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News :: International
Meda Ryan Speech at Kilmichael Commemoration (Nov 28 2004)
03 Dec 2004
Meda Ryan challenges Peter Hart to name his anonymous sources

Delivered at Kilmichael ambush site November 28 2004 at 1pm
By Meda Ryan (author Tom Barry IRA Freedom Fighter Mercier Press 2003)
For background to controversy with revisionist historian Peter Hart, see and
On this spot, eighty-four years ago today the first major ambush against the British Forces in Ireland took place. It was Sunday, 28 November 1920. Here at Kilmichael, Tom Barry and thirty-six young Volunteers took on the dreaded Auxiliaries who were stationed in Macroom Castle at the time. We are here today to commemorate this event, and to recall the bravery of Barry and his men and to remember also Jim O'Sullivan, Michael MacCarthy and Pat Deasy who were fatally wounded here. These young men were tricked into accepting a false surrender by Auxiliaries who had fought in the Great War and most were commissioned officers.

Due to a certain type of historical revisionism in recent years, a cloud has hung over the Kilmichael ambush and the actions of its commander, Tom Barry, on that day. A controversy has surrounded this ambush because all, except two of the Auxiliaries, who participated, were killed on the site. The question posed is whether or not these Auxiliary soldiers surrendered, and subsequently took up guns, and again used them against the Volunteers.

In 1998 Peter Hart, who was attached to Queen's University Belfast and now lives in Newfoundland, stated that Tom Barry's history of Kilmichael “is riddled with lies and evasions”. Strong words about a man who was known for his uprightness and courage, and who fought against so much odds during the War of Independence.

In my research I could not find Barry's lies nor did I discover where the evasions occurred, as Barry accepted full responsibility for the Kilmichael ambush.

Peter Hart has based his theory mainly on three separate issues.
(First): On the official British establishment publication of the ambush details.
(Second): On a Report that Barry allegedly wrote after the ambush.
(Third): On interviews, two of which he conducted himself.

Let us return to the reason that the Volunteers found it necessary to undertake military action. Home Rule, which looked imminent before the Great War, was suspended for its duration, but it was not honoured when the war ended. The overwhelming success of Sinn Fein in the 1918 election meant that the Irish people placed their trust in their own representatives. The meeting of the First Dáil on 21 January 1919 laid the constitutional basis of the new Irish State. However, the British parliament declared it an illegal assembly.

The oath of allegiance to the Dáil of the Irish Republic by Volunteers, established them as an army for that parliament. As the RIC scoured the country and arrested Volunteers and Sinn Féin members, it was obvious that the British government did not want the Irish people to control their own destiny. Tom Barry, himself said, “When we went into the revolution, we had to feel that we were doing it for a purpose, we had been slaves for 700 years. When we tried to break free of this, they proclaimed anything that was Nationalistic. Our people resisted arrest and that resistance led to shooting,” and ultimately to guerrilla warfare.

It is good for us, at this remove, to recall what happened on this spot eighty-four years ago today - the 28th day of November. The Auxiliaries who were stationed at Macroom Castle had created terror among the citizens in these local districts. Their house raids, beating men, taunting of women and taking pot shots at civilians who worked in the fields was their method of intimidating the people. The intention was to dampen the spirits of Volunteers. The activities of these Auxiliaries encroached in the Cork No 3 Brigade area, the borders of which, is just down the road from here. On Sundays previous to this, these Auxiliaries travelled in Crossley tenders as they went on their rampage. So they had to be apprehended within Cork No. 1 Brigade area - in the stretch of road along here, before they reached Gleann crossroads, which led in different directions, just west of here. According to Tom Barry, there should be no further delay in challenging them.

The Ambush

Briefly, I will tell you about Tom Barry and “The Boys of Kilmichael”. (As a personal comment, I just want to say that my uncle, Pat O'Donovan was one of “The Boys of Kilmichael” positioned in Section 2, close to the three men who were fatally wounded.)
Tom Barry had been appointed Training Officer and Commanding Officer of the 3rd West Cork Brigade Flying Column. This spot here was carefully chosen. Barry borrowed an IRA tunic from Paddy O'Brien in order to slow down any approaching enemy lorry. At 2 am on the morning of 28 November the Column met in Sullivan's Ahalina (outside Enniskeane). Each man was armed with a rifle and thirty-five rounds of ammunition; a few had revolvers and Barry had two Mills bombs.

Fr. O'Connell had heard the men's confessions at the side of the road. It was 3 am on this extremely cold, wet night when the men were told that they were moving to Kilmichael to take on the dreaded Macroom based Auxiliaries.

Barry and his men walked through by-roads and cross-country, mainly in silence. They trudged on, locked in their own thoughts as the November rain lashed against them. They were drenched when they reached Kilmichel. Meanwhile, Pat Deasy, who had been ill during training had been replaced by another man, but now well again, had followed the Column close behind, and pleaded with Barry to participate in the ambush. Barry agreed.

It was 8.15 am when the Column reached this ambush position. The men were wet, cold and hungry. Barry gave them their positions, and told them that the terrain allowed for no retreat.

Barry’s plan was straightforward. He would be at the Command Post (down there), supported by three picked marksmen.

Section 1, was up there, on the rocks, in from the Command Post. Section 2, was just behind the monument here. Section 3, was subdivided, with half of the men just around the bend here and the other half across the road. Two scouts were north the road and one south of the Command post.)

The hours passed slowly. The men, without food since 6 o'clock the previous evening, lay in their rain-sodden clothes. Then the people in an isolated house sent down a few buckets of tea and a home made cake - all these people had - but this meagre supply of food did not go far. The men waited, and the day dragged. As the day wore on it began to freeze, so that the clothes froze on their bodies as they hid behind rocks. All the time Barry stood on the open road, as he fingered his mills bomb. He was about to call off the ambush when a sidecar with some Volunteers arrived - they hadn't received mobilisation orders on time. Barry acted instantly and shouted to them to gallop up the side boreen.

Just a few minutes later - at 4.05 the first lorry came round the bend, began to slow as it neared the uniformed figure. Barry hurled the bomb, blew the whistle and fired the automatic.

The grenade must have landed on the driver’s seat because the lorry lurched forward, then stopped a few yards in front of the Command Post where Barry stood. The Auxiliaries jumped out and there was sharp fighting, even hand to hand action. When the men in the first lorry had been dealt with, Barry commanded the three men beside him at the Command Post, to move with him towards the second lorry. This lorry had been engaged by No. 2 Section, which was in the middle of the ambush area, behind the monument here, high up on the rocks.

The second group of Auxiliaries had taken up positions beside the ditch on the road. Some also had taken cover behind their lorry as the fight went on. Barry, with the three men at the Command Post, crouched along the dyke, and stole along at the back. When they were about half way between the two lorries they heard the Auxiliaries shout, “We surrender! We surrender!” Some actually threw away their rifles and the firing stopped. The Volunteers accepted the surrender. In No. 2 Section some Volunteers who thought it was over, stood up. But the Auxiliaries again took up their guns; some used their revolvers to open fire. Following this encounter three Volunteers were fatally wounded.

Realising that the Auxiliaries had made a false surrender Barry shouted at his men to retaliate.

Barry and the three men with him dropped into a prone position and began a rapid fire. Other Volunteers in No. 2 Section did likewise. The Auxiliaries knew they were sandwiched between two groups of men. Once again they shouted, “We surrender”; but at this stage Barry shouted to his men to keep firing and "do not stop until I tell you.” Later he said, “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.” He never forgave himself for this.

It was a tough fight and when all the Auxiliaries appeared dead, Barry then gave the cease-fire order. Two Volunteers in No. 2 Section, Michael McCarthy and Jim O’Sullivan were dead, and Pat Deasy who had been sick and had pleaded with Barry to take part, was seriously wounded. He died later. Barry sent scouts for a priest and a doctor, and ordered the lorries to be burned. Many of the Column men were in shock. Barry conscious of this and of the need to jerk them back to reality ordered the men to get into formation, gave the “attention” command and ordered them to re-load. He marched and counter-marched his Column, their faces lit in the winter twilight by the flickering light from the burning vehicles. Barry halted with the Column before the rock where the bodies of the two dead Volunteers lay, and ordered them to “present arms”.

Controversial Aspects

In the controversy that has surrounded this ambush Peter Hart treated unfavourably the role Tom Barry played in the fight for freedom. Though Hart has accepted that there was a surrender that day at Kilmichael, yet in his analysis he does not accept that there was a false surrender. But I suggest that because the Auxiliaries put their guns to use once more after a surrender they reactivated the fight. Therefore they engaged in a false surrender.

To back-up his argument Peter Hart interviewed two people, whom he has acknowledged as having participated in the ambush. However he does not name these people and only gives them anonymous initials.

You, here today would wonder why any of the men who fought with Tom Barry on this day 84 years ago would want to remain anonymous. I question it also. Why will Peter Hart not name his informants? Furthermore, he says he interviewed one of the men in 1988, and another - a scout, on 19 November 1989. We all understood that the last survivor of the Kilmichael ambush was rifleman, Ned Young, whose faculties were impaired during his final years - he died on 13 November 1989 aged 97. We remember Jack O'Sullivan, the second last survivor, who died in 1986, Tim O'Connell in 1983, and my uncle, Pat O'Donovan died in 1981. While they were able, these men stood on this platform here at the annual commemoration.

According to the records that I consulted, there were three scouts on ambush location during the fight. Dan O'Driscoll, the last of these three scouts, died in 1967. So who was Scout AF who spoke to Peter Hart on 19 November 1989? Why will Peter Hart not reveal the names of the two men he says he interviewed, whom he has acknowledged in his sources as having participated in the Kilmichael ambush? If he revealed the names, then the credibility of these two witnesses who claim to give a first-hand account could be examined. Their version of events given to Peter Hart contradicts so many others. And while Peter Hart fails to reveal the identity of his anonymous sources, the story of the Kilmichael ambush will remain clouded in controversy.

This is extremely important for history and for the men who fought in the 3rd West Cork Brigade. Peter Hart has claimed that Barry and his men killed prisoners on that day. But the Auxiliaries engaged in a false surrender, therefore they were not prisoners. By using guns after calling a surrender, they had resumed the fight. Therefore, as soldiers had to accept the consequences. Barry took up the challenge and the ambush was then fought to its conclusion.

In this locality and countywide it was known in 1920 that there was a false surrender here at Kilmichael on that day.

Brigadier General Crozier, Commander of the Auxiliary forces in Ireland in 1920-21 acknowledged that there was a false surrender. Even Lionel Curtis, Imperial activist and advisor to Lloyd George accepted the false surrender in his writings in 1921. Stephen O'Neill, Section Commander, (across the road there.) during the ambush, wrote about the false surrender. There are other records to back up the false surrender story - many I could name, including my own uncle, Pat O'Donovan in Section 2 who was annoyed and upset about the false surrender because comrades were killed due to this deceitful action.

These Auxiliaries were commissioned officers with war experience and many had been decorated, so they knew the rules of war. They knew when to fire and when not to; they knew that when they shouted, "we surrender" it meant exactly that - a surrender - a cease-fire.

It is also important to state that the British cabinet accepted that this ambush at Kilmichael was “a military operation”. British Prime Minister, Lloyd George sent over his chief Secretary for Ireland, because, he said this engagement was “different in character from the preceding operations.” So if the British Government accepted it as a military operation, then any solders who shouted “we surrender” should have accepted that code of war, and not broken their word.

The British administration compounded the issue when they wrote their official report on the ambush, which is now known to be a propaganda document. So also was the unsigned typewritten report that Barry was alleged to have written after the ambush.

Barry's View on Partition

In conclusion: When Tom Barry stood on this platform in 1970, he told his listeners that “the ending of partition is the responsibility of not alone of the people of Ireland, but of every Irishman wherever he may be. The objective is the same as 50 years ago. ”

In an interview I had with him in 1979 he said that “the nationalist in the northern part of our country are fighting for the same objectives as the men of 1916 and - as we were.” That is over twenty years ago. He could not understand at that time, why negotiations were not more progressive. He couldn't see why citizens in that part of Ireland would not be happy in a United Ireland. His wish was for peace and unity on this island.

Barry and the surviving men who fought in his Flying column continued, while it was possible for them, to return to this spot - often on their own or in the company of others. It was almost a place of pilgrimage for them. They made great sacrifices to give us the freedom we have today and they deserve to be remembered.
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