Wednesday 17 July 2019

Eoghan Harris: 'Why Tom Barry failed to shoot Major Percival in Bandon in 1920'

Cartoon by Jim Cogan
Cartoon by Jim Cogan
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Tom Barry time is what I call the hazy days of high summer in West Cork when I follow in the footsteps of his famous flying column.

Last week, when the sun came out, I loaded Sean O Riada's Ding Dong into the CD player and set out for the site of the Kilmichael ambush, listening to Sean O Se singing The Boys of Kilmichael.

Sean sings it well, but it's a pedestrian ballad, much inferior to the little known Barry's Column in the sean-nos style which in a moment of madness I may record and post on Vimeo for posterity.

Please log in or register with for free access to this article.

Log In

At Kilmichael I stop at the spot where the legendary leader won glory and a grim reputation.

Growing up in Cork, of course, I only got the glory. Week nights my father sat down with a few bottles of stout and took me on a mental tour of the War of Independence in Cork.

Sunday was the physical tour and I became familiar with the ambush sites of Toureen, Kilmichael and Crossbarry. I loved it all.

After Kilmichael, my father told me how, aged 10, he stood at the front of silent crowds lining the Western Road watching as 17 coffins draped in the Union flag, borne on tenders, were slow-marched down the Western Road, as grim-faced British troops lined the streets with fixed bayonets.

Their barely repressed rage would soon break out in the burning of Cork, their behaviour inflamed by their belief that the bodies of their comrades had been mutilated after death.

Sean Murphy's classic Kilmichael: A Battlefield Study argued that the "mutilations" were mostly wounds under the armpits as the Auxies raised their arms in surrender - as they were accustomed to do on the battlefields of World War I.

Despite the huge holes in his story, Tom Barry's guff about a "false surrender" driving him to refuse the Auxiliaries mercy, still dominates discourse among his nationalist devotees.

My first contact with Barry the man rather than the myth came at UCC in 1964, when Jim Blake and myself organised a student march to support Barry's mistaken criticism of the benign Earl of Rosse who had been invited to open the Cork Choral Festival.

Back then, when I organised a march it stayed organised. Almost the entire student body in UCC marched silently in threes to turn their backs as the Earl arrived at City Hall.

On the way, as we turned from Washington Street on to the Grand Parade, we saw Tom Barry watching at the window of his flat over Woodford Bourne's, his hand raised in salute.

Barry, by then a forgotten figure, was deeply moved by the march. From then on, Jim Blake and myself became his bosom drinking companions in the Cork Grocers Club.

Here, as he held court with his loyal aide de camp, Jim Hurley, we got first- hand accounts (which, of course, didn't mean they were true) of the major ambushes, along with some ribald reminiscences.

Barry, to give him his due, had none of the hypocritical sexual piety of the early Provo leaders. We got cheering glimpses of Cumann na mBan girls in safe farmhouses defying their fathers to comfort the boys in the barn.

He recalled how, after one such tryst, Jim Hurley kept pulling him down to take cover during the RIC's dour defence of Rosscarbery Barracks, shouting that he was in a state of mortal sin.

Barry gave high praise to the courage of the RIC who refused to surrender.

He had reason to respect them. A few years ago, that fine historian, Cal Hyland of Rosscarbery, gave me a stirring account of the plucky fight put up by Protestant and Catholic RIC men of the garrison.

But in recent years my admiration for Barry was replaced by darker reflections following the publication of Peter Hart's The IRA and Its Enemies, and my contact with Protestant families whose relatives had suffered under Barry's repressive regime.

Sean Murphy's book on the Kilmichael ambush completed the process of moving Barry from myth to history, a process resisted by a posse of hagiographers.

Barry was revealed as an ambitious militarist, willing to sacrifice surrendered British soldiers as well as Protestant civilians in pursuit of glory.

Today he hovers in my mind somewhere between a hero and a homicidal thug.

Whatever about him massacring surrendered prisoners - which frequently happened on the Western Front - there was no excuse for his executions of Protestant civilians and burning of Big Houses, which green nitpickers should note increased after the British stopped retaliatory arson attacks.

Any attempt to revise nationalist myths about the Old IRA in West Cork is followed by a campaign of nitpicking about factoids so as to hide the larger facts.

For example, my claim that the IRA intimidated a lone Protestant woman was challenged even though it had featured in Cal Hyland's lecture at last year's West Cork History Festival.

Hyland bases his charge of widespread intimidation of Protestants on 16,000 photographs of some 3,632 compensation claims, which he and his wife Joan took at the Kew Archives.

As a prelude to my story about why Tom Barry failed to shoot Major Percival, I must point out that Barry was much fatter than he appears in photos - and not very fit, as we shall see.

The belted trenchcoat covered a fairly beefy body, one of the few things Ken Loach got right in The Wind That Shakes the Barley, where the Tom Barry figure is on the fleshy side.

Confirmation of this comes from long-time Skibbereen environmental campaigner, Jim O'Donnell, who is fond of facts.

Jim's mother, Cissie Reen, as a young girl lived at North Street in Bandon, which dropped down steeply from the British barracks to the river below.

In 1920, Major Arthur Percival, commander of the Essex Regiment, considered it still safe, in sight of his sentry, to cross the road from the barracks to play cards at a nearby house.

Tom Barry decided the best way to shoot him was simply to stand in a dark doorway and step out when Percival was heading back.

Cissie Reen, coming up the street, saw it all clearly: Percival stepping out the front door, a fattish young man running across to accost him, Percival sensing danger, suddenly scooting off uphill, "like a scalded cat" with Barry puffing behind him already out of breath.

The startled sentry turned and fired, narrowly missing both Percival and the breathless Barry - who gladly gave up the chase.

Many years later, Jim O'Donnell joined the ESB where he had to pass a driving test conducted by Tom Barry's brother, Billy, who was fond of a pint.

Billy told him to head up the long mile of the Western Road, and turn into the Angler's Rest, which seemed to mark the end of the test.

Over a pint, Jim told Billy his mother's story about Barry running out of puff while chasing Percival.

Like all siblings, Billy saw his brother without stardust in his eyes. He nodded agreement with Cissie's account. "Tom was fond of the rashers and eggs all right."

Jim asked him if Tom had ever said anything about failing to shoot the man who later surrendered Singapore to the Japanese.

"He said if he'd got Percival that night, he'd have done the British Empire a great favour."

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss