The truth about the boys of Kilmichael
SBP, Sunday, November 26, 2000
On November 28, 1920 a bloody event in Cork changed the course of Irish history. 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, an event occurred that changed the face of the Anglo-Irish War.
One legend fell, another was born. The grey establishment men on both sides of the Irish Sea -- the one comfortable in their starched collars, the other not yet so and until recently more accustomed to the rough feel of khaki and the whiff of cordite -- both sets of grey men privately recognised it was time to look towards a fuller solution.
Whereas the `Black and Tans' were an uncommissioned rabble, the Auxiliary Division of the RIC was drawn entirely from the British officer class -- a special unit task force recruited through the `old boy' network to face down armed insurrection and lawlessness by whatever means they chose to employ. Their official rank of Temporary Cadet is a gross misnomer, a mere administrative convenience. The 'Auxies', as they came to be spoken of in folk culture, were a battle-hardened elite tempered in the fire of the Great War.
These were professional fighting men. Terror was their chosen, officially sanctioned and rarely concealed trade.
In the three months since their formation the Auxiliary Division had rampaged unchallenged from Balbriggan to Bandon, creating their own particular legend of ruthless invincibility.
Until, on that broken hillside, 18 Officers of `C' Company Auxiliary Division RIC were wiped out in the bloodiest engagement of the War of Independence.
With just one week's training behind them, 36 IRA Volunteers shot their way into history, led by a 22-year-old ex-British Army soldier in his first action as Commander of the Third West Cork Brigade Flying Column.
After the ambush the British military and political establishment, shaken to the core, knew it was time to reassess.
No longer could they boast `they had terror by the throat in Ireland'. Nor that the IRA was `a civilian rabble of low-level miscreants'.
Such an interpretation was now inconceivable -- the cream of England's military elite had been vanquished in hand-to-hand combat.
Thus on that bitter roadway another legend was born.
Tom Barry did not just defeat the Auxiliaries at Kilmichael. He destroyed them. Eighteen Auxies left Macroom Castle that Sunday morning on routine patrol. Sixteen lay dead on the roadside. One, HF Ford, survived, brain-damaged and paralysed. Ford seemed to be dead. Ironically, the severity of his injuries saved his life.
The driver of the second Crossley tender made good his escape from the ambush site, only to be captured nearby by a separate group of IRA Volunteers. After his execution, Cecil Guthrie's body was dumped in Annahala Bog.
Broken in spirit, 'C' Company of the Auxiliary Division stationed at Macroom never recovered. Disbanded shortly after, their commanding officer, Colonel Buxton Smith, committed suicide in London in January 1922.
Professor John A Murphy is unequivocal in his assessment of the significance of Kilmichael and the ensuing engagement at Crossbarry. In the Le(argas documentary on RTE 1 (Tuesday, 7pm) "Kilmichael -- gaisce no( slad?" he says. "There's no doubt, whether we like it or not, it was guerrilla warfare prosecuted by the Volunteers which finally brought the British to the negotiating table."
So what really happened on that windswept November roadside? Why to this day does Kilmichael evoke feelings of heroism in some and revulsion in others? How come it is so easy to view this particular military action from both ends of the same telescope?
The answer lies in the fact that wounded Auxiliaries were executed, on Barry's orders, after their resistance had ceased. The nature and intention of that cessation lies at the heart of the Kilmichael dilemma.
Up to the late 1960s the traditional view of the ambush was shaped by the writings and personality of Thomas Bernadine Barry, IRA commander at Kilmichael.
Barry had served for four years with the British Army on various fronts, including the slaughterhouse of Mesopotamia. It is believed it was he who raised the Union flag on Armistice Day in Bandon in 1919. Within a few months, for whatever reason, Barry changed sides. The established IRA Brigade leadership mistrusted this tainted Johnny-come-lately. But they needed his expertise.
Kilmichael was Barry's first command. Aware of what he had to do to earn his IRA stripes, Tom Barry never informed the Brigade leadership he was planning a `spectacular'. Whatever doubts existed before 4.05 on the afternoon of November 28 they were dramatically dispelled by 4.20. Barry created a legend which he happily lived out for the remainder of his life.
He was ruthless, arrogant, self-assured, heroic, brave, cruel -- a professional soldier honed in his trade by the very class of man about to face him on that bleak hillside at Shanacashel. The contradictions at the centre of Tom Barry make him a figure of controversy to this day. Feared and adored in equal measure by a majority of his men, Barry made lifelong enemies and contemptuously cultivated them with abandon.
This is the central tenet of Barry's account of Kilmichael. Having disposed of all the Auxiliaries at the first lorry, he and three of his men went to engage the decorated war veterans fighting for their lives at the second lorry.
The Auxies, according to Barry, uttered a `false surrender' and threw down their rifles. Members of Barry's Second Section stood to take the surrender. The Auxiliaries, again according to Barry, whipped out their revolvers and killed two of his men. Upon which Barry ordered his troops to "keep firing and not to stop until I tell ye".
There may well have been a genuine surrender after that. But Barry wasn't listening. The rest is disputed history.
Folklore has it that Barry, when asked by an American research student why the Auxiliaries didn't run away, replied: "Because we plugged them till they couldn't."
Dr Peter Hart is a Canadian who lectures at Queen's University Belfast. In his seminal work The IRA and Its Enemies (1998) Hart dispatches Barry's account with the following summary: "Barry's `history' of Kilmichael is riddled with lies and evasions. There was no false surrender, as he described it. The surviving Auxiliaries were simply `exterminated'."
Dr Peter Murphy of Glenstal Abbey takes the opposite view. "Peter Hart says that Barry's account of Kilmichael is riddled with lies and evasions. Peter Hart's account, on the other hand, is riddled with contradictions and question marks."
While these two heavyweights slug it out in the arena of academic infighting, the people of Kilmichael, Inchigeelagh and c*(il Aodha are, by and large, content with the old certainties. While Kevin Myers of the Irish Times railed against folk-singer Jimmy Crowley's decision to record The Boys of Kilmichael in 1998, the song has never caused much difficulty in that place which poet Liam O( Muirthile rather elegantly describes as `na(isiu( n na mbailte fearainn' -- `the nation of the townlands'.
Rarely a wedding or a wake takes place without either `a lash' at the song, in the case of the latter, or in the case of the former, a drum-kit old-time-waltz treatment, with or without the bride!
In a moment of delicious irony, local-born Bishop of Cork and Ross Most Rev Dr John Buckley admires the song: "it's a wonderful song, it's part of our history", deeply conscious that his predecessor Daniel Coholan -- a man from the parish of Kilmichael -- excommunicated the IRA a fortnight after the ambush.
But Coholan's was not the first decisive move in response to the overwhelming and inescapable reality of Kilmichael. Two days earlier the Viceroy Lord French declared martial law in South Tipperary, Limerick City and Cork City and County.
The following night under the protection of `law' drunken bands of Auxiliaries and others, in an act of vengeance, burned the heart of Cork City to the ground.
Peter Hart cites a command report, unsigned but allegedly written by Barry in the aftermath of Kilmichael, in which the false surrender is not mentioned, and also the 1932 article he wrote for the Irish Press, again without the false surrender.
Liam Deasy's 1974 account -- Deasy was not involved at Kilmichael -- neither mentions nor denies the surrender. But this must be balanced against Barry's 1941 An Cosanto(ir article, his seminal Guerrilla Days in Ireland (1949) and innumerable radio and television interviews.
Neither is Barry without independent support. Piaras Beasla in his book on Collins (1926) mentions the false surrender; Stephen O'Neill, Section Three Commander at Kilmichael, does also in the Kerryman (1938).
But it is difficult not to be impressed with an account of Kilmichael given in the 1932 opus Ireland For Ever, written by no less a personage than Brigadier-General FP Crozier, Commander of the Auxiliary Forces in Ireland. Crozier personally investigated Kilmichael in response to the loss of 18 of his men. He concluded as follows: "Arms were supposed to have been surrendered, but a wounded Auxiliary whipped out a revolver while lying on the ground and shot a `Shinner', with the result that all his comrades were put to death along with him, the rebels `seeing red', a condition akin to `going mad'."
And what of Cecil Guthrie, whose body lay in Annahala Bog? In 1926, on behalf of the Guthrie family, Kevin O'Higgins, 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. At last Cecil Guthrie lies in hallowed ground, embraced by the soil of Uibh Laoghaire at Inchigeelagh Churchyard, there finding sanctuary among the ancestral clans of Uibh Laoghaire -- the only Auxiliary grave in Ireland.
The only absolute certainty about Kilmichael is that the last word has yet to be written.
The embers of the fire lit by Tom Barry at blood-soaked Dus a' Bharraigh still redden, fanned by the winds of heated debate.