Authors: Meda Ryan
Tags: #General, #Europe, #Ireland, #History, #Biography & Autobiography, #Guerrillas, #Military, #Historical, #Nationalists
This encounter was short, sharp and bloody. All of the nine Auxiliaries spread on the road seemed to be either dead or dying. Barry passed one whom he thought was dead, but he rose and took aim at him. Flyer Nyhan's quick action with his bayonet halted the gunner. Barry got a side glimpse of this action. Brisk movement was vital. Waiting only to pick up a rifle and some of the Auxies' clips of ammunition Barry commanded the three men from the command post to follow him. The second lorry was being engaged by No. 2 section.
This second group of Auxies was crouched on the road having taken what little cover they could as No. 2 section was âengaging strongly' from their higher vantage position. Barry with the three rifle-men jogged in single file along the dyke with rifles at the ready. When they were about half ways between the two lorries, âI heard these fellows shouting, “We surrender! We surrender!” â¦ We saw them, some of them threw their rifles away,' Barry recalled. Firing stopped. Silence from the first lorry verified it had been wiped out.
No. 2 section Volunteers, who were only about 15 to 20 yards away from the enemy, thought the fight was over as Barry had blown the whistle. Some stood up. âImmediately the Auxies opened on them' with revolvers. Bullets hit Volunteers who stood up and accepted the surrender.
Barry, Spud Murphy, Flyer Nyhan and Mick O'Herlihy observed what had happened and jogged closer. They were now about 25 yards behind (moving towards) the enemy who spotted them. In their sandwiched position, the Auxies again shouted a surrender.
Realising that the Auxies had again opened fire with their revolvers. Barry shouted: âRapid fire, and do not stop until I tell ye!' Barry and the three men dropped down and âlet them have it from behind'. No. 2 section also responded to Barry's âRapid fire'. The Auxies realising that they were jammed, kept firing. Barry shouted to his men to keep firing. At this stage the Auxies were shown no mercy, regardless of whether some had thrown away their arms or not.
âWe advanced into them still firing, making sure they were all dead. Now for that I take full responsibility. The only blame I have to myself is that I didn't warn these young lads about the old war trick of a false surrender,' said Barry. He never forgave himself for this. âThey stood up because they were green and I didn't warn them.'
Scattered on the road all the Auxiliaries appeared dead. Barry gave the âcease-fire' command and an eerie silence followed as the sounds of the last shots died away.
Barry climbed the short distance to where he had seen his men fall. Two Volunteers were dead â Michael McCarthy, who originally came with Barry to mark out the site of the ambush, and Jim O'Sullivan shot through the jaw. Pat Deasy, Liam Deasy's young brother who had followed the column and implored Barry to allow him to fight was bleeding profusely from bullet wounds.
Barry sent a scout to summon a doctor, another to get a priest, he detailed four men to get a door as a stretcher for Pat Deasy. When Barry spoke to him, Pat smiled. Barry records that he himself turned away and had to refuse his dying wish for a drink of water. This lad, not yet sixteen, died later in a neighbouring house.
Eighteen Volunteers were told to collect the arms and documents of the dead Auxiliaries and to pull the bodies away from the lorries and the remainder of the column were ordered to soak the tenders in petrol and prepare them for burning.
A flask of brandy was found in each of the Auxiliaries pockets.
Some Volunteers were in a state of shock. Unlike Barry, they had never seen so many dead men with severe body wounds. Barry, conscious of this and of the necessity of jerking them back to reality, gave the command, âFall in at the double!' The men from each section closed upon their leader, got the âattention' command, were numbered off and ordered to re-load. Their commander ordered them to slope arms; then he inspected them. He felt the only medicine available to counteract strain and shock was foot drill among the dying and the dead. If they encountered more British troops during retirement, inefficiency would show. âIf they didn't keep discipline, we might lose everything. Discipline was all we had.' Barry marched and counter-marched his column, their faces lit in the winter twilight by the flickering light from the burning vehicles, their boots slipping in pools of blood. âHis iron will as much as anything else was the stuff of survival, of victory'.
Before they left Kilmichael some of the men were physically sick. The shock of the fight and the drill beside the bodies and the blood were too much for one man whom John Whelton knew. âHe came home shortly after, and was a physical wreck. He shouldn't have been there in the first place, as he couldn't take that type of thing. Within six months his hair was snow white. After that Barry decided he would emphasise stronger than ever what they were facing, and if they couldn't take it, they were out.'
The column was halted before the rock where the bodies of the two dead Volunteers lay and was ordered to âPresent Arms', as a final tribute to their comrades. The men were again formed into sections; then the order to march was given. Some Volunteers from the local company as well as those who had come earlier in a grey horse and side-car helped with the care of the dead men. Taking the bodies cross-country through bogs, burying them by day, re-digging and moving by night, it took over a week to reach Castletown-Kenneigh graveyard for burial.
Critics have said that Barry should have accepted the second surrender call. In Liam Deasy's
Towards Ireland Free
published in 1973, there is no mention of a false surrender.
The absence of this detail angered Barry. In a booklet
The Reality of the Anglo-Irish War 1920â1921 in West Cork
that Tom Barry wrote, afterwards, he cited commander of Section No. 3, Stephen O'Neill's version in
, 12 December 1937: âafter the false surrender, fire was again opened by the Auxiliaries with fatal results to two of our comrades who exposed themselves, believing the surrender to be genuine. We renewed the attack vigorously and never desisted until the enemy were annihilated.'
Responding to criticism Barry wrote, âperhaps, I should have taken a second false surrender and let a few more Volunteers be killed treacherously.'
General Crozier, commander at the time of the Auxiliaries in Ireland, in his book
accepted that there was a false surrender. âIt was perfectly true that the wounded had been put to death after the ambush, but the reason for this barbarous inhumanity became understandable, although inexcusable,' he wrote. Because, âarms 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 with him.'
Initially I investigated the false surrender for
The Tom Barry Story
After a brief surrender call, fire was re-opened. Was this the time the Volunteers were killed? It appears as if Pat Deasy jumped up during the fight to have a good shot and was wounded before the surrender call. However he had two wounds, one was a grazed side-stomach wound and the other higher up, internal nearer his heart, believed to be the fatal wound. Pat O'Donovan and Tim O'Connell at either side of him, both knew of the side graze wound before the surrender call.
He got up during the surrender, as firing began again. The shot which hit Jim O'Sullivan had first struck the bolt of his own rifle and then hit him in the head, killing him instantly. This, it seems, was after the surrender call. Barry was certain that two men fell from shots fired after the surrender call. âWe saw three of our comrades on No. 2 section stand up, one crouched and two upright. Suddenly the Auxiliaries were firing again with revolvers', Barry wrote.
Certainly in the second stage of the fight when Barry and the three men from the command post advanced, there were surrender cries. There was a lull. Tim O'Connell, Pat O'Donovan and James O'Mahony all in No. 2 section, in the direct line of fire (where the three men who were fatally wounded were positioned), were certain that the ambush was over. Then shots from Auxies guns rang out once more.
Barry's response was decisive. He commanded his men to return fire. Whether or not some of the âAuxies' had dropped arms, they were shot â some at point blank range.
One Volunteer, Jack O'Sullivan told me that he had come behind a man and ordered him to drop his gun, which he did. He was walking him up the road when a shot dropped him at his feet.
At this stage Barry didn't want prisoners â especially men who used deceptive tactics. Most of the Volunteers present to whom I spoke said, âIt was either them or us.' Barry said he accepted full responsibility for shooting them outright. âSoldiers who had cheated in war deserved to die'.
âWe had to; if three or four more of our lads stood up, they'd have got it too. I couldn't take the chance that they wouldn't grab a gun.'
In the Liam Deasy book the account of the ambush differs in vital parts from other written accounts.
Paddy O'Brien's account begins: âWe paraded at 5.00 a.m. on Sunday morning, and after a breakfast of tea, bread and butter we set out on the five mile march to Kilmichael ... Tom Barry divided the column into two sections, taking charge of one section himself.'
The facts are: they had a late evening meal, had their confessions heard and set out from there shortly after 3 a.m. for their 18-mile cross-county journey against the lashing rain. Because O'Brien (as per Deasy) states: âI was given orders to maintain contact with different units', Barry in his booklet
The Reality of the Anglo Irish
â asks, âby whom and for what purpose?' He also asks why the Deasy account has O'Brien âpractically taking over' the ambush as well as the training camp prior to it though âhe never held any rank'.
Rev. John Chisholm edited Liam Deasy's book
Towards Ireland Free
, and said: âI endeavoured to preserve the style found in the manuscripts supplied to me, but I am conscious that all too often it is my own style which prevails.'
Flor Crowley, a West Cork teacher with an intimate knowledge of West Cork brigade events âgleaned' that the book âwas ghost written from incidents supplied by Liam Deasy.'
In Paddy O'Brien's account of the ambush, there are passages such as: âTime seemed to move slowly. Yet in spite of the tense air of expectancy spirits were still high, though here and there a pale face glimpsed through the shifting mist reflected the inner fears of a youth facing the ordeal of battle for the first time, and possibility of death ... The enemy was coming. All weariness vanished, the quiet talk ceased, safety catches were released, rifle-bolts were drawn and a bullet filled the breach ... ' In dealing with the horse and side-car crisis and Barry's order, the O'Brien report calls it âa pony and trap' and states: âNever on the dramatic stage was a transformation scene carried out with such dispatch nor indeed with such efficiency.'
When I questioned Fr Chisholm if Paddy O'Brien wrote or spoke in this manner, he admitted that he himself had âa free hand' in the composition.
Refutations, Corrections and Comments
on Liam Deasy's
Towards Ireland Free
, Barry said that of all the inaccurate accounts, in
Towards Ireland Free
that of Kilmichael, âangered me the most'. In particular he was angry with the âpresentation of the engagement at Kilmichael and the training camp immediately prior to it ... would appear to be like a scene from “Dad's Army” whilst the fight could be summed up as a galaxy of names and “we waited; Auxies came, we shooted and all dead”.'
As Barry implies, it was an extremely abbreviated description of the ambush, containing numerous errors and omissions. He took up the point in the Deasy book that the men knew of the forthcoming attack, whereas for security purposes only Michael McCarthy and himself knew the exact location.
Most significant was the account in the book that the column was divided into only two sections, rather than the three, with No. 3 section sub-divided, plus a command post. The
Towards Ireland Free
accounts of several incidents at Kilmichael vary from other written accounts.
Barry said that the absence in the Deasy book of any mention of the false surrender of the Auxiliaries was questioned by âreviewers in national daily newspapers â¦ without getting any answer from Deasy' regarding âits omission â¦ the account of the false surrender, which brought about the extermination of the surviving terrorists, had never been challenged until Deasy's book by its omission, almost fifty-three years afterwards.'
Barry was angry as he felt it depicted him as âa bloodthirsty' commander. âI challenge Deasy and his editor, Reverend Professor Chisholm, to state publicly why they omitted from such a voluminous and presumptuous account of history the salient historical fact of the false surrender of the Auxiliaries at one of the major military victories of its kind in 1920â1921, not alone in County Cork, but in all Ireland.'
There are errors and omissions in the O'Brien account of Kilmichael such as: (a) the omission of No. 3 section and the sub-section; (b) four men listed beside Barry rather than three; (c) Barry's actions are incorrect: the Mills bomb did not kill âall' in the first lorry instantly; (d) three Volunteers did not die during the ambush, two died, one died later of wounds; (e) most important of all, this account does not mention any surrender, it just describes a fight to the finish.
Neither does this account âdescribe an accepted surrender and a subsequent execution of all prisoners.'