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30 November 2000 Edition

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Remembering the Past: The Kilmichael Ambush

BY PETER O'ROURKE

By the summer of 1920, with the British desperately trying to maintain its civil administration in Ireland, it was beset with the problem of mass resignation from the RIC.

At the end of July, Sir Hammar Greenwood, the English chief secretary in Ireland, announced in the House of Commons the founding of a new force of cadets, ex-British army officers, to augment the RIC and fill the gaps created by the resignations. The following month about 1,500 auxilaries, or cadets as they were officially known, were dispatched to Ireland.

About 150 members of the new force arrived in Macroom, County Cork, and commandeered Macroom Castle as their barracks. Of all the ruthless forces that occupied Ireland throughout the centuries, the Auxilaries, or Auxies as they became known, were surely some of the worst. Recruited from ex-British officers who had fought in the First World War, and publicised as the very best of England's fighting men, they were established as a terrorist force to wipe out all the resistance to British rule in Ireland.

Highly paid and with no regard for discipline, they were habitual looters. They were heavily armed, each man carried a rifle, two revolvers and a number of Mills grenades.

Based on their experiences in the First Wolrd War, there had been fostered about them a legend of invincibility as fighting men. Their reputation, however, was put to the test for the first time on a west Cork roadway in late November, 1920.

At 2am that Sunday morning, a flying column of 36 heavily armed IRA volunteers, led by Tom Barry, assembled at Ahilina and marched ten miles, throughout the night in the lashing rain, to engage the Auxilaries on the rad between Macroom and Dunmanway at Kilmichael Cross.

By 9am all the men were in position and throughout the day the Volunteers, their clothes drenched by the previous night's rain, lay in wait on the sodden heather. The column had no food and there was nothing to do but wait, think and shiver in the biting cld. The hours passed slowly and towards evening the gloom deepened over the bleak Kilmichael countryside.

At 4:30pm, throughout of gathering disk, two Crossley tenders carrying 18 Auxilaries drove into Barry's carefully prepared ambush. In a fierce gun battle which lasted over 30 minutes and ended in hand-to-hand fighting, 17 Auxilaries were killed and one mortally wounded.

The volunteers suffered three casualties, Pat Deasey, Kilmacsimon, Michael McCarthy, Dunmanway, and Jim O'Sullivan, Rossmore. All three were killed by a number of Auxilaries who had pretended to surrender during the battle.

Having set fire to the tenders, the column marched off with the captured enemy equipment and at 11pm, after an eleven-mile hike, reached Granure, where they camped overnight. After a three-day march south, the column, zig-zagging to avoid enemy reinforcements, dispersed and the volunteers returned to their various units.

During the days following the ambush, the British forces converged on Kilmichael and carried out large-scale reprisals againset the local population. Martial law was proclaimed throughout Munster and a proclamation was issued by the Auxiliary division at Macroom, directing that all males passing through Macroom with their hands in their pockets would be shot on sight.

The first engagement between IRA volunteers and Auxilaries, remembered in the famous ballad The Boys of Kilmichael, took place at Kilmichael, County Cork, on 28 November 1920, 80 years ago this week.

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