The Kilmichael ambush and the outer limits of Irish historical revisionism

Published in Features, Issue 6 (November/December 2020), Volume 28

In this the centenary year of the Kilmichael ambush it is perhaps timely to reflect on Peter Hart’s reinterpretation and how he arrived at his conclusions.

By John Regan

Twenty-two years ago, Canadian-born historian the late Peter Hart stirred up controversy with his iconoclastic reinterpretation of the famous ambush at Kilmichael. The storm followed the publication of Hart’s book The IRA and its enemies: violence and community in Cork 1916–23 (Oxford, 1998), which then and since has been heralded as an ‘instant classic’ by some leading Irish historians. Hart’s book represented the high-water mark of post-1970 ‘revisionist’ writing. It demonstrated a thoroughgoing, scholarly methodology, drawing on an immense range of sources. All of this was underpinned with a comprehensive statistical analysis that exploded the time-honoured nationalist myth of the IRA’s glorious war for independence. A central plank in Hart’s bold revision was his description of the IRA killing defenceless RIC Auxiliaries who had attempted to surrender at the end of the ambush. Few would deny that Kilmichael was a ‘massacre’, with all but one of the Auxiliaries shot or bludgeoned to death. What caused controversy was Hart’s challenge to the account given by IRA commander Tom Barry in his 1949 memoir Guerrilla days in Ireland, which Hart said was ‘riddled with lies and evasions’. The controversy surrounding Kilmichael has never gone away, as later historians have attempted to vindicate Hart’s research as state-of-the-art or alternatively to establish that it is deeply flawed.

Representative of the IRA’s war as a whole

As is well known, some 54 combatants fought at Kilmichael on 28 November 1920, leaving three IRA volunteers and sixteen Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) Auxiliary cadets dead. Drawn from ex-British military officers, the Auxiliaries were a heavily armed gendarmerie especially recruited to supress the rebellion in Ireland, where they acted almost with impunity. While in the context of the Great War Kilmichael was little more than a skirmish, in republican lore the ambush represents the triumph of a hastily mustered citizens’ army over the shock troops of the British Empire. In that sense it came to represent the IRA’s war as a whole.

In his memoir, Hart observed, Barry claimed that when, during the ambush, shooting had halted and some of the Auxiliaries were offering surrender, firing opened up again from the Auxiliaries’ positions, killing two IRA volunteers. Following this treacherous false surrender, Barry said, he ordered that no quarter be given, and all but one of the remaining Auxiliaries were killed. Suffering horrendous wounds, cadet Freddy Forde was left for dead on the road by the IRA, but he survived the November rains and frost until rescue arrived the next day. Among some republicans another version of the ambush circulated which omitted mention of any ‘false surrender’, implying to an overly sensitive Barry that he had ‘exterminated’ his prisoners without just cause. This latter narrative better fitted Hart’s revision because he said that Kilmichael belonged to the IRA’s ignominious war, characterised by violence targeting vulnerable minorities, sectarian killings and ethnic cleansing leading to the expulsion of more than 11,000 of Cork’s Protestants during the revolutionary years.

False dichotomy

Hart made two contentions about Kilmichael: first, that Barry adopted his version of the false-surrender story only as late as 1949 to retrospectively justify his brutal actions and, second, that accounts of the ambush taken from IRA veterans confirmed that events did not happen as Barry described them. Misreadings of what Hart wrote later provoked fruitless debates over the false dichotomy of whether there was or was not a false surrender. As we shall see, Hart accepted that there was a false surrender of sorts but that it did not happen as Barry described it.

To establish that Barry misrepresented events, Hart had to overcome two significant evidential problems. Despite repeated claims to the contrary, and unanswered requests to provide them, no verifiable testimonies have ever emerged from eyewitnesses categorically refuting Barry’s account. And again, despite claims to the contrary, Barry’s account was broadly endorsed in contemporary British sources long before Barry published his memoir. A brief examination of how Hart overcame these evidential problems proves enlightening.

The fallacy of negative proof

Several ‘omissions’ heightened Hart’s suspicions about the accuracy of Barry’s story. Supposedly authored by Barry after the ambush and captured by the British army, a document known as ‘The rebel commander’s report’ made no reference to any false surrender. Hart thought this odd. More curious still, neither did an account published by Barry in a 1932 newspaper article. Hart took the negative evidence that the false surrender was missing from earlier accounts to suggest that Barry adopted the story in 1949. As with so many other issues arising in Hart’s work, the problem identified here is logic—to be precise, ‘the fallacy of negative proof’, which attempts to sustain a factual proposition by advancing negative evidence. The absence of evidence proves only that there is an absence of evidence. It does not prove that something did not happen or does not exist. Where it is argued, for example, that witness statements given to the Bureau of Military History by IRA veterans which do not mention the false surrender prove beyond doubt that no false surrender happened (never Hart’s argument), we see the fallacy of negative proof at work.

Negative-proof arguments typically run into difficulties when they confront positive evidence. To Barry’s documented fury, it later emerged, the story of the false surrender in his 1932 account of the ambush was removed by an over-enthusiastic editor. As for ‘The rebel commander’s report’, it incorrectly identifies the ambushers’ positions, their numerical strength and casualties. Other than that the document is a forgery, there has never been a satisfactory explanation for these anomalies. Between 1932 and 1949, Barry’s account of the ambush was to all appearances consistent.

Above: Map detailing events during the Kilmichael ambush from data compiled by Mike Murphy from multiple primary and secondary sources, combined with site survey using Trimble GPS and GIS mapping equipment. (Atlas of the Irish Revolution, p. 410)

Early British accounts of a false surrender

As early as June 1921, following a fact-finding visit to Ireland, the story that Barry would later endorse was first reported in the Commonwealth journal The Round Table by no less an Oxford historian than Lionel Curtis, whose account ‘was obtained from a trustworthy source in the district’. Hart somehow overlooked Curtis’s account, but he did quote Brigadier-General Frank Crozier’s 1932 memoir, Ireland for ever.

Crozier, the commander-in-chief of the Auxiliary Division in 1920, wrote that ‘the wounded had been put to death after the ambush, but the reason for this barbarous inhumanity became understandable … Arms were supposed to have been surrendered, but a wounded Auxiliary whipped out a revolver while lying on the ground and shot a “Shinner”.’ Clearly, there was nothing novel or particularly partisan about the broad sweep of Barry’s account of the ambush. Again, though some authorities on Hart say otherwise, Hart never said that Barry invented the false-surrender story. Quoting Crozier, how could he? Rather, Hart split hairs by saying that in matters of detail Barry’s account was different from those given by the veterans he had interviewed. Nevertheless, Hart had to overcome the inconvenient fact that in 1932 a British account of the ambush anticipated Barry’s.

In his memoir, Crozier recalled journeying to Cork ‘to find out the truth about the carnage’, which statement Hart qualifies in his book with an ingenious footnote:

‘It is clear that Crozier picked up this information—which certainly does have an authentic ring to it—after he had resigned [from the Auxiliaries in February 1921] and after he had become persona grata to republican leaders such as Michael Collins. Much of the material in his book clearly came from this source.’

Before Collins’s death in August 1922, Crozier recorded meeting him twice, ‘once for five minutes, [and] again for half-an-hour’. It may well be that the republican leadership was Crozier’s source, but there could be nothing ‘clear’ about when Crozier was told the false-surrender story because Crozier does not say. Suggesting that the false surrender originated with Irish republican propagandists like Michael Collins, the function of Hart’s ingenious footnote is to divert our gaze from the possibility that the false-surrender story was confirmed in the only British account of the ambush available.

Visiting Cork, Crozier’s more obvious source was Freddy Forde, the sole Auxiliary survivor, who in December 1920 was recovering in hospital. It seems inconceivable that in trying to establish what had happened at Kilmichael Crozier (or Curtis for that matter) would not consult Forde. Hart was, of course, entitled to speculate that republicans like Michael Collins later told Crozier the IRA version of events, but not when a dozen pages earlier Hart wrote that ‘British investigators … had been able to piece together some of what happened from … [Forde] the wounded survivor’. What were Crozier and Curtis if not ‘British investigators’? Hart’s interpretation of Kilmichael is self-contradictory, confused and inconsistent. Whether Forde was Curtis’s and Crozier’s source or not, as early as 1921, and at the expense of their dead fallen comrades, the British placed their confidence in the story that Barry would tell years after.

Oral testimony

Hart solved his second evidential problem, establishing Barry’s ‘lies and evasions’, by quoting oral testimony from an IRA veteran whom he recorded in Cork in 1989. To be sure, the event on which Hart and Barry disagree is not the false surrender. In a footnote, Hart paraphrased the anonymised IRA eyewitness, ‘AF’, as saying that there was ‘a sort of false surrender’, which statement Hart naturally accepted. Rather, the disagreement between Hart’s and Barry’s accounts emerged from new evidence introduced by AF, which is conspicuously missing from Barry’s story. AF said ‘that no IRA men died as a result’ of the ‘sort of false-surrender’ he witnessed. Barry, on the other hand, claimed that two of his men were killed and this became the all-important moral justification for his order to fight to the end. On this detail, AF’s eyewitness testimony was gold-dust for Hart’s reinterpretation, but Hart relegated it to a footnote. Again, there are problems. Outside of Ireland, historians do not usually rely on unverifiable oral sources. Moreover, independent scholar Meda Ryan established that Hart dated his interview with AF after all the IRA’s Kilmichael veterans were dead. Replying to Ryan’s discovery, Hart said that ‘she … isn’t interested in dealing with the substance of the evidence in a rational way’ (History Ireland 13.2, March/April 2005, p. 50). Inside the academy, this remark established a new tone for the debate surrounding Hart’s research. In a television interview with Jerry O’Callaghan, broadcast in 2011 on TG4, Hart conceded that he was unable to establish AF’s bona fides and that, however ‘unlikely’, it was possible that AF could have been a ‘fantasist’ impersonating a veteran. Not only did Hart’s critics not know whom he interviewed but neither, it seems, did Hart. Overcoming his two evidential problems allowed Hart to say that the ‘surviving Auxiliaries were simply “exterminated”’, but there was nothing simple about the way Hart arrived at this conclusion.

In what has recently come to be known as the ‘Peter Hart affair’, the Kilmichael controversy did us a disservice in diverting attention away from the ‘demographic debate’, which had far wider implications. At the end of his 1998 book, Hart claimed that thousands of Protestants ‘left permanently in 1921 and 1922, rapidly reducing the Protestant minority in Cork to nearly half its pre-revolutionary size [my emphasis]’. Maintaining that there was mass forced Protestant migration, Hart revised the nationalist revolution, emphasising that in the south it was driven by naked sectarianism. Barry Keane’s critically important article ‘Ethnic cleansing? Protestant decline in West Cork between 1911 and 1926’ (History Ireland 20.2, March/April 2012, pp 35–8) established that there was no substance to Hart’s claims, at least in West Cork. Keane also provoked a revision of Hart’s thesis. Nobody, least of all Hart’s doctoral supervisor, the late David Fitzpatrick, has been able to find evidence to verify Hart’s ambitious claims for Protestant demographic decline in Cork or the rest of southern Ireland. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, in some quarters Hart’s methodology is still held up as the shining beacon of Irish historical scholarship.

John Regan lectures in History and Information Studies at the University of Dundee.

FURTHER READING

D. Fitzpatrick, Descendancy: Irish Protestant histories since 1795 (Cambridge, 2014).

R. Forster, The Irish story: telling tales and making it up in Ireland (Oxford, 2002).

B. Lewis, History: remembered, recovered, invented (New Jersey, 1975).

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