventually Young would only confirm that he was told the ‘false surrender’ story after the ambush but made clear that he had not witnessed it nor heard any cries of surrender himself. Keohane’s BMH account says nothing about a false surrender. He states that ‘some’ of the Auxiliaries threw down their rifles. This is confirmed by Jack Hennessy’s statement. Keohane says this was in response to Barry’s call for them to surrender, but that Volunteers from no. 2 section were again fired on as they moved onto the road (Hennessy and John Lordan were wounded by this fire). This might have been an attempt by some—not all—of the Auxiliaries to surrender. Alternatively, one or more of the Auxiliaries might simply have thrown down their rifles because they were out of ammunition. Neither Keohane nor Hennessy suggest that there was anything ‘false’ or devious about it.
Keohane also states that the three Volunteer fatalities—Michael McCarthy, Jim O’Sullivan and Pat Deasy—had been killed or fatally wounded before this incident happened. This explicitly contradicts Barry’s false surrender story, because Barry maintained that some or all of these Volunteers lost their lives because they stood up.
Finally, there is James ‘Spud’ Murphy, who fought right beside Barry. Of all the Kilmichael accounts, his is the one that should confirm Barry’s. Yet Murphy says only that they got down on their knees and fired on the Auxiliaries at the second lorry until all were dead, apart from one who escaped. This, in a nutshell, is what the evidence collectively suggests occurred. As I said in my article, evidence also suggests that—throughout the ambush—some Auxiliaries attempted to, or did, surrender. None of those surrenders were accepted.
Ó Ruairc is right to say that we will probably never know exactly what happened at Kilmichael, nor the exact circumstances informing Barry’s decision not to take prisoners. However, we can now say with assurance that virtually every other Volunteer who went on record about Kilmichael did not accept various elements of Barry’s story. Their accounts are supported by the available documentary evidence.
Regardless of whether or not one agrees with the moral and ethical conclusions Hart drew about Barry, his research into the Kilmichael ambush has been broadly vindicated.—Yours etc.,

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