The Boys of Kilmichael

Posted by The Skibbereen Eagle | November 28, 2019 0

Today is the 99th Anniversary of the ambush against British Army “Auxiliaries” from Macroom at Kilmichael near Dunmanway in West Cork.

One week after Bloody Sunday in 1920 when the British Army and RIC murdered 14 innocent people attending a football match, the IRA responded by carrying out an ambush at Kilmichael on the 22nd November 1920 that left 17 members of the Crown Forces dead. The operation was directed by Tom Barry. Its shock & awe impact was enormous. Britain then realised that the Irish Republic had army in the field & ready to do battle and after abandoning Home Rule and engaging in the tactics of repression they were then prepared to grant Dominion status. The other colonies looked on with amazement as a small band of ruthless West Cork agricultural teenagers undermined an Empire.

Visiting this isolated location today what strikes you is the desperate lengths that these young West Cork men were prepared to go to for their cause. With meagre training, experience or equipment a force of 36 IRA Volunteers, lead by Tom Barry, lay in wait in the cold and wet weather of late November for many hours ready to attack a much more experienced and well equipped force of ex army officers of the Auxiliary Division. A very bloody battle ensued with 17 Auxiliaries being killed and one survivor. Three IRA volunteers, Michael McCarthy, Jim O’Sullivan and Pat Deasy, were also killed in action.

While the ambush remains hotly debated to this day, it undermined British PM, David Lloyd George’s claims that the Crown forces had ‘murder by the throat’ in Ireland, meaning that the IRA could not hold out much longer. Instead, November 1920 marked the bloodiest month of the conflict to date. This was the first time the Auxiliary Division was directly targeted and marked a turning point and escalation in the War of Independence.

The British C.O. of the auxiliary forces based at Macroom Castle was Major Arthur Percival. The Auxiliaries were not the thugs recruited to be “Black and Tans” to replace the Irish men who resigned from the colonial police force, the RIC. They were disciplined, highly trained and well equipped volunteer  British Army Officers sent by Churchill with a free hand to ruthlessly crush the “Irish Rebellion” by any means ignoring the fact that in the 1918 General Election Sinn Féin had won 73 out of 105 seats on a platform of Irish Independence. They refused to sit in Westminster and take the “Loyal Oath” to The Crown but constituted themselves as Dáil Éireann, the Parliament of the Irish Republic proclaimed in the 1916 Rising.

Their target at Kilmichael was a company of Auxiliary Division police – known to the IRA and local population as ‘Auxies’. They were tough veterans of the First World War, drafted in to Ireland in order to try to put down the spreading republican insurrection. ‘C Company’ of 18 men was based at Macroom Castle. Since their insertion into rural West Cork in October (replacing two platoons of the Manchester Regiment) they had cowed much of the previous guerrilla activity with aggressive raiding and arrests of local men. They had also shot and killed at least one local civilian as he fled from one of their sweeps. For Tom Barry, an ex British soldier, at first distrusted by local IRA organisers, there could be no better way to make his name than launching the first successful ambush of an ‘Auxie’ patrol. The Auxiliaries had become somewhat careless and had taken to using the same road back to Macroom – passing through a townland named Kilmichael, every day. Barry later wrote that he envisaged a fight to the death with the Auxiliaries, ‘the positions that they [the IRA] were about to occupy allowed of no retreat… the alternative was now to kill or be killed; see to it that these terrorists die and are broken’

Historian J.B.E. Hittle wrote that of all the British officers in Ireland “Percival stood out for his violent, sadistic behaviour towards IRA prisoners, suspects and innocent civilians……He also participated in reprisals, burning farms and businesses in response to IRA attacks.

Two things are certain about the Kilmichael ambush. First, it was a remarkably well executed guerrilla action on the part of Tom Barry. Yes the Auxiliaries, commanded by Francis Crake, who had served as a Lieutenant in the First World War, should have known better than to let their movements become predictable and to fall into an ambush.

But once they did, they fell into a very carefully prepared trap. Second, Kilmichael was a brutal close-quarters fight, as fierce in intensity, if not in scale, as anything in a conventional war. When the first lorry reached the bend in the road, Barry himself threw a grenade into the cab, killing the driver. Simultaneously, it was blasted at point blank range by the hidden riflemen. The surprised Auxiliaries in the first lorry stood no chance at all. In close range fire and then grisly hand to hand combat, all nine of the Auxiliaries in the first lorry were killed.

According to Barry, ‘revolvers were used at point blank range,  and at times, rifle butts replaced rifle shots. So close were the combatants that in once instance the pumping blood from an Auxiliary’s severed artery struck one attacker full in the mouth…in less than five minutes they had all been exterminated [and] were dead or dying sprawled around the road near the little stone wall’.

For Irish nationalist opinion it was a famous victory. Many popular ballads, stories and laterally films have been devoted to it. ‘The Boys of Kilmichael’ ballad, still sung annually at the site goes’

So here’s to the boys of Kilmichael

Those brave lads so gallant and true

Who fought ‘neath the green flag of Erin

And conquered the red, white and blue.’

Barry’s tactics at Kilmichael – the close-in ambush that ensured either total defeat or total victory – were highly risky and the IRA could not afford to gamble in this way with the lives of its relatively few experienced fighters. It was much more common for ambushes to take place at distance with good escape routes into rugged country. And the ruthlessness shown at Kilmichael was also rare. Though there were other cases of the IRA shooting prisoners, it was far more common for them to disarm captured British troops or police and let them go.

Twenty two years later at Singapore, the then Lieutenant – General Percival on 15 February 1942 surrendered to the Japanese Forces without a shot being fired in defence of the island city. It was the largest surrender of British-led forces in history. Percival’s old adversary Tom Barry (himself a former British NCO who had served in Iraq) sent a telegram congratulating Percival on another “stunning victory” which was intercepted by the Japanese. As Percival stepped forward to surrender at the old Ford factory in Singapore the Japanese insisted he marched under a white flag and had the British military band play “The Boys of Kilmichael.” Truly the destruction of the British Empire which started 22 years earlier on a country road in West Cork was complete, there were only the dying motions of lowering the flags to go through after Singapore. The Myth of the Empire on which the “Sun never sets” had been tossed into the dustbin of history by 36 cold and desperate youngsters in West Cork.

Kilmichael was an achievement but we must remember it was achieved by the armed forces of the First Dáil, the Parliament of the revolutionary Irish Republic proclaimed in 1916. Tom Barry and his men fought under the authority and democratic mandate of Dáil Éireann. Attempts to link Kilmichael and use the name of Sinn Féin to later events in Ireland are as wrong as they are hypocritical from self appointed crypto Fascists who attempted to undermine the Irish Republic for many years killing its citizens, police and soldiers whilst engaging in pointless terrorism and leaving a legacy of criminality and destruction behind.

Secondly, 20 lives were destroyed on that fateful day and in the following weeks British Forces engaged in widespread reprisals including the senseless murder of the elderly Canon. Thomas Magner, Parish Priest of Dunmanway and young Timothy Crowley who were helping a local magistrate whose car had broken down,  burning of houses and farms by the Auxiliaries and Black and Tans and the burning of Cork City by British Forces on the 11 / 12 December 1920. Much pain lay ahead for Ireland but after Kilmichael the course to Irish Independence after 850 years was set and was not going to be stopped by repression and state terror.

The Skibbereen Eagle
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