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The IRA Kilmichael (Co Cork) Ambush, November 1920
Kilmichael Ambush, an ambush near the village of Kilmichael in Co Cork on 28 November 1920 carried out by the IRA during the Irish War of Independence. Thirty-six local IRA volunteers commanded by Tom Barry killed seventeen members of the RIC Auxiliary Division. The Kilmichael ambush was politically as well as militarily significant. It occurred one week after Bloody Sunday, marking a profound escalation in the IRA campaign.
The Auxiliaries were commissioned officers, raised in July 1920 and were promoted as a highly trained elite force by the British media. The Auxiliaries engaged at Kilmichael had previous WWI experience.
The Auxiliaries and the previously introduced Black and Tans rapidly became highly unpopular in Ireland due to intimidation of the civilian population and arbitrary reprisals after IRA actions – including burnings of businesses and homes, beatings and killings.
A week before the Kilmichael ambush, after IRA assassinations of British intelligence operatives in Dublin on Bloody Sunday, Auxiliaries fired on players and spectators at a gaelic football match in Croke Park Dublin, killing fourteen civilians (thirteen spectators and one player).
The Auxiliaries in Cork
were based in the town of Macroom, and in November 1920 they carried out a number of raids on the villages in the surrounding area – including Dunmanway, Coppeen and Castletownkenneigh – to intimidate the local population away from supporting the IRA - shooting at least one civilian dead. In his memoirs, Tom Barry noted that the IRA had (up until Kilmichael) hardly fired a shot at the Auxiliaries, which "had a very serious effect on the morale of the whole people as well as on the IRA". Barry's assessment was that the West Cork IRA needed a successful action against the Auxiliaries in order to be effective.
On 21 November, he assembled a flying column of 36 riflemen at Clogher. The column had 35 rounds for each rifle as well as a handful of revolvers and two mills bombs (hand grenades). Barry scouted possible ambush sites with Volunteer Michael McCarthy on horseback and selected one on the Macroom–Dunmanway road, on the section between Kilmichael and Gleann, which the Auxiliaries coming out of Macroom used every day. The flying column marched there on foot and reached the ambush site on the night of the 27th. The IRA volunteers took up positions in the low rocky hills on either side of the road. Unlike most IRA ambush positions, there was no obvious escape route for the guerrillas should the fighting go against them
As dusk fell on 28 November, the ambush took place on a road at Dus a' Bharraigh in the townland of Shanacashel, Kilmichael Parish, near Macroom.
Just before the Auxiliaries in two lorries came into view, two armed IRA volunteers, responding late to Barry's mobilisation order, drove unwittingly into the ambush position in a horse and side-car, almost shielding the British forces behind them. Barry managed to avert disaster by directing the car up a side road and out of the way. The Auxiliaries' first lorry was persuaded to slow down by the sight of Barry placing himself on the road in front of a concealed Command Post (with three riflemen), wearing an IRA officer's tunic given to him by Paddy O'Brien. The British later claimed Barry was wearing a British uniform. This confusion was clearly part of a ruse by Barry to ensure that his adversaries in both lorries halted beside two IRA ambush positions where Sections One (10 riflemen) and Two (10 riflemen) lay concealed on the north side of the road. Half of Section Three (6 riflemen) of the IRA force was on the south side of the road and instructed to prevent the enemy taking up positions on that side. The other half (6 riflemen) was positioned some way off as an insurance group, ready to engage if a third Auxiliary lorry appeared. The British later alleged that over 100 IRA fighters were present and wore British uniforms, including steel trench helmets. Barry, however insisted that, excepting himself, the ambush party were dressed in civilian clothes, though they used captured British weapons and equipment.
The first lorry, containing nine Auxiliaries, slowed almost to a halt close to their intended ambush positions, at which point Barry gave the order to fire. He threw a Mills bomb that exploded in the open cab of the first lorry. A savage close-quarter fight ensued between the Auxiliaries and a combination of IRA Section One and Barry's three person Command Post group. According to Barry's account, some of the British were killed using rifle butts and bayonets. This part of the engagement was over relatively quickly with all nine Auxiliaries dead or dying. The British later claimed that the dead had been mutilated with axes, although Barry dismissed this as atrocity propaganda.
While this part of the fight was going on, a second lorry also containing nine Auxiliaries had driven into the ambush position near to IRA Section Two. This lorry's occupants, at a more advantageous position than Auxiliaries in the first lorry because further away from the ambushing group, dismounted to the road and exchanged fire with the IRA, killing Michael McCarthy. Barry brought the Command Post soldiers who had completed the attack on the first lorry to bear on this group. Barry claimed these Auxiliaries then called out a surrender and that some dropped their rifles, but opened fire again with revolvers when three IRA men emerged from cover, killing one volunteer instantly, Jim O'Sullivan, and mortally wounding Pat Deasy. Barry then said he ordered, "Rapid fire and do not stop until I tell you!" Barry stated that he ignored a subsequent attempt by remaining Auxiliaries to surrender, and kept his men firing at a range of only ten yards (8 m) or less until he believed all the Auxiliaries were dead. Barry said of the Auxiliaries who tried to surrender a second time, 'soldiers who had cheated in war deserved to die.' Barry referred to this as the Auxiliaries 'false surrender'.
The detail of Barry's account is not always replicated by other IRA veteran testimony. For instance, prior to Barry's account appearing in 1949, Section Three commander Stephen O'Neill gave an account of a false surrender by the Auxiliaries but without using the actual term. Some Bureau of Military History (BMH) accounts do not mention it, for example Ned Young's. However, Young reported in a later 1970 audio interview that other veterans told him afterwards there had been false surrender. He had not heard or seen it himself because Young reported he was away from this part of the action pursuing an escaping Auxiliary. Tim Keohane claimed (controversially) to have participated in the ambush in his BMH statement and recalled that when both IRA parties, for Section Two and the Command Post, engaged the second lorry, "Tom Barry called on the enemy to surrender and some of them put up their hands, but when our party were moving onto the road, the Auxiliaries again opened fire. Two of our men were wounded". Barry's account states that two of the IRA dead, Pat Deasy and Jim O'Sullivan, were shot after the false surrender but Keohane recalled that O'Sullivan had been hit earlier, and that Jack Hennessy and John Lordan were wounded after they stood to take the surrender.
IRA veterans reported variously that wounded Auxiliaries, finished off after the firefight, were killed with close range shots, blows from rifle butts and bayonet thrusts, details Barry did not include in his account. Some Auxiliaries were disarmed and then killed. Jack O'Sullivan who was present at the ambush told historian Meda Ryan that after he disarmed an Auxiliary, "He was walking him up the road as a prisoner when a shot dropped him at his feet".
At the conclusion of the fight it was observed that two IRA volunteers – Michael McCarthy and Jim O'Sullivan – were killed outright and that Pat Deasy (brother of Liam Deasy) was mortally wounded. The IRA fighters thought they had killed all of the Auxiliaries. In fact two survived, one very badly injured while another who escaped was later captured and shot dead.
Among the 16 British dead was Colonel Crake, commander of the Auxiliaries in Macroom.
Of the two Auxiliary officers who survived the ambush, one, H.F. Forde lived on, though he had been shot in the head. Forde was left for dead by the IRA. The severity of his injuries probably saved his life. He was picked up by British forces the following day and taken to hospital in Cork. Forde was later awarded £10,000 in compensation. The other survivor, Cadet Cecil Guthrie (ex Royal Air Force),was badly wounded but escaped from the ambush site. He asked for help at a nearby house. However, unknown to him, two IRA men were staying there. They killed him with his own gun His body was dumped in Annahala bog. In 1926, on behalf of the Guthrie family, Kevin O'Higgins, Irish Free State Minister for Home Affairs, interceded with the local IRA and Guthrie's remains were disinterred and handed over to the local Church of Ireland cleric at Macroom. He was then buried in a proper grave.
Many of the IRA volunteers were deeply shaken by the severity of the action and some were physically sick. Barry tried to restore discipline by making them form-up and perform drill, before they marched away. Barry himself may have been affected by the fight as he collapsed with severe chest pains on 3 December and had to be secretly hospitalized in Cork City. It is possible that the ongoing stress of being on the run and commander of the flying column, along with a poor diet as well as the intense combat at Kilmichael contributed to his illness, diagnosed as heart displacement.
The political fallout from the Kilmichael ambush outweighed its military significance. While the British forces in Ireland, over 30,000 strong, could easily absorb 18 casualties, the fact that the IRA had been able to wipe out a whole patrol of elite Auxiliaries was for them deeply shocking. The British forces in the West Cork area took their revenge on the local population by burning several houses, shops and barns in Kilmichael, Johnstown and Inchageela, including all of the houses around the ambush site On 3 December, three IRA volunteers were arrested by the British Essex Regiment in Bandon, beaten and killed, and their bodies dumped on the roadside.
For the British government, the action at Kilmichael was an indication that the violence in Ireland was escalating. Shortly after the ambush (and also in reaction to the events of Bloody Sunday), barriers were placed on either end of Downing Street to protect the Prime Minister's office from IRA attacks. On 10 December, as a result of Kilmichael, martial law was declared for the counties of Cork, Kerry, Limerick and Tipperary.
The British military now had the power to execute anyone found carrying arms and ammunition, to search houses, impose curfews, try suspects in military rather than civilian courts and to intern suspects without trial. On 11 December, in reprisal for Kilmichael and other IRA actions, the centre of Cork city was burned by Auxiliaries, British soldiers and Black and Tans, and two IRA men were assassinated in their beds. In separate proclamations shortly afterwards, the authorities sanctioned "official reprisals" against suspected Sinn Féin sympathisers, and the use of hostages in military convoys to deter ambushes.
The principal published source for what happened at the Kilmichael ambush is Tom Barry's account in his book, Guerilla Days in Ireland (1949). The first published by a participant between book covers was Stephen O'Neill's in Rebel Cork's Fighting Story (1947, 2009). A brief account of a false surrender at Kilmichael was published in 1921 in the British Empire journal, Round Table (June 1921, p500), by Lionel Curtis, British Prime Minister Lloyd George's Secretary during Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations. In Ireland Forever (1932) former Auxiliary commander F.P. Crozier also gave a brief account of the same event. However, in The IRA And Its Enemies (1998) Professor Peter Hart disputed Barry's account of the ambush. Hart claimed that Barry's claim of a false surrender is an invention and that the surviving Auxiliary officers were exterminated after they had surrendered.
Controversy continues over Hart's claims.
Particularly controversial is Hart's use of anonymous interviews with ambush veterans. Meda Ryan, author of Tom Barry, IRA Freedom Fighter (ISBN 1856354806), disputed Hart's claim to have personally interviewed two IRA veterans in 1988-89, stating that one veteran was alive then. Hart stated that he interviewed his second ambush participant, an unarmed 'scout', on 19 November 1989. Ryan maintained that the last surviving IRA Kilmichael veteran, Ned Young, died on 13 November 1989, aged 97. In addition, Ned Young's father, John Young, stated that his father was also not capable of giving Hart an interview, as Ned Young suffered a debilitating stroke in late 1986 (John Young swore an affidavit to this effect in December 2007, published in June 2008). The second last veteran of Kilmichael, Jack O'Sullivan, reportedly died in January 1986, and the last ambush scout died in 1972. Hart also claimed to have sourced additional information from a further three ambush participant interviews. These, also reported anonymously, were originally recorded on audiotape by a Father John Chisholm in 1970 for Liam Deasy's War of Independence memoir, Toward Ireland Free, 1973. It was revealed in an essay on Kilmichael in Terror in Ireland (2012, ed. David Fitzpatrick) by Eve Morrison, who is sympathetic to Hart's position, that just two (not three) Kilmichael participants were recorded by Chisholm speaking on Kilmichael, and that one of these was Ned Young. The other was Jack O'Sullivan, the second last ambush veteran to die in 1986.
In addition Hart cited an unsigned typed 'report' of the ambush from the Imperial War Museum, which does not mention a false surrender, as Barry's after-action report to his superiors, captured by the British. Ryan and another historian, Brian Murphy, assert that it is a forgery because it contains errors of fact that Barry would not have made. For instance: stating that two IRA volunteers had been mortally wounded and one killed outright, when the reverse was the case; getting British losses right, attesting to “sixteen of the enemy . . . being killed”, when Barry thought 17 (including Forde) had been killed. The document stated that IRA fighters had 100 rounds each when the correct figure was 36. Barry did not know that Guthrie, the Auxiliary who escaped, is “now missing”, or even that he had escaped. In other words, the document contained correct information known only to the British authorities but unknown to Barry, and incorrect information known by Barry but unknown to the British authorities.
Hart, who died in 2010 stood by his account. In 2012, Historian Eve Morrison of Trinity College Dublin published a contested essay entitled Kilmichael Revisited, based on the testimony of IRA veterans. These were six statements to the Bureau of Military History (including the controversial Timothy Keohane) published in 2003, and two conducted by Father Chisholm for Liam Deasy's Toward Ireland Free (1973). Chisholm recorded interviews with Jack O'Sullivan, alongside Ned Young who also contributed a BMH account). Morrison stated she identified as Chisholm interview utterances all but two of the quotes given by anonymous sources in Hart's book. She identified one of Hart's two claimed personal interviewees as (again) Ned Young, who was named by Hart in 2004 in an unpublished paper accessed by Morrison. Ned Young's son, John Young, afterwards continued to dispute the claim that Hart interviewed his father.
Morrison does not name the second Hart interviewee, the 'scout' allegedly interviewed six days after Ned Young died, as Hart did not name him in the unpublished paper accessed by Morrison. Morrison states that Hart had heard or read ten accounts by seven veterans (five witness statements and five other interviews). But this was in 2004, six years after publication of The IRA and its Enemies. All of those Morrison names, bar Ned Young and the 'scout', were dead at the time Hart conducted his research in the late 1980s.
The six named are: Paddy O’Brien, Jim ‘Spud’ Murphy, Jack Hennessy, Ned Young, Michael O’Driscoll and Jack O’Sullivan. The seventh the 'scout' interviewed after Ned Young died, is not named
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