Kilmichael Ambush left an indelible print on memories of the Volunteers

On the 100th anniversary of the Kilmichael Ambush, historian Meda Ryan details the attack that was recognised as one of the turning points in the War of Independence.
Kilmichael Ambush left an indelible print on memories of the Volunteers

Tom Barry was appointed the IRA's Brigade Training Officer in West Cork in September 1920.

The Kilmichael Ambush, November 28, 1920, was a turning point in the War of Independence.

Just a week after the Bloody Sunday atrocities in Croke Park, the nature of the attack led by Tom Barry, the tactics used, and the body count changed perceptions of the Irish insurgency in Britain.

Throughout the war, Cork was a hotbed of activity. The county was divided into three brigades — with West Cork in the 3rd Brigade area. 

Tom Barry (23) was appointed the IRA's Brigade Training Officer in West Cork in September 1920. A month later, he had risen to Official Brigade Column Commander. He asked for and was given absolute command of the Flying Column. 

His decisions would be his and his alone without interference. He would take full responsibility, and would be subject to no authority and have to take the blame for any failure or disaster.

On November 20, a council meeting discussed recent raids by the much-hated Auxiliaries based in Macroom that had been terrorising local communities.

Their tactics and ruthlessness were designed to intimidate and spread fear. They were known to drive into a village, jump out, begin shooting. Locals were beaten, men were stripped in front of women — on different occasions they shot three innocent civilians. 

It was decided action was needed. Barry returned to his Flying Column at Clogher training camp north-west of Dunmanway. Planning an ambush of the Auxiliaries, he divided the unit into sections.

With Michael McCarthy, Barry travelled on horse-back and selected an ambush position in a hilly, boggy, heather-covered area south of Kilmichael. Crossley tenders with Auxiliaries going on their rampage travelled this road daily. 

Barry decided they had to be apprehended in the stretch of road between Kilmichael and Gloun-three-crossroads where they usually branched-off in different directions.

Tom Barry, right, leading the Kilmichael Ambush anniversary march on November 26, 1934.
Tom Barry, right, leading the Kilmichael Ambush anniversary march on November 26, 1934.

At 2am on a wet Sunday, November 28, the column of 36 riflemen set out from Ahilnane, Enniskeane. At 8.15am, they arrived at Kilmichael having marched all night against the lashing November rain. They were cold, drenched, and hungry. 

Much precision went into Barry’s plan in this barren bleak countryside. At the Command Post, (eastern end) Barry directed the fight. He placed three picked fighters, John (Flyer) Nyhan, Jim (Spud) Murphy, and Mick O’Herlihy. Beside these on a 10 ft high rock No 1 Section, with 10 riflemen, were dispersed. 

No 2 Section with 10 riflemen under Michael McCarthy occupied ambush positions on the northern side of the road high up on a rocky heather-covered hill about 150 yards from No 1 Section. No 3 Section was divided. 

As an insurance against the arrival of a third lorry, six riflemen were posted to the north of the ambuscade about 20 yards from the enemy’s path. 

In a shrewd tactic, Barry placed the six remaining riflemen under section commander, Stephen O’Neill. They were distributed about 50 yards south of the road, to prevent any Auxiliaries from establishing positions. Their orders were to avoid cross-fire hitting their comrades.

In the northern side, north of Section 2, two unarmed scouts were positioned apart, with a distant view to signal enemy approach. A third unarmed scout was placed south of Command Post to signal any incursion from the Dunmanway direction.

The men were cold and hungry. Drenched clothes clung to their bodies as they lay on soggy soil. The hours dragged. The sleety rain continued as they settled behind the heather-covered rocks. They waited. As the day wore on it began to freeze, so that the clothes froze on their bodies. It was a test of endurance.

Clad in a borrowed Volunteer’s uniform, Barry stood on the road. At 4.05am, the northern scouts signalled enemy approach. A lorry, apparently observing the uniformed figure, slowed. 

Barry with Mills bomb in hand, pin pulled, hurled it, blew the whistle, and fired his automatic. The grenade landed on the driver’s seat of the open-top lorry, and exploded. Many were killed at this time, those surviving jumped out. The fighting became intense, even hand-to-hand. This encounter was short, sharp, and bloody.

A 1966 re-enactment of the Kilmichael Ambush by members of the Irish Army. 
A 1966 re-enactment of the Kilmichael Ambush by members of the Irish Army. 

Barry observed No 2 Section engaging "strongly" from their vantage point with a second lorry. Auxiliaries were crouched on the road returning fire. 

Barry beckoned his command-post men Murphy, Nyhan, and O’Herlihy to follow him. Barry with the three riflemen jogged in single file along the grass-margin with rifles at the ready. They had gone about halfway when they heard the Auxies shout: “We surrender! We surrender!” 

They kept jogging and saw some of them throw down their rifles. They continued jogging. Auxies repeated the surrender cry. Firing stopped. 

Believing it was over three Volunteers stood up, "one crouched and two upright", Barry observed. 

Suddenly the Auxies began firing with revolvers.

Realising that the Auxies had again opened fire with their revolvers, Barry shouted: “Rapid fire and do not stop until I tell you!” 

The four of them opened "rapid fire" and many of the enemy were hit at this stage. Some of No 2 Section joined in. 

Realising they were sandwiched between two groups, the Auxies again began shouting “We surrender!” However, Barry seeing what had happened, shouted “Everybody keep firing … until the Cease Fire”.

Jack Hennessy, in Section 2 said he heard the "surrender" cry and believing it was over, a few of his comrades stood up. 

In his Bureau of Military History statement, he said: "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'. 

Comdt General Tom Barry speaking at Kilmichael on September 10, 1969. 
Comdt General Tom Barry speaking at Kilmichael on September 10, 1969. 

"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." 

His description was of a false surrender: after the ceasefire whistle was blown, an Auxie who had thrown down his rifle "drew his revolver". 

After the Auxies cried "surrender" for the second time, Barry did not accept. He mistrusted their word. According to himself, he feared that more of his men would be shot in a further deception. (He accepted full responsibility for this.) 

The result was that 16 Auxiliaries were killed, one badly injured survived, and Cecil Guthrie, who escaped, was later captured and killed as he headed to alert Macroom barracks’ base.

After the ambush, Barry climbed to where he had seen his men fall. Three were fatally wounded — two due to the false surrender. Barry sent scouts for a priest and a doctor. 

Volunteers were told to collect arms and documents of the dead Auxiliaries and to pull the bodies aside, to prepare lorries for burning.

Some Volunteers were in a state of shock. Barry conscious of this and of the necessity of jerking them to reality, gave the command: "Fall in at the double". He needed discipline, fearing reinforcements’ arrival. 

Darkness fell. Wind-driven sleet battered against the men’s faces as Barry and his column trudged southwards and reached Granure cottage, 11 miles south of Kilmichael, where the Ballinacarriga Company provided tea and buttered-bread in rough conditions. 

They said prayers for their comrades and discussed the day. Then, in their rain-sodden clothes, the column lay to rest for the night. Barry went outside and spoke to scouts and sentries.

Padraig O Maidin, Cork County Librarian, left,  and Comdt General Tom Barry viewing a model of the Kilmichael ambush site on May 3, 1974. 
Padraig O Maidin, Cork County Librarian, left,  and Comdt General Tom Barry viewing a model of the Kilmichael ambush site on May 3, 1974. 

Following the ambush, word soon circulated in the area that the Auxiliaries had participated in a "false surrender". 

Soon the death of Volunteers, and the Auxies’ deceitful use of revolvers after calling and accepting surrender, became widely known. 

The following day, in the British House of Commons, Sir Hamar Greenwood said: "the Auxiliary division was composed entirely of ex-officers, selected for conspicuous merit in war". 

He confirmed the ‘C Company’ Auxiliaries who were killed in Kilmichael were commissioned officers with war experience; most had been decorated.

They clashed with the picture painted by propaganda in the British press which described them as cadets.

Tensions mounted. On December 1, a police order posted in Macroom stated: 

All males passing through Macroom shall not appear in public with their hands in their pockets. Any male infringing this order is liable to be shot at sight.

The British cabinet accepted the ambush as "a military operation" after Lloyd George sent over Sir Hamar Greenwood, chief secretary for Ireland. 

It was agreed the ambush was "of a different character from the preceding operations. The others were assassinations. This last was a military operation. There was a good deal to be said for declaring a state of siege or promulgating martial law in that corner of Ireland".

Lionel Curtis, (imperial activist and Lloyd George’s advisor) a few months later, was critical "of the absence of strict discipline" in the Auxiliary force. 

He accepted the false surrender story which he "obtained from a trustworthy source in the district".

A crowd gathered on August 9, 1970, at Kilmichael. Picture: Kilmichael Commemorations
A crowd gathered on August 9, 1970, at Kilmichael. Picture: Kilmichael Commemorations

General Crozier, Auxiliary Commander came to Ireland at the request of Sir Hamar Greenwood to give evidence on the Kilmichael ambush. He wrote what he called "the correct story":

"... the men were called upon to surrender and did so by throwing up their hands and grounding their rifles. Each policeman carried a revolver in addition to a rifle. 

"One policeman shot a Sinn Féiner at close quarters with his revolver after he had grounded his rifle and put his hands up.

In the latter part of the 1920s, many of the survivors met annually at the ambush site on November 28 and recited the rosary for their three comrades, Michael McCarthy, Jim O’Sullivan, and Pat Deasy. 

In 1929, Tom Barry with some survivors and friends erected an Iron Cross on the rocky ledge marking the Kilmichael Ambush site. Annual commemorations were held. 

In 1938, a large number of old IRA comrades with Tom Barry attended Castletown Kenneigh Mass and unveiling a Celtic cross in the graveyard where the three ‘fallen’ were buried. 

On this occasion, the Irish Press took the first and only photograph of ‘The Boys of Kilmichael’. The photograph and complete list of participants, including men who had died and those unable to attend were published. 

In the early 1960s, the Memorial Committee broadened and decided to collect funds to erect a monument at the Kilmichael site to the Volunteers’ memory.

Commemoration ceremonies were held in 1970 marking the ambush’s 50th anniversary. The story the participants told was acknowledged, just as historical records demonstrate. 

I interviewed many of the Kilmichael ambush participants and in my book Tom Barry: IRA Freedom Fighter.

Meda Ryan author of 'Tom Barry: Irish Freedom Fighter'
Meda Ryan author of 'Tom Barry: Irish Freedom Fighter'

According to the autobiographical details, all scouts on-site were dead by 1967. The last rifleman, 97-year-old Ned Young, suffered a stroke in 1986 impairing his speech. He died on November 13, 1989.

While they lived, Kilmichael participants left with a vivid memory, could and did recall the awfulness. Faced with imminent death in such a horrific fashion their memories were sharp, and likely to be least faulty, due to an indelible print created by the circumstances. 

Annually they attended the commemoration on the Sunday nearest to November 28 and kept up a close friendship with one another. 

Many such as Patrick (Pat) O’Donovan often travelled to the site with Fr O’Brien (who had heard the men’s confessions prior to the ambush) to say the rosary for his comrades.

For the rest of his life, Tom Barry regretted he never warned his Volunteers of the old 'bogus surrender' war-trick that cost the lives of two comrades.

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