Cork No 3 IRA Commandant Tom Barry led one of the most devastating military actions against the British, but did not execute prisoners during the operation, writes Meda Ryan
THE AFTERNOON of the 28 November 1920 at Kilmichael, County Cork, marks a turning point in the War of Independence when the most decisive ambush was fought.
Under the command of Tom Barry, thirty-six young Volunteers took on the dreaded Auxiliaries who were stationed in Macroom Castle. When the ambush was over, two Volunteers were dead and another was fatally wounded. Of the eighteen Auxiliaries, sixteen were dead, one thought dead survived, and another had escaped but was killed some hours later.
Controversy has surrounded this ambush because the accepted and established version that the Auxiliaries engaged in a false surrender, which sealed their fate, has been challenged inrecent years.
In 1998 Peter Hart, in Queen's University, Belfast, now living in Newfoundland, stated that Tom Barry's history of Kilmichael "is riddled with lies and evasions". These are loaded words about a man known for his uprightness and courage, and who fought against great odds during the War of Independence.
In November 1920 the morale of the Volunteers nationally was very low, therefore this successful ambush raised the hopes of Irish citizens who had pledged to devote their energies to obtain independence from British rule.
In West Cork, as in areas countrywide, the Auxiliaries and Black and Tans made life difficult for citizens and Volunteers. In mid-1920 the Auxiliaries stationed at Macroom Castle had created terror among local citizens. They had shot dead two innocent men, injured and maimed for life many when they took pot shots at civilians who worked in fields. Their house raids, beating men, taunting women was their method of intimidation in order to dampen the spirits of Volunteers. The activities of these Auxiliaries encroached on the Cork No3 Brigade area. On Sundays they travelled in Crossley tenders as they went on their rampage. According to Tom Barry, there should be no further delay in challenging them. They had to be apprehended within Cork No. 1 Brigade area before they reached Gleann crossroads. (Cork County was divided into three Brigades.)
Barry, Training Officer and Commandant of Cork No3 Brigade Flying Column, carefully chose the location. At two am on the morning of 28 November the Column met at Ahalina (outside Enniskeane). Each man was armed with a rifle and thirty-five rounds of ammunition; a few had revolvers and Barry had two captured Mills bombs.
At three am on this extremely cold, wet night after Fr O'Connell had heard the men's confessions at the roadside they set out through by-roads and crosscountry, mainly in silence. Locked in their own thoughts as the harsh November rain lashed against them, they trudged on. Pat Deasy, who had been ill during training, had been replaced by another man, but now well again had followed the Column; he pleaded with Barry to participate in the ambush. Barry agreed and sent his deputy home.
It was 8.15 am when the Column men reached the ambush position. They were wet, cold and hungry. Barry gave them their positions. He told them that the terrain allowed for no retreat. He divided the men into three sections with section three subdivided. Clad in an IRA uniform he stood in the open road and was backed by three picked marksmen. Three scouts took up positions, and two dispatch scouts were used as 'runners'. The day dragged as the men, without food since six am the previous evening, lay in their rain-sodden clothes. As the day wore on it began to freeze so that the clothes froze on their bodies. All the time Barry stood in the open road fingering his Mills bomb.
At 4.05 pm 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. There was sharp fighting, even hand to hand action. When the first lorry had been dealt with, Barry and the men at the command post moved towards the back of the second lorry of Auxiliaries which was being engaged by Section II. When the men were about half waybetween 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 Section II some Volunteers who believed 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 to his men to retaliate, and commanded them not to stop until his final order. After a tough fight, when all the Auxiliaries appeared dead, Barry blew the whistle and gave the final ceasefire.
The knowledge of the Auxiliaries' false surrender was in circulation shortly after the ambush, also named participants have confirmed this in interviews. Furthermore, contemporary British supporters - General Crozier (Auxiliary O/C) and Lionel Curtis (Imperial activist and adviser to Lloyd George) acknowledged the false surrender, as did Section commander Stephen O'Neill (The Kerryman) and Jack Hennessy (Bureau Military History) in Section II beside the fatally wounded Volunteers. So also did contemporary writers, Beaslai, O'Malley and MacCann.
Peter Hart has accepted that there was a surrender and says that Barry and his men killed prisoners. He bases his theory mainly on a 'report' (Imperial War Museum) alleged to have been written by Barry and captured, and also on anonymous interviews, two of which he conducted himself.
I have analysed the 'report' in detail in my book, Tom Barry: IRA freedom fighter and can find no evidence that Barry would have written it in the manner presented; it conflicts with evidential facts in several areas. For instance, there is one vital nugget of 'evidence' that Hart omits (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 and a priest and doctor for him. 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 wounds ...".
Hart personally interviewed two people whom he says participated in the ambush - rifleman AA, 3 April, 25 June 1989, and scout AF,19 November 1989 - one of whom gave him a tour of the ambush site. This creates a logistical problem that only Peter Hart can solve. According to autobiographical details, all scouts and dispatch scouts were dead by 1971, and all after-ambush helpers and riflemen were dead by 19 November 1989.
Rifleman Ned Young, the last known survivor, was 97 when he died on 13 November 1989. Young's faculties were impaired during his final years, so it would not have been possible for him to travel nor to relate events at the site without the knowledge of his family, with whom he lived for the last years of his life. They are unable to throw any light on this.
The public and interested historians are not well served when anonymous sources are employed to describe an important historical event. There is no material here that requires confidentiality eighty-five years after the event. 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.
After Volunteers accepted the surrender call, and when the Auxiliaries reactivated the fight, fatally wounding Volunteers, Barry, without any guarantee as to the outcome, took up the challenge. Therefore it was a fight to final ceasefire and consequently there were no prisoners. If the Auxiliaries in a military conflict shouted surrender and Volunteers accepted it, and Auxiliaries again used a firearm or firearms, then the surrender call was falsified thereby resuming an open fight. Once the Auxiliaries falsified their surrender call, as military men they had to accept the consequences. Prisoners may be taken after surrender; a false surrender (particularly one that results in fatalities) nullifies that possibility.
Meda Ryan is a former journalist and respected historian. She is author of several books, including The Real Chief - the story of Liam Lynch, and The Day Michael Collins was Shot. A paperback edition of her most recent book, Tom Barry - IRA Freedom Fighter, is published by Mercier Press, price £7.99 (E14.99) (see cover above)
Connolly Publications Ltd, 244 Gray's Inn Road, London, WC1X 8JR
Copyright © 2006 Meda Ryan