SMASHING THE MYTH – THE KILMICHAEL AMBUSH

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time text: 15 mins.)

Forget not the boys of Kilmichael,

those brave lads both gallant and true;

They fought ‘neath the green flag of Erin

and conquered the red, white and blue.

INTRODUCTION

In Irish history, which arquably is full of such wars, what is generally termed “The War of Independence” began with the Soloheadbeg Ambush on 21st January 1919 and ended with the Anglo-Irish Treaty on 11th July 1921 (which however, because of its limited measure of Irish independence led shortly afterwards to the Civil War 1922-1923). That ambush was one of many during the war by Irish guerrillas on the Royal Irish Constabulary, the British colonial police force and these attacks continued with a three-fold aim: to capture arms for the guerrillas, to eliminate much of the intelligence source for the Crown from rural districts and to open up areas of relative safety in the Irish countryside for the forces of independence.

In 1920 two different constabulary forces were recruited in Britain to bolster the Royal Irish Constabulary: the “normal” recruits in January and the Auxiliary Division RIC in July1. There were insufficient police uniforms for the “normal” constable recruits at first, leading to their being issued a mix of dark green RIC and khaki Army uniforms (usually Army trousers and RIC tunics) and Christopher O’Sullivan wrote in the Limerick Echo that they reminded him of the “Black and Tans”, from a well-known pack of Kerry beagles in the Scarteen Hunt. The nickname spread quickly and soon they were almost universally known (and thereafter in Irish history and folklore) by that name or shortened to “the ‘Tans”. The Irish translation is “na Dubhchrónaí” but it is likely that even in the Gaeltachtaí, the Irish-speaking areas, they were also known as “na ‘Tans”.

WW1 had ended in November 1918 and many of the ‘Tans were ex-British Army soldiers. Some were perhaps even demobbed (discharged) specifically in order to enlist in the new force. At the time there was ongoing agitation for discharge from the armed forces and even riots among thousands of British soldiers, many of whom had been conscripted but whom the British High Command was reluctant to allow to leave, knowing that many would be needed to suppress resistance to British colonial rule across the Empire, on the Indian sub-continent, in the Middle East, Africa and China.

The Tans quickly gained a reputation for brutality towards prisoners and the general civilian populace when conducting personal and home searches. They were also considered generally indisciplined, liable to intoxication on duty and to carrying out theft and harassment of women. Their behaviour towards civilians was so bad that even some British Army officers and loyalists in Ireland complained of it. The fighters of the Irish Republican Army, the new name for the reorganised Irish Volunteers, though they might fear being captured by the Tans, quickly enough gained their measure and were soon engaging them with arms.

The Auxiliaries, or “Auxies” as they became known, were a different matter. Their role was a rapid response motorised strike force and every single member was a War veteran and ex-officer, some indeed having been awarded battle decorations. Just as inclined to brutality and indiscipline in some respects, they gained a fearful reputation for their counter-guerrilla aptitude; though their commanding officer, Frank Crozier, sacked 21 of them in January 1921 because of their brutal raids in Trim, Co. Meath and murder of two Republicans in Drumcondra, Dublin, Chief of Police Henry Hugh Tudor reinstated them, so that Crozier resigned. One IRA officer commented that if the Tans were ambushed they would hide behind cover to return fire, whereas the Auxies would quickly be seeking to outflank their opposition and counter-attack.

The relaxed but warlike attitude of the Auxies is evident in this photograph of two of them with a Dublin Metropolitan Police officer (not sure what unit the fourth man represents). (Source photo: Internet)

The Auxies could carry out operations against the IRA and the civilian population with impunity, it seemed. The Kilmichael Ambush was planned specifically to take on the Auxiliaries and smash the myth of their invincibility.

THE LEADER AND THE COLUMN

The operation was led by a 23 year-old ex-British soldier: Tom Barry, Commandant of the West Cork Flying Brigade was at the time only 23 years of age and only a little over three months active in the IRA. When news of the 1916 Easter Rising reached him and other British troops fighting the Ottoman Empire in Mesopotamia (now Iraq), he “had not a nationalist thought in my head”, he confessed in his book Guerrilla Days in Ireland (1949). Barry was discharged at the end of the War but did not join the IRA until the capture and torture of Republicans Tom Hales and Pat Harte by Arthur Percival of the Essex Rifles in July 19202 so appalled him that he joined the IRA’s 3rd Cork Brigade, operating in the West Cork area. Barry’s highest rank in the British Army had been Corporal, in which role the limit of his command would usually have been of seven to 14 men. By the end of 1920, Barry had quickly risen to command 310 men in the IRA, operating over large areas of West Cork and occasionally further afield.

Early print of Tom Barry’s memoir by Anvil in pulp fiction paperback cover style. (Image sourced: Internet)
Later reprint copy of Barry’s memoir showing Tom Barry at the age of 23 when he commanded the Flying Column (Image sourced: Internet)

One of the many innovations of the IRA at that time was the flying column, designed to maximise the effective striking force of a guerrilla army in rural Ireland. This had been advocated by Seán McLoughlin while organising in South Tipperary. McLoughlin had been a member of the Irish Volunteers during the 1916 Rising, employed on reconnaisance and communication work by Commandant James Connolly in Dublin. He was only 20 years of age when, impressed by his conduct up to that point and during the evacuation from the GPO to Moore Street, James Connolly3 promoted him to Dublin Commander. Later, McLoughlin had proposed the flying column tactic in discussion with guerrilla leaders from Tipperary, Limerick and North Cork4 and recommended it to IRA HQ in Dublin, where the idea found favour and was soon disseminated. In West Cork the flying column organisation reached perhaps its apogee.

Younger and mature men in a rural community are likely to be engaged in agriculture or servicing that economy. In the first they are needed intensively at particular times of the year and families may depend on their work. Servicing work is usually more evened out throughout the year but is also less likely to have long periods when those employed in it are not needed. This is one reason why maintaining a medium-sized permanent guerrilla force in the field was difficult.

Another restricting factor was the shortage of armament – the guerrilla movement was dependent on firearms and ammunition captured from the opposing armed forces, confiscated from loyalists or purchased in small amounts at home or abroad. Some explosive material could be home-made but was sometimes of unreliable effectiveness, especially so in the case of hand-grenades.

Supposing sufficient armament could be found, a force of around 50 fit men could be maintained in a flying column, trained in the field, flexible, able to travel fairly long distances, carry out an attack and then travel far enough out of the area to avoid enemy encirclement. They had to carry their equipment and their own food or be fed by civilians in the localities through which they passed.

But this arrangement left a larger potential force of men mostly untrained and inactive. Barry solved that problem by the rotation of men to the flying column in his brigade area. For a period of a number of weeks, a force of perhaps up to 100, fully armed, would be engaged in a training program in the field, in the course of which at least one attack operation would be planned and carried out. A small core of permanent officers and guards would be maintained to ensure continuity of command, intelligence, armament supply and security. After their training period, the majority of the column would be demobilised, leaving the command core and at some point a new batch taken on. The arms carried by the previous trainees would be distributed to the next batch. Smaller groups could be rotated in and out of the column too.

The highest number fielded by Barry at any one time was a little over 100 when, on the 19th March 1921, four motorised columns totaling 1,200 British Army and Auxiliaries, supported by spotter planes, set out to encircle the column at Crossbarry5, Co.Cork. In a fighting retreat, the column killed at least ten of the enemy but lost only two men (a third, senior officer Charlie Hurley, had been surprised by the encircling British just prior to the engagement at a local house some distance from the main body and shot dead).

Charlie Hurley, Adjutant to Tom Barry, was the first casualty of the Crossbarry Battle and his monument lies a little distance from the centre of the main fighting. (Photo sourced: Internet)

This development of the flying column proved effective and made the West Cork area a particular problem to the British occupation forces and it was not long before Cork was declared a “martial law area”, along with Limerick, Kerry and Tipperary (December 6th 1920). The military in these areas were empowered to execute anyone found carrying arms or ammunition and intern people without trial, also to carry hostages on their trucks to discourage attacks.

Auxies with prisoner explains the caption on this photo but the unfortunate passenger may have been a hostage against attack. (Image source: National Library Ireland)

In November 1920 local IRA intelligence had noted the regular travelling on Sundays of two British Army lorries, Crossley Tenders, from the Auxies’ base at Macroom Castle to Dunmanway and it was decided to attack them. The Crossleys normally carried up to three men in front and eight in the rear so the maximum force with which the IRA would need to contend would be 22, well-trained and armed. The flying column had only recently been given permanent status and three days’ training with only three rounds for firing practice (due to shortage of ammunition). Barry mobilised a force of 37 for the operation, barely sufficient to take on two lorries, no more.

On the 28th Day of November,
 the Auxies came out of Macroom;
 They were seated in two Crossley Tenders
 that were taking them straight to their doom.
 They were on the road to Kilmichael  
 and never intending to stop ..... 

The spot chosen for the ambush was at Dus a’Bharraigh, on a stretch of the road between the village of Kilmichael and Gleann but it was remarkable in IRA ambush sites in having no obvious escape route for the attackers to use in case the operation were unsuccessful or only partially so.

The start of the ambush is fairly well represented in a scene from the Ken Loach-directed film The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006). Barry, dressed in Irish Volunteer uniform on the assumption that most British soldiers had never seen one and would take it as being of an officer in some branch of their own armed services, flagged down the leading lorry, threw one of two Mills grenades at the driver, fired a pistol and the attack began (Loach has the ambush organiser in British officer uniform, standing by an apparently malfunctioning motorbike and shooting the driver when he slowed down).

Still from the film The Wind that Shakes the Barley, depicting Auxies approaching an ambush site. (Image sourced: Internet)

The earliest full account of the ambush is Tom Barry’s (in Guerrilla Days etc) and that should be read but Conor Kostik put together an even fuller account, drawing on material that would not have been available to Barry in 1949.6

Those Auxies not killed outright quickly took cover and fought back. They were pinned down and surrounded and their position was hopeless without reinforcements, of which there was no reason to expect any soon. The Auxies called out they wanted to surrender and two IRA men stood up, whereupon the Auxies immediately shot them dead. Barry had signalled to cease firing but had also issued orders that none of the ambushing party were to reveal themselves until he gave the order to do so but the two Volunteers, flushed with the battle and success, had forgotten the order and left their cover.

Raging at the treachery of the Auxies and at the unnecessary loss of two of his men, Barry ordered the battle to continue, ignoring all further cries of “we surrender” until every single Auxie appeared dead or seriously injured. The ambush party then, with the exception of the lookouts, came down into the road, collected the enemy’s arms and, removing the bodies from the vicinity of the Crossley tenders, set fire to the vehicles. Two men of the Flying Column were dead and a third was seriously wounded: Vice-Commandant Michael McCarthy in the fighting and Volunteer James O’Sullivan and 15-years-old Signals Lieutenant Pat Deasy7 by the false surrender, the former dead and the teenager dying.

Then Barry did a truly remarkable thing. Amidst the bodies of the Auxies, near the burning lorries, he took his men suffering from reaction through parade drill, then in front of the rock where the bodies of Michael McCarthy and Jim O’Sullivan lay, they presented arms as a tribute to the dead Volunteers. It was half an hour after the opening of the ambush when Barry called down the lookouts and the column moved away southwards, intending to cross the Bandon River upstream from the British-held Manch Bridge. Eighteen men carried the captured enemy rifles8 slung across their backs. It started to rain again and the men were soon drenched. The rain continued as the IRA marched through Shanacashel, Coolnagow, Balteenbrack and arrived in the vicinity of dangerous Manch Bridge. The Bandon River was crossed without incident and Granure, eight miles south of Kilmichael, was reached by 11pm.

One severely wounded Auxie had survived and was rescued when the British arrived at the scene. The driver of the second lorry somehow got away and made it to a house when two local IRA sympathisers took him prisoner — he was executed the next day and his corpse hidden.

The lorries were ours before twilight
And high over Dunmanway town
Our banner in triumph was waving
For the Auxies were beaten right down.
So we gathered our rifles and bayonets
And soon left the glen so secure
And we never drew rein till we halted
At the faraway camp at Granure

In the first planned attack on the Auxiliaries, the IRA had defeated a platoon of 18 (the lorries were not travelling full to capacity), of which they had killed 16. The guerrillas’ casualties were two dead, one of whom had been victim of the false surrender and the second victim severely wounded; these were removed to safe houses by horse and cart. The column had all the weapons and remaining ammunition of the Auxies and had burned the two lorries. It was a hard slog after the battle and carrying all that equipment to their billet in an empty house at Granure, eight miles away, which they reached at eleven. There the wounded were treated, they were fed by local people and the Column’s support structure, with men and Cumann na mBan standing guard over them while they slept.

Pat Deasy died during the night and temporary graves had to be found for his and the other two bodies until the area had calmed down.and high over Dunmanway town

Pat Deasy died during the night and temporary graves had to be found for his and the other two bodies until the area had calmed down.

BATTLE TACTICS

BATTLE TACTICS

The topography along the Auxies’ route had made the choice of a good ambush site far enough away from quick enemy reinforcements impossible, which was what dictated the eventual choice of the site by Barry and Vice-Commandant McCarthy. Available cover for the ambush was in short supply and even more so along any possible route of evacuation; which would mean heavy casualties for the guerrillas in any retreat from an undefeated enemy at that site. This in turn meant that the battle had to be fought to a successful conclusion – the complete defeat of the Auxie column. In this respect the planning of the engagement violated the general practice of the IRA at that time as well as the general rules of guerrilla warfare, which are of heavily outnumbering the enemy at the point of attack9 and at least being able to withdraw quickly and safely from enemy reaction. Barry and McCarthy no doubt knew this and were opting for daring rather than caution, taking a calculated risk (which is not the same as being reckless).

Old but post-ambush photo showing the ambush location. (Image sourced: Internet)

For a maximum enemy number of 22, Barry had mobilised a force of 37 but three of those and perhaps more would have to be scouts, to alert of the approaching Auxie lorries and to guard against being surprised by British reinforcements. Eventually, 34 including Barry were appointed to the actual fighting, his command post with three riflemen, another two sections of ten and a third section of twelve — but six of those would have to be prepared to hold off a third lorry if one appeared. The ratio of attackers to the target force was therefore just under two to one, which is far from ideal for an attacking force and less so when taking the topography into account. It would indeed have been wonderful for the Column had they the 100 in the ambush party group later claimed by the British!

The enemy could be expected to have the latest in Lee Enfield rifles, firing two clips of five bullets before needing to reload and also quickly re-loadable. In addition, they carried holstered revolvers. They would probably have some grenades and might well have at least one Lewis machine gun. Against that impressive potential and even certain firepower, the IRA column had a mix of rifles, shotguns, a few revolvers and two grenades10.

These considerations dictated the order of battle for the guerrilla force and plan of action: the battle could not be a long one and many of the enemy had to be eliminated at short range and in the first few minutes of the battle. This meant that after throwing one of their two British Army-issue Mills grenades, to disable the first lorry and front occupants, the attack on those in the rear of the lorry would have to be savage and almost hand-to-hand after discharge of shotguns at close range, followed by bayonet and rifle-butt.

Apart from Barry who had experience of combat in the British Army, few of the guerrillas had any military experience other than guerrilla training periods during earlier months and most had no combat experience whatsoever. The force they were intending to attack however were all ex-military, probably every single one with combat experience at least in WW1, which had ended only two years previously.

In terms of leadership, all of the Auxies had held officer rank and, if in the field, had commanded a minimum of 30 soldiers if at the rank of lieutenant and 120 if a captain. Barry would hardly have commanded more than 14 at a stretch and no more than seven normally. All the British officers other than those who had been appointed in the field during wartime perhaps, would have received training in officer school whereas Barry had had to train himself while also training their fighting force.

One hundred years ago this force of guerrillas in West Cork carried out a courageous and successful attack on a merciless enemy, in conditions both physically and emotionally difficult. The result was a huge boost in morale for the forces of Irish resistance at a time when it was needed, in particular in rural Ireland, while other responses were being developed to meet the changing tactics of the enemy in the cities, for example seven days earlier in Dublin with the wiping out of the “Cairo Gang” of British Intelligence. Both events shook the British occupation authorities but did not deter them and the war thereafter intensified further.

AFTERMATH

As was becoming standard behaviour of the British armed forces after an attack on them, they retaliated against the civilian population. All the houses near the ambush site were burned but they also went on to burn houses, shops and barns in Kilmichael, Johnstown and Inchigeelagh. And four days later, on 3rd December, three IRA Volunteers were arrested in Bandon, Cork County by soldiers of the Essex Rifles; after beating them, their dead bodies were dumped on the roadside.11

Barry wrote that some of the British media printed lies about the Kilmichael ambush, claiming that the dead Auxies had been mutilated but of course that could have been on the basis of information supplied by the British occupation forces; certainly there had been close quarter fighting which included bayonets and rifle-butts. He also recorded that after that War, the British State had written to him asking him to confirm details of the Auxies’ deaths for the sake of pensions to relatives and that he had declined to reply. However the body of Gutteridge, the driver of the second lorry, who had been killed after escaping the ambush site, was disinterred in 1926 by the IRA at the request of relations and buried in the Church of Ireland graveyard in Macroom.

The false surrender of the Auxies was an important issue to explain the wiping out of the column which otherwise might have been seen as execution of prisoners after the battle. The incident was described in a number of recorded accounts, of which the earliest was in 1937 by participant Stephen O’Neill. Tom Barry’s, although years later (1949), remains the fullest published account of the battle by a participant. The false surrender was mentioned in a number of British sources, including by the Auxies’ former commander, Crozier, who quoted an unnamed source in the area in his Ireland Forever (1932).

In The IRA And Its Enemies Professor Peter Hart (1963–22 July 2010) took issue with the false surrender account, focussing on Tom Barry’s recall in his book. Mistakenly believing Crozier’s to have been the first published account (and a concoction), Hart asserted that the false surrender claim was invented to conceal the killing of surviving Auxiliary officers after surrendering.

Most of Hart’s claimed sources in interviews in 1988 have been disproved in research by a number of historians, including Meda Ryan, Brian Murphy and Niall Meehan, among others (including by some of his supporters): one participant was already dead when supposedly interviewed by Hart, another was considered by his son incapable due to ravages of age and a stroke (he would have been 97 years of age) and some utterances quoted were matched to recorded interviews, including Fr. John Chisholm’s in 1970, taken long before Hart’s alleged interviews (and to which only Hart had been given access for over a decade).

It would seem that the issue has been long settled but the controversy continues albeit without any real substance. Hart was one of those people active around Irish history who have been called “revisionists” which, in the Irish context, means historians who wish to present an alternative discourse to the popular one of anti-colonialist Irish forces fighting a courageous war of resistance against a powerful and ruthless military occupying power.12 History is not just about the past but also about the present and the future, in which we all have a stake, which no doubt influences what some historians would like to believe (and to make others believe). Understandable though all that may be, to plagiarise and to falsify in order to achieve the desired result is inexcusable.

The Kilmichael Ambush modern monument (Image sourced: Independent Left)
Information text and diagram display at the ambush site (Image sourced: Internet)

TOM BARRY

After the 28th of November 1920 the myth of Auxiliary invincibility had been well and truly shattered and there would be many further engagements between the IRA and the Auxies, with varying results. A figure of 12,500 British Army troops stationed in County Cork during the conflict has been quoted but it is not clear whether this includes the ‘Tans, Auxies and the regular RIC. The war would continue with assassinations by both sides, ambushes and attacks on barracks by the guerrillas, burning of homesteads and towns by Crown forces along with raids including murders, detentions, torture and executions. Barry stated that the West Cork Flying Column had suffered 34 fatalities but that his 310 men had killed over 100 enemy combatants and wounded another 93 during that conflict.

The Truce of 11th July 1921 was followed by the Anglo-Irish Agreement, signed in London by Michael Collins and the Irish negotiating party against the advice of their English adviser Erskine Childers13 and ratifed by a slim enough majority in the First Dáil, the separatist Irish Parliament. Its limited provisions would lead to a vicious Civil War in which the majority of the guerrilla fighters and their close support structures were opposed to the new Free State Government; the latter however had the support of British armament and transport and a hastily-recruited regular army of native personnel.

During the Truce, Tom Barry married Lesley Mary Price, a 1916 Rising veteran (and later Director of Cumann na mBan, the Republican women’s auxiliary military organisation) and survived the War of Independence. He took the Anti-Treaty side and was appointed to the IRA Executive (although he later wrote that the considered the struggle unwinnable once Dublin was lost to the Free State forces – he believed a decisive blow should have been struck at the outset against the Free State and to challenge the British). Barry was taken prisoner with most of the Republican garrison of the Four Courts in the Battle for Dublin in July 1922 and imprisoned in Mountjoy Jail, later transferred to the internment concentration camp at Gormanstown in Co. Meath.

In September Barry escaped from the concentration camp and headed south, where he was appointed to command the Southern Division of the Republican forces, which eventually defeated, ended their resistance in May 1923. However, Republicans continued to be liable to arrest (and murder) by Free State forces and had to remain on the run (or emigrate) at least until the Amnesty of November 1924.

Narrowly outnumbered in a leadership vote on whether to end the Civil War, Barry had resigned from the IRA leadership as the Republican resistance limped on for a short period before the order to cease hostilities. However he returned to the leadership in 1927 and during the 1930s, like Republicans elsewhere in the territory of the State and the Republican Congress in Dublin, he was engaged in fighting the “Blueshirts”, the Irish fascist movement led by former IRA officer and comrade Eoin O’Duffy.14 And in May 1934, under the De Valera government, Barry was convicted of arms possession and jailed until December of that year. In March 1936 Vice-Admiral Henry Somerville was shot dead in his home in Castletownshend, Cork for attempting to recruit men to join the Royal Navy and Barry, though not tried for the act was believed to have been involved. When Sean McBride resigned as IRA Chief of Staff, Barry was elected to the position but resigned in 1938 over a tactical dispute.

Otherwise Barry settled down to a civilian post as Superintendent of Cork Harbour Commission from 1927-1965, during which he published his book but was much in demand for interviews and led Cork Republicans in commemorations of the War of Independence and of the Civil War. In the 1970s he publicly declared his support for the Provisional IRA (while disagreeing with some of their actions).

Tom Barry in 1966 addressing a meeting at the site of the Kilmichael Ambush at the age of 69 (Image sourced: Internet)

Tom Barry died on 2nd July 1980 — despite a number of questions regarding his political trajectory,15 perhaps Ireland’s foremost guerrilla leader, certainly in modern times. He had led many engagements against the British enemy and had lost not one; although in those engagements his force suffered some casualties they were always relatively very low. There are monuments to two of those battles at the site of the initial engagements, the Kilmichael Ambush and the Crossbarry Retreat, and to him personally at Fitzgerald Park in Cork City, near the bank of the river Lee (which also holds a monument to fellow Corkman and Barry’s opponent during the Civil War, Michael Collins).

Tom Barry bust in park in Cork City, where there is also the bust of an urban guerrilla who became an adversary of his but who died long before Tom Barry.

THE BALLAD

In admittedly light research, I have been unable to find the date of the composition or publication of the Boys of Kilmichael ballad (which I presume to have been around the mid-1960s) and only a little about the author? (listed on a couple of sites), Declan Hunt himself, who played with groups Battering Ram and Marks Men. The musicians received enthusiastic reviews for the quality of their singing and playing, as well as for commitment impact of their lyrics.

From a historical point of view the Kilmichael song contained a surprisingly inaccurate theme in its depiction of the ‘Tans as being the targets of the ambush and perhaps this is a reflection of the also inaccurate description of that conflict as “the Tan War”. I amended the lyrics to figure the Auxies instead of the Tans and, in order to maintain the rhythm, had to change one line completely (see footnotes to lyrics).

The song has a number of slightly different versions both published and in the vernacular16 and has been recorded by a number of artists. The structure and even some of the lyrics are strongly based on an earlier song, Men of the West, by Michael Rooney (1873-1901)) and the air to which it is sung is the same as the other’s. Men of the West is about the 1798 United Irishmen rising in Mayo with some French military assistance and Conchúr Mag Uidhir won a prize for the translation of the lyrics into Irish as Fir and Iarthair at the 1903 Feis Ceoil (a traditional music convention held in different areas annually) in Mayo.

The video below (reproduced with kind permission of Anti-Imperialist Action) includes near the beginning a clip of the ballad being sung in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin at the end of last month. There are of course better renditions musically but this is the only one publicly available to date in which the lyrics record that it was the Auxiliaries who were defeated there.

LYRICS OF THE BALLAD (amended by me for historical accuracy)

BOYS OF KILMICHAEL

By Declan Hunt?

I

While we honor in song and story
The memory of Pearse and McBride17
Whose names are illumined in glory
With martyrs who long have since died;
Forget not the boys of Kilmichael
Who feared not the might of the foe:
The day that they marched into battle
They laid the Auxilliaries low.

Chorus

So here’s to the boys of Kilmichael
Those brave lads so gallant and true —
They fought ‘neath the green flag of Erin
And conquered the red white and blue.18

II

On the 28th day of November
The Auxies came out of Macroom;
They were seated in two Crossley Tenders
That were bringing them straight to their doom.
They were all on the road to Kilmichael
And never expecting to stop,
They there met the boys from the Column
Who made a clean sweep of the lot.

(chorus)

So here’s to the boys of Kilmichael …

III

The sun in the west it was sinking
‘Twas the eve of a cold winter’s day
When the Auxies we were eagerly waiting
Sailed into the spot where we lay
And over the hill came the echo
The peal of the rifle and gun
And the flames from the lorries brought tidings
That the boys of Kilmichael had won.

(chorus)

So here’s to the boys of Kilmichael …

IV

The lorries were ours before twilight
And high over Dunmanway town
Our banners in triumph were waving
For the Auxies were beaten right down19.
So we gathered our rifles and bayonets
And soon left the glen so secure
And we never drew rein till we halted
At the faraway camp at Granure.20

(chorus)

So here’s to the boys of Kilmichael …

End.

FOOTNOTES

1At its height the Auxiliary Division RIC numbered 1,900.

2For whose capture Percival was awarded the Order of the British Empire.

3James Connolly, born to Irish migrants and reared in Edinburgh, developed into a revolutionary socialist and was Dublin Commandant of the Easter Rising but could not have known that McLoughlin would later himself become a communist.

4McLoughlin proposed the formation of bands of around 40 in which those for whom there were not enough firearms would be employed in roles such as first aid and demolition (scouting would have been another obvious role). Of course, as arms were seized those men could be armed. Interestingly, Liam Lynch had proposed the inclusion of Cumann na mBan and McLoughin had agreed; given the attitudes of the time one assumes their role would have been in an auxiliary one to that of the fighters.

5The location’s name is not directly related to Tom Barry but rather to the Norman family De Barry or, in Irish, De Barra; or possibly in West Cork of Ó Báire, an ancient Irish family name.

6I came across that account while searching for images for this article which by then was nearly completely written; had I come across it much earlier I doubt I would have written on the event at all but I hope I have added an additional something to the account, even if no more than about the ballad and about Barry himself.

7He had not been enlisted for the ambush party but followed them at a distance, his presence being discovered when nearing the site. He had begged to be allowed to stay and, unfortunately for him, had convinced them to do so.

8The Auxie who ran away had left his rifle behind so the Column had gained 18 modern rifles.

9Obviously this does not include the sniper or bomb attack.

10A number of accounts state that each of the attacking party had a rifle with 35 rounds which, if accurate, since accounts agree that shotguns were used, must mean some men carried a rifle in addition to a shotgun, which hardly makes sense. It is more likely that there were insufficient rifles for all and that some had shotguns, those in particular being assigned close-quarter fighting.

11Barry wrote that apart from the Auxies and Tans, who soon gained no mercy from the IRA, generally those who surrendered to the IRA were deprived of their weapons, told not to take up arms against the Irish people again and set free. Because of their treatment of civilians on raids and prisoners, an exception was made of soldiers of the Essex Regiment – but not until a note from Barry to their Commanding Officer warning him to have his men – and in particular his Intelligence Officer Arthur Percival — desist from torture and murder, was ignored. During WW2, to the disgust of many British, Dominion and Empire troops under his command, and civilians on the island, Lieut-General Percival surrendered Singapore to the Japanese Imperial Army along with 80,000 of his command, most of whom had not fired a shot. More than half of those POWs never returned home.

12Peter Hart rejected the term “revisionist historian”, saying it was pejorative, which in terms of Irish history it generally has been. In some other historical contexts however, for example the USA, revisionist historians have gone against the historical canon and have been concerned to tell the stories of the working class, women, indigenous people, slaves and ethnic minorities. Something similar has occurred in Britain. In Europe some revisionist historians have questioned the dominance of the post-Nazi discourse of a generally resisting population and researched the degree of collaboration among the occupied populations.

13Erskine Childers was an English sailor and author of the best-seller The Riddle of the Sands. He had brought his yacht The Aud, crewed by his wife and others, to Howth in 1914 to deliver Mauser rifles for the Irish Volunteers; these were in particular use during the 1916 Rising. He enlisted in the British Army for the duration of WW1 but, returning to Ireland, joined the reorganised Volunteers/ IRA, where he directed the insurrectionary war’s publicity department. Siding with the majority of the resistance military against the Anglo-Irish Treaty, he was captured during the Civil War, condemned to death by Free State military tribunal and executed. His son became fourth President of the Irish State.

14These were later incorporated into the Fine Gael political party, for generations one of the two main political parties in Governmentwhich, at the time of writing, is in coalition government with the Fianna Fáil and Green parties.

15He had advocated joining forces with Fianna Fáil during the 1930s and had also opened relations with Nazi Germany which he maintained up to 1939 while during WW2 he worked for the Irish State’s Army intelligence for the Southern Command with the rank of Commander and even wrote for its publication An Cosantóir.

16As for example in the lines
"For the boys of the Column were waiting
With hand grenades primed on the spot
And the Irish Republican Army
Made shit of the whole bloody lot."

17Two of the 14 executed by the British in Dublin after the 1916 Rising; Patrick Pearse was Commander-in-Chief and stationed at HQ (GPO and Moore Street) while Major John McBride joined the garrison at Jacobs at the last minute (he had his rank from the Irish Transvaal Brigade, in which he had fought the British in the 2nd Boer War).

18The Tricolour, not the green flag was the generally-accepted national flag at this time. The “red, white and blue” are the colours of the “Union Jack” the flag of the United Kingdom. The name of Ireland is “Éire” and “Erin”, although often used, does not exist (probably originally taken in error from the Genitive “na h-Éireann” or the dative, “in Éirinn”).

19My substituted line for “to show that the Tans had gone down”.

20The song lyrics I saw list “Glenure”; there are two places listed as “Glenure” in Cork County, both a long distance from Kilmichael, even without having fought a battle and being loaded down with captured equipment. However, in the military pension statement of Stephen O’Neill, one of the participants, I found the place listed as Granure which, at just over 8 miles away from the ambush site, was more reasonable, though still a heavy slog. They reached it about an hour before midnight.

SOURCES

The flying column:

On Another Man’s Wound (1936), Ernie O’Malley

Guerrilla Days in Ireland (1949), Tom Barry

Raids and Rallies (1985), Ernie O’Malley

McLoughlin’s development of the flying column formation in Killing At Its Very Extreme (2020), by Derek Molyneux and Darren Kelly and read out by the former in Moore Street: https://www.facebook.com/879326262086966/videos/335616977683240

Very full account and assessment by Conor Kostik: https://independentleft.ie/kilmichael-ambush/

For the post-ambush flying column actions from Saoirse 92 blog: http://www.kilmichael.org/hisambush.htm

7 thoughts on “SMASHING THE MYTH – THE KILMICHAEL AMBUSH

  1. keith adams

    I remember reading that the song was written in the immediate aftermath of the ambush by a non-participant Brigade member, who realised he was walking around with the words written on paper in his pocket so he hid it in a fencepost and forgot about it till a few months later and then went back and retrieved it.

    1. That would be a great story if true but I doubt it because the evidence is now pointing towards the Behans, Brendan and Dominic. Readers have been kind enough to make me aware of two recordings in which the song or part of it is included, although strangely both have the date as “18th” instead of 28th. I will post them as a comment later, also a great recording I was sent of primary schoolkids in Cork singing the “Tans” version.

  2. BW

    A good clear examination of the event.

    Fir your information a Lee Enfield Rifle magazine holds ten rounds. They are loaded in “stripper clips” of five rounds each.

    35 rounds would be seven clips ten rounds in the rifle and five clips in a five pocket leather or cloth bandolier (which could hold up to ten clips or 50 tounds).

    1. Yes, thank you, I’m afraid I have held that erroneous impression since I first read of the clip of five. If my Da were alive I could have asked him, he joined the Irish Army during the Emergency and gained his crossed-rifle insignia shooting the Lee-Enfield. I have edited that to correct it now.

  3. Pingback: KILMICHAEL — FASCISTS’ “PATRIOTISM” EXPOSED – rebelbreeze

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