Issue 4-2022 small

2 December 2004 Edition

Resize: A A A Print

Defending Tom Barry and the Boys of Kilmichael


Historian and author Meda Ryan

Historian Meda Ryan last weekend defended the reputations of Tom Barry and his fellow IRA men, who inflicted a devastating blow against British forces in Cork on 28 November 1920 in the famous Kilmichael Ambush.

The ambushing of the British Auxiliary force was in response to a campaign of terror and brutality carried out by Macroom based Auxiliaries on communities in Mid and West Cork prior to the ambush. Revisionists have of late challenged Barry's account that the British Auxiliaries caught in the ambush surrendered, only to treacherously pick up their guns again when the IRA broke cover.

Ryan, author of the book, Tom Barry IRA Freedom Fighter, chose the very site of the historic ambush to make her rebuttal, at the invitation of the Kilmichael and Crossbarry Commemoration Committee, before 2,000 people gathered to honour the memory of Barry and his 36 comrades.

The following is the text of her oration.

On this spot, 84 years ago today, the first major ambush against the British forces in Ireland took place. It was Sunday 28 November 1920. Here at Kilmichael, Tom Barry and 36 young Volunteers took on the dreaded Auxiliaries who were stationed in Macroom Castle at the time. We are here today to commemorate this event, and to recall the bravery of Barry and his men and to remember also Jim O'Sullivan, Michael MacCarthy and Pat Deasy, who were fatally wounded here. These young men were tricked into accepting a false surrender by Auxiliaries, who had fought in the Great War and most of whom were commissioned officers.

Due to a certain type of historical revisionism in recent years, a cloud has hung over the Kilmichael Ambush and the actions of its commander, Tom Barry, on that day. A controversy has surrounded this ambush because all, except two, of the Auxiliaries who participated were killed on the site. The question posed is whether or not these Auxiliary soldiers surrendered, and subsequently took up guns and again used them against the Volunteers.

In 1998, Peter Hart, who was attached to Queen's University Belfast and now lives in Newfoundland, stated that Tom Barry's history of Kilmichael "is riddled with lies and evasions" — strong words about a man who was known for his uprightness and courage, and who fought against so much odds during the War of Independence.

In my research I could not find Barry's lies, nor did I discover where the evasions occurred, as Barry accepted full responsibility for the Kilmichael Ambush.

Peter Hart has based his theory mainly on three separate issues.

(First): On the official British establishment publication of the ambush details.

(Second): On a report that Barry allegedly wrote after the ambush.

(Third): On interviews, two of which he conducted himself.

Let us return to the reason the Volunteers found it necessary to undertake military action. Home Rule, which looked imminent before the Great War, was suspended for its duration, but it was not honoured when the war ended. The overwhelming success of Sinn Féin in the 1918 election meant that the Irish people placed their trust in their own representatives. The meeting of the First Dáil on 21 January 1919 laid the constitutional basis of the new Irish State. However, the British parliament declared it an illegal assembly.

The oath of allegiance to the Dáil of the Irish Republic by the Volunteers established them as an army for that parliament. As the RIC scoured the country and arrested Volunteers and Sinn Féin members, it was obvious that the British Government did not want the Irish people to control their own destiny. Tom Barry himself said: "When we went into the revolution, we had to feel that we were doing it for a purpose, we had been slaves for 700 years. When we tried to break free of this, they proclaimed anything that was nationalistic. Our people resisted arrest and that resistance led to shooting," and ultimately to guerrilla warfare.

On the 28th day of November, the Auxiliaries, who were stationed at Macroom Castle, had created terror among the citizens in these local districts. House raids, beating men, taunting women and taking pot shots at civilians who worked in the fields was their method of intimidating the people. The intention was to dampen the spirits of Volunteers. The activities of these Auxiliaries encroached on the Cork No 3 Brigade area, the border of which is just down the road from Kilmichael. On Sundays previous to this, these Auxiliaries travelled in Crossley tenders as they went on their rampage. So they had to be apprehended within Cork No 1 Brigade area — on the stretch of road before they reached Gleann crossroads, which led in different directions, just west of Kilmichael. Tom Barry felt there should be no further delay in challenging them.


Tom Barry had been appointed Training Officer and Commanding Officer of the 3rd West Cork Brigade Flying Column. This spot was carefully chosen. Barry borrowed an IRA tunic from Paddy O'Brien in order to slow down any approaching enemy lorry. At 2am on the morning of 28 November, the Column met in Sullivan's Ahalina, outside Enniskeane. Each man was armed with a rifle and 35 rounds of ammunition; a few had revolvers and Barry had two Mills bombs.

Fr O'Connell had heard the men's confessions at the side of the road. It was 3am on this extremely cold, wet night when the men were told that they were moving to Kilmichael to take on the dreaded Macroom-based Auxiliaries.

Barry and his men walked through by-roads and cross country, mainly in silence. They trudged on, locked in their own thoughts as the November rain lashed against them. They were drenched when they reached Kilmichael. Meanwhile, Pat Deasy, who had been ill during training, had been replaced by another man. Now well again, Deasy had followed the Column close behind, and pleaded with Barry to participate in the ambush. Barry agreed.

It was 8.15am when the Column reached the ambush position. The men were wet, cold and hungry. Barry gave them their positions and told them that the terrain allowed for no retreat.

Barry's plan was straightforward. He would be at the Command Post, supported by three picked marksmen.


Section 1, was up on the rocks, in from the Command Post. Section 2, was just behind the monument. Section 3 was subdivided, with half of the men just around the bend and the other half across the road. Two scouts were north of the road and one south of the Command post.

The hours passed slowly. The men, without food since 6 o'clock the previous evening, lay in their rain-sodden clothes. Then the people in an isolated house sent down a few buckets of tea and a homemade cake — all these people had — but this meagre supply of food did not go far. The men waited, and the day dragged. As the day wore on it began to freeze, so that the clothes froze on their bodies as they hid behind the rocks. All the time, Barry stood on the open road, as he fingered his Mills bomb. He was about to call off the ambush when a sidecar with some Volunteers arrived — they hadn't received mobilisation orders on time. Barry acted instantly and shouted to them to gallop up the side boreen.

Just a few minutes later, at 4.05pm, the first lorry came round the bend and began to slow as it neared the uniformed figure. Barry hurled the bomb, blew the whistle and fired the automatic.

The grenade must have landed on the driver's seat because the lorry lurched forward, then stopped a few yards in front of the Command Post where Barry stood. The Auxiliaries jumped out and there was sharp fighting, even hand-to-hand action. When the men in the first lorry had been dealt with, Barry commanded the three men beside him at the Command Post to move with him towards the second lorry. This lorry had been engaged by No 2 Section, which was in the middle of the ambush area, behind the monument, high up on the rocks.

The second group of Auxiliaries had taken up positions beside the ditch on the road. Some also had taken cover behind their lorry as the fight went on. Barry, with the three men at the Command Post, crouched along the dyke and stole along at the back. When they were about half way between the two lorries they heard the Auxiliaries shout, "We surrender! We surrender!" Some actually threw away their rifles and the firing stopped. The Volunteers accepted the surrender. In No 2 Section some Volunteers, who thought it was over, stood up. But the Auxiliaries again took up their guns; some used their revolvers to open fire. Following this encounter, three Volunteers were fatally wounded.

Realising that the Auxiliaries had made a false surrender, Barry shouted at his men to retaliate.

Barry and the three men with him dropped into a prone position and began a rapid fire. Other Volunteers in No 2 Section did likewise. The Auxiliaries knew they were sandwiched between two groups of men. Once again they shouted, "We surrender"; but at this stage Barry shouted to his men to keep firing and "do not stop until I tell you". Later he said: "Now for that I take full responsibility... The only blame I have to myself is that I didn't warn these young lads about the old war trick of a false surrender." He never forgave himself for this.

It was a tough fight and when all the Auxiliaries appeared dead, Barry then gave the ceasefire order. Two Volunteers in No 2 Section, Michael McCarthy and Jim O'Sullivan, were dead, and Pat Deasy, who had been sick and had pleaded with Barry to take part, was seriously wounded. He died later. Barry sent scouts for a priest and a doctor, and ordered the lorries to be burned. Many of the Column men were in shock. Barry, conscious of this and of the need to jerk them back to reality, ordered the men to get into formation, gave the "attention" command and ordered them to reload. He marched and counter-marched his Column, their faces lit in the winter twilight by the flickering light from the burning vehicles. Barry halted with the Column before the rock, where the bodies of the two dead Volunteers lay, and ordered them to "present arms".


In the controversy that has surrounded this ambush, Peter Hart treated unfavourably the role Tom Barry played in the fight for freedom. Though Hart has accepted that there was a surrender that day at Kilmichael, in his analysis he does not accept that there was a false surrender. But I suggest that because the Auxiliaries put their guns to use once more after a surrender, they re-activated the fight. Therefore, they engaged in a false surrender.

To back-up his argument, Peter Hart interviewed two people, whom he has acknowledged as having participated in the ambush. However, he does not name these people and only gives them anonymous initials.

You, here today, would wonder why any of the men who fought with Tom Barry on this day 84 years ago would want to remain anonymous. I question it also. Why will Peter Hart not name these men?

Furthermore, he says he interviewed one of the men in 1988, and another, a scout, on 19 November 1989. We all understood that the last survivor of the Kilmichael Ambush was rifleman Ned Young, whose faculties were impaired during his final years; he died on 13 November 1989 aged 97. We remember Jack O'Sullivan, the second last survivor, who died in 1986, Tim O'Connell in 1983, and my uncle, Pat O'Donovan, died in 1981. While they were able, these men stood on this platform here at the annual commemoration.

According to the records that I consulted, there were three scouts on ambush location during the fight. Dan O'Driscoll, the last of these three scouts, died in 1967. So who was Scout AF who spoke to Peter Hart on 19 November 1989? Why will Peter Hart not reveal the names of the two men he says he interviewed, whom he has acknowledged in his sources as having participated in the Kilmichael Ambush? If he revealed the names, then the credibility of these two witnesses who claim to give a first-hand account could be examined. Their version of events given to Peter Hart contradicts so many others. And while Peter Hart fails to reveal the identity of his anonymous sources, the story of the Kilmichael Ambush will remain clouded in controversy.

This is extremely important for history and for the men who fought in the 3rd West Cork Brigade. Peter Hart has claimed that Barry and his men killed prisoners on that day. But the Auxiliaries engaged in a false surrender, therefore they were not prisoners. By using guns after calling a surrender, they had resumed the fight. Therefore, as soldiers, they had to accept the consequences. Barry took up the challenge and the engagement was then fought to its conclusion.

In this locality and countywide, it was known in 1920 that there was a false surrender here at Kilmichael on that day.

Brigadier General Crozier, Commander of the Auxiliary forces in Ireland in 1920-'21, acknowledged that there was a false surrender. Even Lionel Curtis, Imperial activist and advisor to Lloyd George, accepted the false surrender in his writings in 1921. Stephen O'Neill, Section Commander during the ambush, wrote about the false surrender. There are other records to back up the false surrender story — many I could name, including my own uncle, Pat O'Donovan in Section 2, who was annoyed and upset about the false surrender because comrades were killed due to this deceitful action.

These Auxiliaries were commissioned officers with war experience and many had been decorated, so they knew the rules of war. They knew when to fire and when not to; they knew that when they shouted, "we surrender" it meant exactly that — a surrender — a ceasefire.

It is also important to state that the British cabinet accepted that the ambush at Kilmichael was "a military operation". British Prime Minister, Lloyd George sent over his chief Secretary for Ireland, because, he said, this engagement was "different in character from the preceding operations". So if the British Government accepted it as a military operation, then any solders who shouted "we surrender" should have accepted that code of war, and not broken their word.

The British administration compounded the issue when they wrote their official report on the ambush, which is now known to be a propaganda document. So also was the unsigned typewritten report that Barry was alleged to have written after the ambush.


In conclusion: When Tom Barry stood on this platform in 1970, he told his listeners that "the ending of partition is the responsibility of not alone of the people of Ireland, but of every Irishman wherever he may be. The objective is the same as 50 years ago."

In an interview I had with him in 1979, he said that "the nationalists in the northern part of our country are fighting for the same objectives as the men of 1916 and as we were." That is over 20 years ago. He could not understand at that time why negotiations were not more progressive. He couldn't see why citizens in that part of Ireland would not be happy in a United Ireland. His wish was for peace and unity on this island.

Barry and the surviving men who fought in his Flying Column continued, while it was possible for them, to return to this spot - often on their own or in the company of others. It was almost a place of pilgrimage for them. They made great sacrifices to give us the freedom we have today and they deserve to be remembered

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1