The Kilmichael (Irish: Luíochán Chill Mhichíl) ambush on November 28, 1920 was a turning point in the Irish War of Independence. There, between the hours of 4:05 p.m. and 4:20 p.m., thirty-six local Irish Republican Army volunteers under the command of 23-year-old Tom Barry killed 17 members of the British state’s elite paramilitary Auxiliary Division of the RIC. The Kilmichael ambush was of great political significance as it came just a week after Bloody Sunday (1920) in Dublin and marked a profound escalation in the IRA’s guerrilla campaign.
The Auxiliaries were commissioned officers and were initially designed to provide an officer class to the Black and Tans, the paramilitary police raised by the British to put down republican guerrillas in Ireland. However, they quickly became a separate force following their establishment in July 1920 and were regarded as a highly trained elite force by both sides in the conflict. The Auxiliaries engaged at Kilmichael all had previous experience in World War I. While they were officially part of the RIC in effect they were independent of it. The Auxiliaries and the Black and Tans rapidly became highly unpopular in Ireland for their intimidation of the civilian population and their arbitrary reprisals for IRA actions – including house burnings, beatings and killings. Only a week before the Kilmichael ambush, the Auxiliaries had fired on a football crowd in Dublin’s Croke Park, killing 14 civilians.
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 in order to intimidate the local population away from supporting the IRA. Tom Barry, in his memoirs, 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 November 21, he assembled a flying column of 36 riflemen at Clogher. The column had just 35 rounds for each rifle as well as a handful of revolvers and two mills bombs (hand grenades). Barry scouted possible ambush sites on horseback and selected one on 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 men took up positions in the low rocky hills on either side of the road.
As dusk fell between 4.05 and 4.20 on November 28, 1920 on a desolate roadside at Dus a’ Bharraigh in the townland of Shanacashel, Kilmichael Parish, near Macroom the ambush took place.
Just before the Auxiliaries came into view, two armed IRA men, 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 this by directing the car up a side road and out of the way. The IRA got the Auxiliaries’ first lorry to slow down by placing Barry himself on the road, wearing what Barry claims was an IRA officer’s tunic given to him by Paddy O’Brien, but what the British would later claim was one of their own uniforms. The British would also claim that the IRA had worn British uniforms including steel trench helmets, however Barry insisted that, with the exception of himself, they were all dressed in civilian clothes, although they were using captured British weapons and equipment. The lorry, containing nine Auxiliaries slowed almost to a halt 35 yards (c. 30 metres) from the ambush position before Barry gave the order to fire and the lorry was hit by hand grenade, thrown by Barry into the open cab. A savage close quarter fight ensued. According to Barry’s account, some of the British were killed using rifle butts and bayonets. The British later claimed that the dead had been mutilated with axes, although Barry dismissed this as absurd. All nine Auxiliaries in the first lorry were killed.
While this fight was still going on, a second lorry, also containing 9 Auxiliaries, had driven into the ambush position and its occupants were exchanging fire with the IRA squad who had not engaged the first lorry. When Barry brought the men who had attacked the first lorry to bear on the second lorry, he claims the Auxiliaries called out to surrender, but then opened fire when the IRA men emerged from cover, killing two of them. Barry then says that he ordered, “Rapid fire and do not stop until I tell you”. Barry states that he ignored a subsequent attempt by the Auxiliaries to surrender, and kept his men firing at a range of only ten yards (8 metres) until he believed all the British troops were dead. In fact, two survived, though badly injured. Among the dead was Colonel Crake, commander of the Auxiliaries in Macroom. Two IRA men, Michael McCarthy, Jim O’Sullivan were killed outright and Pat Deasy (brother of Liam Deasy) was mortally wounded. .
Two officers survived the ambush. One, HF Ford, survived, though shot in the head, brain-damaged and paralysed. Ford was left for dead by the IRA. Ironically, the severity of his injuries saved his life. He was picked up by the British the following day and taken to hospital in Cork and was later awarded £10,000 in compensation. The other survivor, Cecil Guthrie, escaped, badly wounded from the ambush site but he asked for help at a house where two IRA men were staying and they killed him with his own gun. According to Father Pat Twohig’s “Green Tears for Hecuba”, Guthrie was identified as the member of the Auxiliaries who had previously murdered the uninvolved civilian Séamus Ó Liatháin in Ballymakeerahe. 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. Guthrie’s remains were disinterred and handed over to the Church of Ireland authorities at Macroom. He was soon buried in a proper grave.
Many of the IRA men were severely shaken by the action and some of them 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 psychologically affected by the fight, as he collapsed with severe chest pains on December 3 and had to be secretly hospitalised in Cork City. It is likely that the ongoing stress of being on the run and the commander of the flying column along with a poor diet as well as the intense combat at Kilmichael contributed to his medical problems.
The principal source for what happened at the Kilmichael ambush is Tom Barry’s own account, as detailed in his book, Guerrilla Days in Ireland (1949). However Barry’s version of events was disputed in The IRA And Its Enemies (1998) by Professor Peter Hart. Hart claims that Tom Barry’s claim of a false surrender is an invention and that the surviving Auxiliary officers were exterminated after they had surrendered. This was what the British authorities stated publicly at the time, but it was never accepted as fact by the IRA veterans of the ambush. Hart backs up his argument by citing an account of the ambush by Paddy O’Brien in the general history of the period by Liam Deasy, which did not mention a false surrender. Hart claims that Barry disarmed the Auxiliaries in the second lorry, most of whom were wounded and then had them killed. Hart’s critics, notably the historian Meda Ryan, argue that although O’Brien’s version does not mention a false surrender, it does not detail the killing of wounded or disarmed men either.
In Tom Barry’s own words, he told his men before the action that, “the fight could only end in the smashing of the Auxiliaries or the destruction of the flying column… The Auxiliaries were killers without mercy. If they won, no prisoners would be brought back to Macroom. The alternative now was to kill or be killed; see to it that those terrorists die and are broken”. These words indicate to Hart that Barry did not anticipate taking prisoners in the ambush. To others it is an unremarkable example of pre-battle rhetoric signifying little of substance in the context of the debate on Kilmichael.
Controversy continues in Ireland over Hart’s claims. Meda Ryan, author of Tom Barry, IRA Freedom Fighter (2003,5), disputed Hart’s claim to have interviewed an anonymous IRA veteran alleging a massacre of wounded Auxiliaries. Hart states that he interviewed an IRA participant in the ambush on November 19, 1989, though the last surviving IRA Kilmichael veteran, Ned Young, died on November 13, 1989. Hart claimed to have conducted anonymous interviews with two IRA ambush veterans, between 1988 and 1990, one of them an unarmed ambush scout. According to Ryan, the second last veteran of Kilmichael, Jack O’Sullivan, died in January 1986, and the last ambush scout died in 1972. Ryan’s dating is not disputed. Hart also claimed to have sourced additional information from interviews conducted by a Father Chisholm, but again the interviewees are anonymous and therefore cannot be verified. In addition Hart claimed that an unsigned typed ‘report’ of the battle he found in the Imperial War Museum is Barry’s after battle 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 Barry that would not have made – for instance, stating that two IRA volunteers had been mortally wounded and one killed outright, when the reverse was true. In addition, the document contains information known only to the British authorities, but unknown to Barry. Barry did not know that Guthrie, the Auxiliary who escaped, is “now missing”, or even that he escaped in the first place. Barry referred to seventeen Auxiliaries dead on the road. This was incorrect, as one, HF Ford, was severely wounded and left for dead. The ‘report’ correctly attests to “sixteen of the enemy . . . being killed”. As Meda Ryan pointed out in History Ireland (Vol 13, No 5): “in other words, the ‘report’ correctly attests to British casualties (and also to arms captures) known to the British but unknown to Barry, while it incorrectly states facts about Irish casualties that were known to Barry but unknown to the British.” Peter Hart omitted the sections of the ‘report’ that subsequently cast doubt on its authenticity from his published version.
In his replies to criticism in ‘History Ireland’ in 2005 Peter Hart did not explain the interview anomalies and the omissions from his published account. Historian Brian Murphy, in his The Origin and Organisation of British Propaganda in Ireland in 1920 (2006), drew attention to the manner in which Peter Hart reproduced sophisticated British propaganda accounts of the ambush. Murphy detected the hidden hand of chief propagandist Basil Clark in Dublin Castle, the seat of British Administration in Ireland, in the writing of these reports, including the allegation of mutilation of British Auxiliaries by axes at Kilmichael. Murphy traced the origin and authorship of news reports appearing in newspapers to the Dublin Castle strategy of “propaganda by news”. According to Murphy, Basil Clarke’s media spin later become Peter Hart’s historical spin.