Tom Barry and the Kilmichael ambush

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2005), Letters, Letters, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 13

A chara,

—The most significant controversies that have sprung up aroundthe Kilmichael ambush have revolved around two questions. The first iswhether there was or was not a false surrender by the Auxiliaries, withthe subsequent killing by the Auxiliaries of IRA men when they went totake this surrender. Tom Barry, who led the IRA ambushers atKilmichael, claimed that such a false surrender took place. The secondquestion is whether unarmed Auxiliary prisoners (possibly some wounded)were killed by the IRA in the aftermath of the ambush.
The two main pieces of evidence that Peter Hart adduces in his The IRAand its enemies (1998) for claiming that there was no false surrender(at least not as described by Barry) were a report on the ambushpurportedly written by Barry in the immediate aftermath of the ambushand information gained from interviews with veterans of the ambush. Theafter-ambush report, which was found in documents captured by theBritish, makes no mention of a false surrender. The authenticity of thereport has been called into question by a number of historians, mostparticularly by Meda Ryan in her Tom Barry: freedom fighter (2003). Thedebate on the authenticity of the report has continued in recent issuesof HI (Ryan, 13.2 and 13.4; Hart, 13.3). While there are good argumentsmade by both sides, neither side has proven the authenticity orotherwise of the report. In addition, the absence of any mention of afalse surrender does not mean that it did not happen—rather, if thereport is authentic, it merely calls it into question.
For his 1998 book, Hart says he interviewed two veterans of the ambushand had access to four other veteran interviews—three carried out byJohn Chisholm and one held by the Ballineen/Enniskeane Area HeritageGroup. Hart says that all the veterans interviewed agreed that therewas no fake surrender. As is well known, Hart will not reveal the namesof the veterans since the interviews were conducted on the basis ofconfidentiality. On the other hand, in her 2003 book on Barry, Ryanreports on interviews with at least seven veterans of the ambush whosupport Barry’s contention that there was a false surrender. Ryan namesall her interviewees.
Since the initial publication of Ryan’s book, the Bureau of MilitaryHistory (BMH) has released the almost 1,800 statements it took in the1940s and 1950s from veterans of the 1913–21 period. Among thesestatements are five given by veterans of the Kilmichael ambush—all ofwhom gave their names and gave accounts of the Kilmichael ambush. Noneof the five mention a false surrender. One veteran—Jack Hennessy—doesgive an account that is interpreted by Ryan as a false surrender (HI13.5). However, it was not a false surrender as described by Barry.Hennessy’s account (as quoted by Ryan in HI 13.5) happened after thedeath of one of the IRA men—Michael McCarthy—who Barry claimed waskilled by the Auxiliaries when he went to take their false surrender.
Ryan says (HI 13.5) that the veterans may not have mentioned the falsesurrender in their BMH statements because unless pressed on aparticular point they tended not to mention it. This may well be true.However, it is odd that all five Kilmichael veterans who gavestatements to the BMH did not mention such a significant factor as thefalse surrender, which is a central part of Barry’s account,particularly since Barry’s account would have been in the public arenaat the time that the veterans gave their statements to the BMH. (Barrypublished his best-known account of the Kilmichael ambush in the late1940s and the five Kilmichael veterans gave their statements to the BMHbetween 1953 and 1956.) Nevertheless, the absence of any mention of afalse surrender in the BMH statements does not mean that no suchsurrender took place and we are therefore left with a straight conflictof evidence between the accounts given by the veterans to their variousinterviewers. Given this conflict, it has to be concluded that it isnot proven whether there was or was not a false surrender as describedby Barry.
If the answer to the question of a false surrender is inconclusive, theevidence exists for a more definite conclusion on the question of thekilling of prisoners. This evidence would seem to suggest that one ormore unarmed prisoners were killed in the aftermath of the ambush.There are three main reasons for making this statement: one, Barry’sown statements; two, Barry’s attitude to prisoners; and three, veteraninterviews. Barry has made a number of statements about prisoners inthe context of Kilmichael that are, at best, ambivalent and, at worst,self-inculpatory. For example, Ryan has quoted Barry as saying in a1969 interview with RTÉ: ‘if they hadn’t done the false surrender . . .No! I wouldn’t have killed a prisoner’.
On one other occasion (the raid by the West Cork IRA column on Bandonon the night of 22 February 1921) Barry sanctioned (and, in his book,justified) the killing of two unarmed prisoners. The strongest evidencefor the killing of Auxiliary prisoners comes from veteran statements.For example, Hart quotes from one of the Chisholm interviewees assaying that two Auxiliaries got up with their hands in the air andsurrendered to the IRA. Both were subsequently killed. He also saysthat another Chisholm interviewee related how an Auxiliary was pulledfrom a lorry and shot. However, as mentioned above, Hart does notidentify any of the interviewees from whom he quotes. Such was not thecase with Ryan’s interviewees. In her 2003 book and in her earlier 1982book on Barry, Ryan quotes one of her interviewees—who she names in her2003 book as Jack O’Sullivan—relating how he came up behind anAuxiliary and ordered him to drop his gun, which he did. This manwalked up the road as a prisoner and he was shot dead. It should bepointed out that in Barry’s best-known account of the ambush he claimedthat all the Auxiliaries were killed in a fight to the finish aftertheir alleged false surrender.
The BMH statements by the five Kilmichael veterans do not mention anykilling of prisoners. However, if Ryan is correct in her view that BMHparticipants, unless pressed on a specific point, did not mention it,then it is much more unlikely that they would make a voluntary mentionof something that reflected as badly on them as the killing ofprisoners as opposed to mentioning a false surrender which reflectedbadly on their enemy. Despite the absence of corroborative evidencefrom the BMH statements, overall the evidence is quite strong that oneor more Auxiliary unarmed prisoners were killed in the wake of theKilmichael ambush.
Finally, some commentators have tried to link the two questions, i.e.justifying the killing of Auxiliary prisoners because they (or some oftheir fellow Auxiliaries) had given a false surrender after which theykilled IRA men who came to take the surrender. If a false surrender didoccur (and, as noted above, this is still a matter of debate) then,while it might make the killing of unarmed prisoners moreunderstandable, it could never justify them.

—Is mise,
Seamus Fox
Dublin 8
Correspondence on this issue is now closed.


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