Bloody fable of Kilmichael's dead
John A Murphy on conflicting versions of the 1920 West Cork ambush in which 17 Auxiliaries died at the hands of Tom Barry's flying column
ON TUESDAY next, the 80th anniversary of the Kilmichael ambush, the consistently high-quality television programme Léargas will deal with that major episode in the independence struggle. I was one of those asked by presenter Pat Butler to comment on its historical significance and in this article I give my views more fully, as well as adding a local and personal dimension.
Only a week after Michael Collins's squad had devastated British intelligence with the Bloody Sunday assassinations in Dublin, 17 Auxiliary "cadets" were wiped out in an ambush on a bleak roadside at Kilmichael, between Macroom and Dunmanway, by a 40-strong flying column of the West Cork Brigade under its 22-year-old commander, Tom Barry. Three members of the column died in the encounter. The term "cadet", used extensively in British reports, is misleading: The men of "C" company were ex-army and RAF officers, experienced and decorated Great War veterans whose average age was 27. They comprised a crack unit of a force specially recruited to deal with the IRA.
Their annihilation by inexperienced volunteers gave a new military significance to what had been simplistically represented in British propaganda as a civil disturbance in which policemen had to deal with a murder gang. Local and national folklore immediately acclaimed the event and a rousing ballad achieved an instant success.
Skibbereen Eagle-like exaggerations depicted the victorious ambush in global terms and it was subsequently claimed that Kilmichael tactics were studied at famous military academies and that Japanese soldiers sang The Boys of Kilmichael as they took over Singapore in 1942!
Seriously, the impact was real and considerable. Volunteer morale was enhanced in West Cork and further afield, the unionist Irish Times described the ambush as "the biggest and most terrible that has yet taken place in Ireland", and the Irish Chief Secretary, Sir Hamar Greenwood, informed the House of Commons that it was "a challenge to the authority of this House, and of civilisation" no less!
Kilmichael, in conjunction with other events, upped the ante considerably. There was a general intensification of Irish resistance and British response in the introduction of martial law, for example.
The prominence of the West Cork flying column was again highlighted in the successful engagement at Crossbarry in March 1921. There were many factors at work during thewinter/spring of 1920-21 which must be considered in explaining the radical change in British offers to nationalist Ireland over that period, from modest devolution to the substance of independence.
But the role of the guerrilla struggle cannot be gainsaid. Henry Kissinger's interesting observation about Vietnam comes to mind: "The guerrilla wins if he does not lose: the conventional army loses if it does not win."
If we accept this as applicable to the 1920-21 struggle, then there is more than an element of truth (making due allowances for local boasting) in the claim made by that other ballad that "the boys who beat the Black and Tans were the boys of the Co Cork".
TOM Barry's account of what happened at Kilmichael, as set down in his Guerrilla Days in Ireland (1949), has been widely accepted by nationalists including, presumably, those who will assemble today at the monument site for a commemorative address by Sinn Féin's Pat Doherty. Central to Barry's version is the "false surrender" story: He claimed that during the bloody hand-to-hand combat some Auxies treacherously resumed fire after a pretence at surrender, killing three volunteers. Barry then directed his men to keep firing at the remaining Auxies "until the last of them was dead".
The "false surrender" incident has been much disputed, most recently in a detailed analysis by historian Peter Hart in his admirable book, The IRA and Its Enemies: Violence and Community in Cork, 1916-1923 (Oxford 1998). The official British report, needless to say, has no reference to the "false surrender" and it alleges, moreover, that the victorious ambushers "forcibly disarmed the survivors" and perpetrated "a brutal massacre, the policy of the murder gang being apparently to allow no survivor to disclose their methods: the dead and wounded were hacked about the head with axes, shotguns were fired into their bodies, and they were savagely mutilated".
Similar allegations of "hideous mutilations" posthumously inflicted were made during malicious injury applications, in court the following January. It should be noted, however, that the more shocking the picture painted, the greater was the prospect of substantial compensation being paid to the bereaved relatives.
Barry, who remained obsessive about Kilmichael until his death in 1980, unsurprisingly dismissed the atrocity allegations as black British propaganda. He always expressed his annoyance with any accounts of Kilmichael which differed from his own, and he was particularly furious with those, especially fellow-volunteers, who seemed to cast doubts on the "false surrender" story. He protested that he was thus being depicted as a "bloody-minded commander who exterminated the Auxiliaries without reason".
What seems certain is that Barry meant Kilmichael to be a fight to the finish. Not only would it be a major challenge to British military might but his own commitment to the cause would be clearly demonstrated, thus resolving all doubts arising from his Great War service and his loyalist family background. The ambush strategy reflected Barry's bravery, and his ruthlessness. There would be total victory or total defeat. No quarter would be given and no prisoners taken. It was not an outing for faint-hearted boy scouts. Barry graphically depicts the lurid and nightmarish post-ambush scene. "Afterwards some of our men were shaken by the whole thing and I had to drill them in the road, march them up and down, to preserve discipline ... it was a strange sight, with the lorries burning in the night and these men marching along, back and forth between the blood and the corpses ... "
GROWING up in my native town of Macroom and in a strongly republican family, I was keenly aware from an early age of the stories about Kilmichael ambush. "C" company had been stationed in Macroom Castle and it was from there they drove the 10 miles or so "to their doom" at Kilmichael, as the ballad narrates. Before the obscure place name finally registered with the press and the British military authorities, the episode was referred to as "the Macroom murders". The townspeople were greatly relieved when dreaded reprisals didn't materialise. Presumably, they were glad enough in the circumstances to comply with the order to close business premises as a mark of respect to the dead Auxies, whose remains were driven through the streets en route for Cork and the sea crossing for burial in England.
All except one. Cadet Cecil Guthrie, left for dead at the ambush, actually escaped but was shortly recaptured by two local volunteers, murdered and buried in Annahala Bog, near Macroom. In the mid-1920s, his family arranged for his exhumation and reburial which took place, curiously enough not at home in England but in enemy country, in the graveyard of the Protestant church in Inchigeela, in the adjoining parish to Kilmichael. The grave slab, isolated just inside the cemetery wall, records the date of death and his name but discreetly makes no reference to the engagement which led to his murder. The grave is only yards away from the resting place in the Catholic churchyard of my paternal grandmother's people. A well-known Macroom personality had carried out the gruesome task of exhumation and my child's mind was morbidly fascinated by the grisly detail that one of Guthrie's legs had been eaten "by Tom Shea's sheepdog".
Our GP when I was a boy was Dr Jeremiah Kelleher who had also been Macroom coroner. He had given evidence to the malicious injuries court on the nature of the wounds inflicted on the victims of Kilmichael ambush. He had examined the bodies of the dead Auxies and was therefore a first-hand forensic witness to the results of the slaughter.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Kelleher was still a familiar figure in the streets and sickrooms of Macroom and a welcome one. He was a devoted family physician bringing his healing skills and his irascible attention to all his patients irrespective of ability to pay, across the multi-layered social divide. He rejected 1916 and all that followed, sometimes berating my mild-mannered father beyond endurance, and calling him "a bloody fool" for being duped by the subversive riff-raff who were now running the country. Kelleher had been personally affected in the course of the Troubles when his son, a RIC officer, had been shot dead by the IRA in Granard, Co Longford. Though he made no secret of his anti-nationalist views, it is said that he won the respect of his enemies for unfailingly answering the call of duty in tending confidentially to wounded volunteers.
His bristling integrity commands respect for his Kilmichael evidence. While not corroborating the wilder British charges of "hideous mutilation", the doctor testified that the Auxies had been riddled with bullets, three had been shot at point-blank range, several had been shot after death, and another's head had been smashed open.
I HAVE sometimes wondered if my parents' obvious unease about the Kilmichael ambush was not partly due to Dr Kelleher's influence. But then they weren't too happy either with other incidents in the locality during the Troubles. My father was a volunteer whose name appeared on RIC lists but whose warlike activities were confined to ancillary operations like felling trees, using his carpenter's skills. In my wildest dreams, I could never envisage him firing a gun or throwing a Mills bomb.
My parents, like other nationalist supporters of the physical-force struggle, wanted fervently to believe that the volunteers had fought with the utmost chivalry. After all, "On our side was virtue and Erin, on theirs was the Saxon and guilt". The gap between the sentimental Jacobite militarism of Thomas Davis ballads and the blood-and-brains-bespattered reality of 20th century terrorism was too vast for my parents to grasp and come to terms with.
And so, whenever they sang The Boys of Kilmichael (which they rarely did because they found its braggadocio unpleasant and because in any case their nationalist repertoire was too wide and rich) they used the more genteel punch-line about "the boys of the column making a clean sweep of them all".
However, the no-holds-barred reality of the encounter is more truthfully and more terribly depicted in the vulgarly robust version: "the Irish Republican Army made s**t of the whole f***ing lot".
There is no place for Thomas Davis parlour-sentimentality in guerrilla warfare, any more than there is for the Queensberry Rules or the Geneva Convention. That is why the "false surrender" controversy is irrelevant.
Once the Sinn Féin resurgence drifted away from political disaffection towards violence in 1919, the savagery of terrorism and counter-terrorism became inevitable. At Kilmichael, Tom Barry's guerrillas did what guerrillas do.
Kilmichael cemetery is the burial ground of my Murphy ancestors. The day I was interviewed at the monument site for the Léargas programme, my thoughts turned to their neighbouring resting place which I occasionally visit and venerate.
A century before the ambush, all that area of West Cork was "severely disturbed" (to use the security jargon of the day), as the exploited tillers of the soil made their elemental protests against the tyranny of land holders and magistrates. These are the largely unknown "boys of Kilmichael" (and of nearby Iveleary) that I sing about to myself.
* Léargas, RTE 1, Tuesday, November 28, 7pm.
* John A Murphy is Emeritus Professor of Irish History at University College, Cork