Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2012), Letters, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 20

Sir,—I refer to Seán Kelleher’s letter (HI, Sept./Oct. 2012) about my chapter on Kilmichael in David Fitzpatrick’s (ed.) Terror in Ireland. Mr Kelleher argues that Jack Hennessy’s Bureau of Military History (BMH) statement contains an account of a false surrender by the Auxiliaries, while simultaneously asserting that such surrender caused the ‘fatal wounding of three Volunteers’. Mr Kelleher is simply misreading the evidence he cites. Readers can now access Hennessy’s statement for themselves on-line here:


Hennessy says that ‘Vice Comdt McCarthy had got a bullet through his head and lay dead’ before the incident which Mr Kelleher wrongly insists was the ‘false surrender’. Furthermore, nowhere does Hennessy attribute the flying column’s fatalities to foul play by the Auxiliaries. Nor did Father Chisholm put ‘words into the mouths of the men’. It was Jack O’Sullivan who brought up the subject of Michael McCarthy’s bravery as a soldier in his interview with Father Chisholm, and who insisted that it was wrong to say that McCarthy stood up during the ambush.


It is equally absurd to blame Father Chisholm for creating discord among West Cork veterans. There is documentary evidence that from the mid-1930s onwards there was dissension among veterans of the West Cork Brigade. Mr Kelleher’s own father, for example, was a member of an Old IRA veterans’ organisation founded by Tom Barry as a rival to the existing West Cork body headed by Liam Deasy and Flor Begley. Deasy’s papers also show that there was dissatisfaction with Tom Barry’s memoir Guerilla days in Ireland (published in 1949) long before the rows that followed the publication of Liam Deasy’s Towards Ireland free in 1974. This alternative version of the Kilmichael ambush, which I discussed in my chapter, was given by Kilmichael veterans to the BMH and has always existed locally. As I noted, Liam Deasy’s nephew, Liam Deasy (whose uncle Pat Deasy was killed in the ambush), never accepted the ‘false surrender’ story.


In recent years local historians, history groups and relatives of Kilmichael veterans have become more active in promoting an alternative version of events. In 2010 the Kilmichael Historical Society Journal published an account of the Kilmichael ambush—similar to the one from Paddy O’Brien reproduced in Towards Ireland free—that did not include the false surrender. This article also gives a different sequence of the IRA deaths as a result of the ambush, as does a monument erected by the society in 2007 at Buttimer’s farmhouse, where the IRA casualties were taken after the ambush: ‘Jim O’Sullivan died during the ambush. Michael McCarthy died on the journey here. Pat Deasy passed away at Buttimer’s at 10pm.’


At the monument’s unveiling, local historian Seán Crowley remarked that the society’s research into the sequence of their deaths was in line with the ‘very first report on the ambush, written by Tom Barry himself’. This was a reference to the ‘Rebel Commandant’s Report’ reproduced in the British Army history Record of the rebellion in Ireland, which critics of Peter Hart argue (wrongly) is a forgery. In his speech, Mr Crowley paid tribute to McCarthy, O’Sullivan and Deasy: ‘Let us dwell briefly and thoughtfully on the three victims of this engagement, mindful too of the victims on the other side’. Mr Crowley’s reflections are no less patriotic than Mr Kelleher’s, but they are more humane:


‘There is an old saying that the brave and courageous soldier hates war, in that it causes great trauma, loss and hurt to the innocent as well as the combatants. The Irish War of Independence was no exception and the Kilmichael ambush, which was one of the most important engagements in the struggle, is a prime example of this.’


Obviously, there are people in West Cork who are more prepared than Mr Kelleher to accept the reality of war and, in so doing, acknowledge the true extent of the sacrifice made by the men he admires.—Yours etc.,




Sir,—I am the son of Ned Young, the last surviving veteran of the 28 November 1920 Kilmichael ambush. Eve Morrison’s chapter on the ambush in David Fitzpatrick’s Terror in Ireland 1916–1923 gives rise to serious questions concerning Peter Hart’s The IRA and its enemies (1998). Morrison’s response to Niall Meehan’s review of the book (at concerns me directly, as does her false claim that Hart interviewed my father.
Further serious issues arise for Fr John Chisholm. He allowed Hart (and for thirteen years afterwards no other historian) access to taped interviews with War of Independence veterans. These were obtained by Fr Chisholm as research for Liam Deasy’s 1973 memoir, Toward Ireland free, which Fr Chisholm edited. Hart reported the veterans anonymously. Hart also claimed to have personally interviewed two additional anonymous veterans of the ambush in 1988–9, when only one, my father Ned, was alive. My father, however, suffered a debilitating stroke late in 1986 and was incapable of giving an interview at the time Hart claimed to have been conducting them.
There is more to discuss concerning my father. Hart reported three anonymous ambush veterans discussing Kilmichael on Fr Chisholm’s tapes. We now know that there were only two and that one of them was Ned Young, my father. Meehan pointed out these two new anomalies in his review. Morrison ignored them. Morrison in addition misreported a telephone conversation with me in her response to Meehan. I refute emphatically Morrison’s assertions, in a statement available on
Finally, I would like to address Fr Chisholm’s role. I wrote to him in 2008 and asked whether he possessed a recording of my father. He replied that he did not, though he remembered my father ‘with affection as a man of real character’. Fr Chisholm’s statement was not accurate because he gave such a taped interview with my father to Eve Morrison in 2011. I join Liam Deasy’s eldest daughter, Maureen Deasy (who typed her father’s manuscript), in calling for all of the tapes (without exception) to be placed in a public archive so that all researchers, not a select few, may listen to them. I demand a copy of my father’s taped interview, in full.
Peter Hart has done more damage to the profession of history than almost any other revisionist historian. Historians such as Morrison and Fitzpatrick are free to continue to defend him as they see fit. The ensuing controversy when they do so will expose to students of Irish history a pathway they should not take. Hart’s attempt to instil retrospective dissension between veterans has failed, as has his attempt to portray the War of Independence as sectarian in intent and practice.—Yours etc.,
Kilmichael (again!)
Sir,—I see that the last issue of HI had two more letters on the subject of the Kilmichael ambush [… and two more in this issue!]. I wonder whether any other subject has occupied more space in the letters pages over the years? Surely the issue of the ‘false surrender’ can be laid to rest? I appreciate that it is not the facts of the event but rather the ideological differences between adherents of the differing interpretations that lie behind the bitter arguments.
Nonetheless, is it necessary to make so much of this particular point? Frankly, it is quite conceivable that in the chaos and din of battle some Auxiliaries tried to surrender whilst others fought on unaware. Can anyone doubt that Barry was ruthless enough to execute surrendered men or that there were Auxiliaries who would have taken advantage of any opportunity that arose from a perceived surrender? So either is plausible but personally I consider the false surrender the less likely. By the time this is alleged to have happened the first lorry-load of Auxiliaries were dead or immobilised, so the remaining nine men (probably rather fewer by that stage) would have been surrounded on all sides by 30 to 40 IRA men. What possible advantage would have been gained by using a false surrender? Their lorry was unusable and they were hardly likely to be able to break through and get away. Their only alternatives were to fight on until they could do so no longer or to surrender. As experienced soldiers they would instinctively have known that, whatever chance of survival they might have in surrendering, they would have none if they abused that option.
Whatever the truth of the matter, it is a rather unimportant side issue. The main issue is that Barry planned and led a brilliant guerilla attack that achieved all its objectives. It was a significant psychological and propaganda victory even if its purely military consequences were limited. That there was another way to handle the matter was shown by the Ballinalee ambush on 2 February 1921, when Seán MacEoin successfully attacked two lorries with seventeen Auxiliaries aboard. The latter surrendered when they ran out of ammunition. MacEoin treated them well and, having disarmed them, allowed the survivors and their dead to leave in one lorry. Both ambushes were successful but the latter clearly looks better in hindsight. I have no idea whether Barry, at a much later date, in attempting to mitigate the savagery of Kilmichael, embellished some incident to justify the slaughter. Surely the truth can never be known for sure and this will remain open to interpretation.—Yours etc.,
Codford, England

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