Tom Barry and the Kilmichael Ambush

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2005), Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 13

In the last issue (HI 13.4, July/August 2005) Peter Hart stated that my views ‘are summed up in the subtitle’ of my biography of Tom Barry—IRA Freedom Fighter. Having researched Barry’s life and career for some years, I believe the title is apt. Whether we agree or disagree, he spent a great part of his life fighting and seeking freedom from British rule for the citizens of the entire island of Ireland. Hart also takes issue with me for stating that Volunteers were fighting for Irish freedom. They fought to establish the freedom from British rule that the Irish people voted for in overwhelming numbers in 1918 (and subsequently). As in other areas, Peter Hart sides with the British position on this point, so perhaps that is why he has difficulty with the concept of Irish freedom.


Without going into details of ‘the political rationale’ of why people reacted to the Tory-dominated government’s policy in Ireland plus the suppression of all that was nationalistic, including the democratically elected First Dáil, let’s take a brief look at what Hart calls the ‘rationale’ of some West Cork people ‘at the time’. On the 49th anniversary of the Kilmichael ambush in 1969, Brian Farrell presented an RTÉ TV programme. He spoke to members of Cork No. 3 brigade. ‘Why?’, Brian Farrell asked. Jack Hennessy, Kilmichael participant, replied:

‘The only thing we wanted was to get rid of the enemy in our midst. No matter what happened after that [Kilmichael] we felt we had done our bit. That was our objective. It was mine anyway. I had no other objective except to get rid of the enemy.’

Christy O’Connell replied: ‘We were under foreign domination . . . We still have partition’. Tom Barry said: ‘People who weren’t born then will never, never appreciate the spirit . . . [of] the people . . . We were a subject race’. There are many more I could quote, including numerous participants whom I, and others such as radio presenters, interviewed. Though the men’s method of expressing their motives may differ, the summation of their reasons amounts to ‘freedom from British rule’. Men and women of that period volunteered in the fight for independence, hoping to eliminate the many forms of injustice, oppression and poverty in the Ireland of the time. A mental transposition is necessary to understand the complexities under which that war was fought. Peter Hart’s statistics do not encapsulate the human hardships the Volunteers endured. Words are sometimes inadequate to describe harsh winter nights ‘on the run’, being tired, cold, wet, hungry, wounded or tortured. (In the light of subsequent evidential findings [see below], Brian Murphy suggested recently that Peter Hart’s statistics should be re-examined.)

Barry’s achievement

Tom Barry’s record of achievement stands, despite Peter Hart’s insistence that he was (a) ‘a minor character’ and (b) ‘contributed little to the development of the IRA’. Hart’s assertion that Barry ‘wasn’t involved in organisational or political work’ is incomprehensible. His organisational ability, tactics and strategy during the War of Independence have been studied worldwide. It wasn’t the length of time spent in the Volunteers but the quality of his contribution that determines his achievements. From his initiation (1920) into the Volunteers he became an anchorman, attended brigade council meetings, was brigade-training officer, flying column commander, was consulted by GHQ, and among numerous activities he participated in the First Southern Division’s formation. His set-up of 104 men into seven sections to spectacularly break through a surprise encirclement of 1,200 British military at Crossbarry is a landmark in Irish history and an internationally recognised stroke of military ingenuity.

‘Rebel commandant’s report’

While continuing to insist that Barry wrote the ‘rebel commandant’s report’ (Imperial War Museum) on the Kilmichael ambush, Hart says that if it was ‘a British propaganda’ report ‘they would have done it to smear the guerrillas in some way’. He answers his own question: ‘if they forged it, why wasn’t it released to the public?’ It didn’t ‘smear’ the IRA because the ambush commander (Barry) was supposed to have written it. Black propaganda was neither its motivation nor its requirement. If the British had acquired a report written by Barry, there would have been no need for Cope, assistant under-secretary in Ireland, personally to visit and ask Barry directly for one after the Truce. Cope asked Barry for a ‘written statement that the IRA had killed the Auxiliaries in Kilmichael’ as this ‘was essential before the British government could pay compensation to the dependants’. Barry refused. A.J.S. (Stephen) Brady, solicitor’s assistant in T.P. Granger, solicitors, who handled compensation claims on behalf of the Auxiliary families, said that Barry’s refusal of Cope’s request meant that the invention of ‘an alternative’ was necessary for compensation payment.
I have analysed the ‘report’ in detail in my book and do not agree that Barry would have written it in the manner presented. To try to prove his point that the ‘report’ was not a forgery Hart looks for ‘precedent and pattern’. Certainly, these are missing. There was no precedent for the Kilmichael ambush: (a) it was the first ambush that the British recognised as a ‘military operation’, and (b) there ‘were no survivors to testify in court’. (The one survivor, Forde, was incapacitated in military hospital at the time.) Hart, insisting that Barry wrote the report, comes ‘to the conclusion that there was no false surrender’ because it is not mentioned in the ‘report’. Yet he accepts there was a surrender, although this is not mentioned in the ‘report’ either. If there was no surrender, it was a fight to the finish. If there was a falsified surrender, it was also a fight to the finish. Either way no prisoners were taken.

Time and circumstance

The report in the Strickland papers was typed after the July 1921 truce, as the military’s introduction states that the ambush was ‘the worst on record throughout the whole rebellion in Ireland’. Their follow-up report (same document) mentions Barry as being ‘afterwards appointed liaison officer for the 6th divisional area’. Furthermore, this undated typewritten collection’s title is an indication of when it was compiled: ‘The Irish Rebellion in the 6th Divisional Area from after the 1916 Rebellion to December 1921’. On 17 June 1921 Dublin Castle had requested from British army authorities a copy of the court of inquiry into the Auxiliaries’ deaths. Following correspondence throughout June, July, August and September, the report did not reach Dublin Castle until 5 October 1921. After all documentation was assembled, including proof of the ambush, then awards that the court had granted were paid to dependants and relatives.
Peter Hart accuses me and other ‘Kilmichael critics’ of practising a ‘faith-based or creationist history’ because, among his list of prescriptions, he says we do not examine ‘the evidence’. But the ‘report’ conflicts with evidential facts in several areas. For instance, there is one vital nugget of ‘evidence’ that Hart omitted (for reasons he has yet to explain). After the ambush Barry climbed to where two men (Michael McCarthy and Jim O’Sullivan) had fallen. They were dead, and Pat Deasy was bleeding profusely from bullet wounds. As Barry had to refuse his comrade’s dying wish for water, he turned away. Barry ordered men to get a stretcher for him and others to get a priest and doctor. Later, before they left the ambush scene, Barry halted the column in front of the rock where the two dead Volunteers’ bodies lay, and had them ‘present arms’. Having witnessed this scene, if Barry had composed the alleged report he would not have written: ‘Our casualties were: one killed, and two who have subsequently died of wound . . .’.

If there are a number of strange errors, there are also two telling additions, attesting to British after-the-fact knowledge unknown to Barry. How could Barry have known that the Auxiliary who escaped is ‘now missing’ (a transposition from the British report)? Furthermore, Barry elsewhere attested that seventeen Auxiliaries were dead on the road. This was incorrect, as one was severely wounded and left for dead. The ‘report’ correctly attests to ‘sixteen of the enemy . . . being killed’. In other words, the ‘report’ correctly attests to British casualties (and also to arms captures) known to the British but unknown to Barry, while it incorrectly states facts about Irish casualties that were known to Barry but (clearly) unknown to the British. On this basis alone the document is suspect.
Hart misrepresents the position when he says that I ‘argued’ that ‘after-action reports were not even written during the war’, and says it ‘reveals a sad ignorance of the IRA and of the archives’. I am aware of after-ambush reports and have used them in my work. But this particular after-action ‘report’ (IWM) on Kilmichael lacks the hallmark of authenticity. Moreover, the time and the need to write a report are absent, because on the night of the ambush (28 November 1920) Barry gave a verbal report to fellow officer Charlie Hurley, who conveyed it to Pat Deasy’s brother Liam; he spent the next few days and nights zigzagging his column through fields and glens to avoid capture, then collapsed with a heart problem and remained in hospital until 29 December. Hart also says that reports were ‘written in abundance in West Cork and elsewhere before and after the ambush’. I doubt if it is my ‘sad ignorance’ that does not allow me to accept that reports were written prior to an ambush, giving due notification, as the greatest problem that Barry and the Volunteers had was the industriousness of spies and informers. While Peter Hart accuses me and his ‘letter-writing critics’ (HI 13.3, May/June 2005) of not dealing with ‘the substance of the evidence’ of the Kilmichael ambush ‘in a rational way’, he himself has rejected ‘the evidence’ of Lionel Curtis (1921), General Crozier (Auxiliary forces commander 1920–1) and other contemporary writers who have stated that there was a false surrender.

Tom Barry heads the survivors of the Kilmichael ambush at the site in 1966.

Tom Barry heads the survivors of the Kilmichael ambush at the site in 1966.

Square brackets

Hart quotes ‘a witness’ from his own notes, taken, it appears, at the time: ‘No, there was no such thing as a [false] surrender . . .’. In response to a question as to whether ‘the two Auxiliaries got up and surrendered’, the man replied: ‘Oh, they did . . .’. There is a dilemma here. First, the unnamed man says that there was no surrender—therefore it was a fight to its conclusion. Then he says that the Auxiliaries surrendered, but we are not told whether he was asked if the Auxiliaries’ comrades picked up their guns and recommenced firing, thereby falsifying the surrender. To make matters worse, Peter Hart has inserted ‘[false]’. But the man did not imply that. He said ‘there was no such thing as a surrender   . . .’. (One is the antithesis of the other—not clarification, as square brackets generally denote.) Of course, stating that there was no genuine surrender does not rule out the implication of a false one (which is not an actual surrender, but the opposite of one).

Anonymous information

By not revealing the names of what he calls his ‘informants’ (Rifleman AA, 3 April, 25 June 1988; Scout AF, 19 Nov. 1989) Peter Hart does not ‘deal with the evidence in a rational way’—an accusation he levels at me. He keeps them anonymous, he says, as ‘this allowed them to speak more freely’. The problem is that in speaking ‘freely’ scout AF tells about activities witnessed during the ambush—but the date Hart gives for this interview is long after known Kilmichael scouts and known riflemen were dead. While audibility might be possible from well over 200 yards away, the scouts’ ability to see detailed military action would be extremely unlikely, given the nature of the terrain. It is a question of the credibility of ‘the evidence’ the ‘informants’ supplied. When Peter Hart names his deceased witnesses, which he needs to do, the cloud of controversy will be lifted. There is no sensitive material here that requires confidentiality. Barry had no problem in stating that it was ‘a vicious battle, a bloody battle . . . probably the bloodiest fight in Ireland’. As I’ve noted in my book, ‘For as long as they lived, those who fought in the Kilmichael ambush, while left with a vivid memory could and did recall its awfulness’.
Peter Hart reduces the conflict to one between Barry and his anonymous informants. I quote directly by name the evidence of Volunteers in the same section who fought beside Volunteers shot after the false surrender and final ceasefire. If he is to be consistent in his argument, Peter Hart is accusing these men of not telling the truth. In fact he appears to be accusing an entire body of Volunteers, excluding his anonymous informants, of maintaining a consistent cover-up from the date of the ambush. This is a point he needs to address.

‘Old trick’

Hart asks why Barry ordered ‘the killing of surrendered or wounded men’. After Volunteers accepted the surrender call, and when the Auxiliaries reactivated the fight, fatally wounding Volunteers, Barry, the commander, took up the challenge. ‘We had to; if three or four more of our lads stood up they’d have got it too. I couldn’t take the chance that they wouldn’t grab a gun’, said Barry, who never evaded accepting responsibility and spent a lifetime regretting not warning his men of ‘the old trick of a false surrender’. Because the Auxiliaries falsified their surrender, they forfeited their position as prisoners, so it was a fight to the finish.
Hart writes that ‘Ryan . . . sloughs’ the controversy between Liam Deasy and Barry. I’ve dealt with it in two different areas of my book—one stretching to almost five pages. Further, he accuses me of not using ‘new evidence available on the ambush’ because he says it doesn’t ‘support’ my claim or ‘Barry’s’. The Bureau of Military History (BMH) collection (to which I presume Hart is referring) had not been released at the time my manuscript (for hardback) went to the publishers.

Bureau of Military History false surrender account

This collection contains the contribution of five Kilmichael ambush participants. None of them explicitly mentioned a surrender, false or otherwise. (Unless participants were pressed specifically on a particular point, they tended not to mention it.) Jack Hennessy, who doesn’t mention the sidecar or other relevant details or sequence of events, was in no. 2 section, where the three Volunteers were fatally wounded. He mentions that when the Auxies got out of the second lorry and into positions, he was ‘engaging them on the road’. He doesn’t mention that Barry and command post men had come to the area behind these Auxies, but says:

‘We heard three blasts of the O/C’s [Barry’s] whistle. I heard the three blasts and got up from my position, shouting “hands up”. At the same time one of the Auxies about five yards from me drew his revolver. He had thrown down his rifle. I pulled on him and shot him dead. I got back to cover where I remained for a few minutes firing at living and dead Auxies on the road. The column O/C sounded his whistle again. Nearly all the Auxies had been wiped out.’

This is a false surrender—after the ceasefire whistle was blown, an Auxie who had thrown down his rifle ‘drew his revolver’.
West of Bandon killings
Peter Hart, who accuses me of ‘ignorance and prejudice’, again refers to ‘the IRA’s massacre’ of thirteen Protestants in April 1922 west of Bandon, which he has linked in his book with the Kilmichael ambush.

‘They were as much a part of the reality of violence as the killings at Kilmichael. The patterns of perception and victimisation they reveal are of a piece with the whole revolution.’

Pushing it further, he states that they ‘were shot because they were Protestants’. If Hart applied his own five ‘principles’ of ‘analysis’ he would find that the men were not killed because they were Protestants.
It is not known exactly who killed them, as Hart admits in his book. In my book I’ve dealt with this action, which provoked IRA condemnation. Following the truce an amnesty existed for spies and informers. Except for two individuals, all the names of those killed were on a list of ‘helpful citizens’ left by Auxiliaries in the Dunmanway workhouse. The exception was the brother of one informer and the son of another. The documentation confirmed the existence in the Dunmanway/Bandon hinterland of a Loyalist action group, who colluded with the British military and actively collaborated in brutality against locals. One cannot justify Peter Hart’s assessment that ‘These were revenge killings on many levels’ with the ‘probabilities’ of a ‘desire for vengeance’ because the ‘minority population of West Cork were seen not only as past enemies and current undesirables but also as a future fifth column in the struggle . . .’. With the available evidence it is impossible to reconcile Hart’s generalisations of ‘ethnic intolerance’ or of ‘ethnic cleansing’ being ‘embedded in the Irish revolution’, leading to ‘the final reckoning of the ancient conflict between settlers and natives’ or of ‘righting old wrongs’. His conception of intolerant relations between Catholics and Protestants in West Cork during the War of Independence is not supported by the evidence. To link what happened in April 1922 with the Kilmichael ambush, and to go further and state that this was an orchestrated IRA ‘massacre’, is to misrepresent this sensitive issue and, in doing so, to do an injustice to all concerned and to the historical facts.

Meda Ryan’s Tom Barry: IRA Freedom Fighter (Mercier Press) is now available in paperback.


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