The Kilmichael Ambush (Irish: Luíochán Chill Mhichíl) was an ambush near the village of Kilmichael in County Cork on 28 November 1920 carried out by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during the Irish War of Independence. Thirty-six local IRA volunteers commanded by Tom Barry killed seventeen members of the RIC Auxiliary Division. The Kilmichael ambush was politically as well as militarily significant. It occurred one week after Bloody Sunday, marking a profound escalation in the IRA campaign.
The Auxiliaries were commissioned officers, raised in July 1920 and were promoted as a highly trained elite force by the British media. The Auxiliaries engaged at Kilmichael had previous World War I experience.
The Auxiliaries and the previously introduced Black and Tans rapidly became highly unpopular in Ireland due to intimidation of the civilian population and arbitrary reprisals after IRA actions – including burnings of businesses and homes, beatings and killings. A week before the Kilmichael ambush, after IRA assassinations of British intelligence operatives in Dublin on Bloody Sunday, Auxiliaries fired on players and spectators at a gaelic football match in Croke Park Dublin, killing fourteen civilians (thirteen spectators and one player).
The Auxiliaries in Cork were based in the town of Macroom, and in November 1920 they carried out a number of raids on the villages in the surrounding area, including Dunmanway, Coppeen and Castletownkenneigh, to intimidate the local population away from supporting the IRA. They shot dead one civilian James Lehane (Séamus Ó Liatháin) at Ballymakeera on 17 October 1920. In his memoir, Guerilla Days in Ireland, Tom Barry noted that before Kilmichael the IRA hardly fired a shot at the Auxiliaries, which "had a very serious effect on the morale of the whole people as well as on the IRA". Barry's assessment was that the West Cork IRA needed a successful action against the Auxiliaries in order to be effective.
On 21 November, Barry assembled a flying column of 36 riflemen at Clogher. The column had 35 rounds for each rifle as well as a handful of revolvers and two mills bombs (hand grenades). Barry scouted possible ambush sites with Volunteer Michael McCarthy on horseback and selected one on the Macroom–Dunmanway road, on the section between Kilmichael and Gleann, which the Auxiliaries coming out of Macroom used every day. The flying column marched there on foot and reached the ambush site on the night of 27 November. The IRA volunteers took up positions in the low rocky hills on either side of the road. Unlike most IRA ambush positions, there was no obvious escape route for the guerrillas should the fighting go against them.
Just before the Auxiliaries in two lorries came into view, two armed IRA volunteers, responding late to Barry's mobilisation order, drove unwittingly into the ambush position in a horse and side-car, almost shielding the British forces behind them. Barry managed to avert disaster by directing the car up a side road and out of the way. The Auxiliaries' first lorry was persuaded to slow down by the sight of Barry placing himself on the road in front of a concealed Command Post (with three riflemen), wearing an IRA officer's tunic given to him by Paddy O'Brien. The British later claimed Barry was wearing a British uniform. This confusion was part of a ruse by Barry to ensure that his adversaries in both lorries halted beside two IRA ambush positions on the north side of the road, where Sections One (10 riflemen) and Two (10 riflemen) lay concealed. Concealed on the south side of the road was half of Section Three (6 riflemen), whose instructions were to prevent the enemy taking up positions on that side. The other half (6 riflemen) was positioned some way off as an insurance group, should a third Auxiliary lorry appear. The British later alleged that over 100 IRA fighters were present wearing British uniforms and steel trench helmets. Barry, however, insisted that, excepting himself, the ambush party were in civilian attire, though they used captured British weapons and equipment.
The first lorry, containing nine Auxiliaries, slowed almost to a halt close to their intended ambush position, at which point Barry gave the order to fire. He threw a Mills bomb that exploded in the open cab of the first lorry. A savage close-quarter fight ensued between the Auxiliaries and a combination of IRA Section One and Barry's three person Command Post group. According to Barry's account, some of the British were killed using rifle butts and bayonets in a brutal and bloody encounter. This part of the engagement was over relatively quickly with all nine Auxiliaries dead or dying. The British later claimed that the dead had been mutilated with axes, although Barry dismissed this as atrocity propaganda.
While this part of the fight was going on, a second lorry also containing nine Auxiliaries had driven into the ambush position near to IRA Section Two. This lorry's occupants, at a more advantageous position than Auxiliaries in the first lorry because further away from the ambushing group, dismounted to the road and exchanged fire with the IRA, killing Michael McCarthy. Barry then brought the Command Post soldiers who had completed the attack on the first lorry to bear on this group. Barry claimed these Auxiliaries called out a surrender and that some dropped their rifles, but opened fire again with revolvers when three IRA men emerged from cover, killing one volunteer instantly, Jim O'Sullivan, and mortally wounding Pat Deasy. Barry then said he ordered, "Rapid fire and do not stop until I tell you!" Barry stated that he ignored a subsequent attempt by remaining Auxiliaries to surrender, and kept his men firing at a range of only ten yards (8 m) or less until he believed all the Auxiliaries were dead. Barry said of the Auxiliaries who tried to surrender a second time, 'soldiers who had cheated in war deserved to die.' Barry referred to this as the Auxiliaries' 'false surrender'.
Barry's account in 1949 can be compared with other IRA veteran testimony. In 1937 Section Three commander Stephen O'Neill gave an account of a false surrender by the Auxiliaries though without using that actual term. O'Neil wrote,
- "The O/C Tom Barry, with three of the section responsible for the destruction of the first [Auxiliary] lorry, came to our assistance, with the result that the attack was intensified. On being called on to surrender, they signified their intention of doing so, but when we ceased at the O/C’s command, fire was again opened by the Auxiliaries, with fatal results to two of our comrades who exposed themselves believing the surrender was genuine. We renewed the attack vigorously and never desisted until the enemy was annihilated."
Some Bureau of Military History (BMH) accounts do not mention a false surrender, for example Section Three volunteer Ned Young's (WS 1,402). However, Young stated he was individually pursuing an escaping Auxiliary at the point when the false surrender incident took place. Nevertheless, in a later 1970 audio interview Young reported that other veterans told him afterwards there had been false surrender. Tim Keohane, who claimed controversially in his BMH statement (WS 1,295) to have participated in the ambush, did describe a false surrender event. He recalled that when Section Two and the Command Post group engaged the second lorry,
- "Tom Barry called on the enemy to surrender and some of them put up their hands, but when our party were moving onto the road, the Auxiliaries again opened fire. Two of our men were wounded".
Barry stated that two of the IRA dead, Pat Deasy and Jim O'Sullivan, were shot after the false surrender but Keohane recalled that O'Sullivan had been hit earlier, and that Jack Hennessy and John Lordan were wounded after they stood to take the surrender. Ambush veteran Ned Young reported (see above) being told afterwards that Lordon bayonetted an Auxiliary he believed had surrendered falsely. Hennessy described in his BMH statement (WS 1,234) an incident in which, after Michael McCarthy was shot dead, he stood and shouted "hands up" to an auxiliary who had "thrown down his rifle". Hennessy reported the auxiliary then "drew his revolver", causing Hennessy to "sho[o]t him dead".
IRA veterans reported variously that wounded Auxiliaries, finished off after the firefight, were killed with close range shots, blows from rifle butts and bayonet thrusts, details Barry did not include in his account. Some Auxiliaries were disarmed and then killed. Jack O'Sullivan who was present at the ambush told historian Meda Ryan that after he disarmed an Auxiliary, "He was walking him up the road as a prisoner when a shot dropped him at his feet".
At the conclusion of the fight it was observed that two IRA volunteers – Michael McCarthy and Jim O'Sullivan – were dead and that Pat Deasy (brother of Liam Deasy) was mortally wounded. The IRA fighters thought they had killed all of the Auxiliaries. In fact two survived, one very badly injured, while another who escaped was later captured and shot dead. Among the 16 British dead on the road at Kilmichael was Colonel Crake, commander of the Auxiliaries in Macroom, probably killed at the start of the action by Barry's Mills bomb.
The severity of his injuries probably saved the life of Auxiliary officer, H.F. Forde. He was left for dead at the ambush site with, among other injuries, a bullet wound to his head. Forde was picked up by British forces the following day and taken to hospital in Cork. He was later awarded £10,000 in compensation. The other surviving Auxiliary, Cecil Guthrie (ex Royal Air Force), was badly wounded but escaped from the ambush site. He asked for help at a nearby house. However, unknown to him, two IRA men were staying there. They killed him with his own gun. His body was dumped in Annahala bog. In 1926, on behalf of the Guthrie family, Kevin O'Higgins, Irish Free State Minister for Home Affairs, interceded with the local IRA, after which Guthrie's remains were disinterred and buried in the Church of Ireland graveyard at Macroom.
Many IRA volunteers were deeply shaken by the severity of the action, referred to by Barry as "the bloodiest in Ireland", and some were physically sick. Barry attempted to restore discipline by making them form-up and perform drill, before marching away. Barry himself collapsed with severe chest pains on 3 December and was secretly hospitalized in Cork City. It is possible that the ongoing stress of being on the run and commander of the flying column, along with a poor diet as well as the intense combat at Kilmichael contributed to his illness, diagnosed as heart displacement.
The political fallout from the Kilmichael ambush outweighed its military significance. While the British forces in Ireland, over 30,000 strong, could easily absorb 18 casualties, the fact that the IRA had been able to wipe out a whole patrol of elite Auxiliaries was for them deeply shocking. The British forces in the West Cork area took their revenge on the local population by burning several houses, shops and barns in Kilmichael, Johnstown and Inchageela, including all of the houses around the ambush site. On 3 December, three IRA volunteers were arrested by the British Essex Regiment in Bandon, beaten and killed, and their bodies dumped on the roadside.
For the British government, the action at Kilmichael was an indication that the violence in Ireland was escalating. Shortly after the ambush (and also in reaction to the events of Bloody Sunday), barriers were placed on either end of Downing Street to protect the Prime Minister's office from IRA attacks. On 10 December, as a result of Kilmichael, martial law was declared for the counties of Cork, Kerry, Limerick and Tipperary.
The British military now had the power to execute anyone found carrying arms and ammunition, to search houses, impose curfews, try suspects in military rather than civilian courts and to intern suspects without trial. On 11 December, in reprisal for Kilmichael and other IRA actions, the centre of Cork city was burned by Auxiliaries, British soldiers and Black and Tans, and two IRA men were assassinated in their beds. In separate proclamations shortly afterwards, the authorities sanctioned "official reprisals" against suspected Sinn Féin sympathisers, and the use of hostages in military convoys to deter ambushes.
The principal published source for what happened at the Kilmichael ambush is Tom Barry's, Guerilla Days in Ireland (1949). The first by a participant, Stephen O'Neill (reported above), appeared in 1937 (republished in Rebel Cork's Fighting Story, 1947, 2009). A brief first account of a false surrender event at Kilmichael was published eight months later in the British Empire journal, Round Table (June 1921, p. 500), by Lionel Curtis, citing a "trustworthy" source in the area. Curtis was British Prime Minister Lloyd George's secretary during Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations. In Ireland Forever (1932, p. 128) former Auxiliary commander F.P. Crozier also gave a brief account of the same event. Piaras Beaslai mentioned it in Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland (Vol. 2, 1926, p. 97), while Ernie O'Malley's 1936 memoir, On Another Man’s Wound, noted the incident also (1979, p217). However, in The IRA And Its Enemies (1998) Professor Peter Hart took issue with the false surrender, focussing on Tom Barry's account. Believing Crozier's to have been the first published account (and a concoction), Hart asserted that the false surrender claim was invented: surviving Auxiliary officers were killed after surrendering. As a result of publicity and subsequent debate generated by Hart's claims, the ambush is usually considered synonymously with the debate over those claims.
Particularly controversial is Hart's use of anonymous interviews with ambush veterans. Meda Ryan, author of Tom Barry, IRA Freedom Fighter (ISBN 1856354806), disputed Hart's claim to have personally interviewed two IRA veterans in 1988-89, a rifleman and a scout. Ryan stated that one veteran remained alive then. She maintained that the last surviving IRA Kilmichael veteran, Ned Young, died on 13 November 1989, aged 97. The second last reported surviving veteran of Kilmichael, Jack O'Sullivan, died in January 1986. Ned Young's father, John Young, stated in addition that his father was also not capable of giving Hart an interview in 1988, as Ned Young suffered a debilitating stroke in late 1986. John Young swore an affidavit to this effect in December 2007, published in Troubled History (Niall Meehan, Brian Murphy, 2008), a critique of Hart's research that reproduced on its cover an 18 November 1989 Southern Star report on the death of "Ned Young - last of the boys of Kilmichael".
Hart stated that he interviewed his second ambush participant, an unarmed scout, on 19 November 1989, six days after Ned Young died, one day after his death was reported (see above). This description caused further debate as the last ambush and dispatch scouts reportedly died in 1967 and 1971. In a 2011 television documentary on Tom Barry, Hart considered whether he had been the victim of "some sort of hoax" and of a "fantasist', but concluded "that seems extremely unlikely". Nevertheless, D.R. O'Connor Lysaght has commented that "it is possible that Dr Hart was the victim of one or more aged chancer". 
Niall Meehan suggested in Troubled History (2008) and subsequently that Hart based his interview with the scout partly on Jack Hennessy's BMH testimony (reported above). Though Hennessy died in 1970 Hart had a copy of his BMH statement. In his book Hart paraphrased the scout on "a sort of false surrender". Hennessy was not unarmed or a scout. However, in Hart's 1992 TCD PhD thesis this particular interviewee was not described as a scout or as unarmed. Further anomalies surround this individual. For instance, Hart's PhD thesis reported him giving the author a tour of the ambush site, a claim the book withdrew. Eve Morrison, who is sympathetic to Hart's position, in an essay on Kilmichael in Terror in Ireland, 1916-1923 (2012, ed., David Fitzpatrick), additionally reported that words ascribed by Hart to the scout were actually from remarks recorded in 1970 from ambush participant Jack O'Sullivan (who also was not an unarmed scout). Meehan and Eve Morrison debated the significance of these points in 2012.
Hart cited also a further three ambush participant accounts in his book, again reported anonymously. These were sourced in audio taped interviews by a Father John Chisholm in 1970 for Liam Deasy's War of Independence memoir, Toward Ireland Free (1973). However, Morrison stated in her 2012 Kilmichael essay that two (not three) Kilmichael participants were recorded by Chisholm speaking on Kilmichael. One of these was Ned Young, while the other was Jack O'Sullivan, reportedly the last and second last ambush veterans to die in 1986 and 1989. In other words, without informing his readers, Hart was counting an anonymous Young interview twice, once in 1970 (Chisholm interview), twice in 1988/9 (claimed Hart interview).
In addition to his anonymous interviews, Hart cited a captured unsigned typed 'rebel commandant's report' of the ambush from the Imperial War Museum, which does not mention a false surrender, as Barry's after-action report to his superiors. Meda Ryan and Brian Murphy challenged the authenticity of the document. They suggest that it contains factual errors Barry would not have written and also accurate information unknown to Barry. For instance: stating that two IRA volunteers had been mortally wounded and one killed outright, when the reverse was the case; getting British losses right, attesting to “sixteen of the enemy . . . being killed”, when Barry thought 17 (including Forde) were dead after the ambush. The document stated that IRA fighters had 100 rounds each when the correct figure reportedly was 36. Barry did not know that Guthrie, the Auxiliary who escaped, was, as the 'report' put it, “now missing”, or even that he had escaped. In other words, the document contained correct information known only to the British authorities but unknown to Barry, and incorrect information known by Barry but unknown to the British.
Hart, who died in 2010 stood by his account. In 2012, Eve Morrison published her essay, Kilmichael Revisited, based partly on IRA veteran testimony and access to an unpublished response by Hart to the controversy surrounding his claims, dated 2004. Its defence of Hart was reviewed by John Borgonovo, Niall meehan, Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc and John Regan (in Irish Historical Studies, Reviews in History, History Ireland and Dublin Review of Books). Morrison cited six participant statements to the Bureau of Military History (including the controversial Timothy Keohane) that were published in 2003. She listened to two conducted by Father John Chisholm in 1970 for Liam Deasy's Toward Ireland Free (1973), with Jack O'Sullivan and Ned Young (who also contributed a BMH account).
All of the ambush participants Morrison noted in Hart's unpublished response, bar Ned Young and the 'scout', were dead at the time Hart conducted his research in the late 1980s. Six were named: Paddy O’Brien, Jim ‘Spud’ Murphy, Jack Hennessy, Ned Young, Michael O’Driscoll and Jack O’Sullivan. Hart did not name the seventh, the 'scout' allegedly interviewed after Ned Young died. Morrison stated that Hart had heard or read ten accounts in total by these seven veterans (five witness statements and five other interviews). But this was in 2004, six years after publication of The IRA and its Enemies in 1998. Morrison stated she identified in Hart's book Chisholm interview utterances in all but two of the anonymous sources (though without identifying these two). Significantly, Morrison admitted that words Hart ascribed to the 'scout' were in fact said by Jack O'Sullivan to Fr Chisholm. Ned Young's son, John Young, afterwards continued to dispute the claim that Hart interviewed his father in 1988.
In popular culture
An often repeated myth is that following the Japanese capture of Singapore in 1942, Lord Haw Haw declared on "Germany Calling" that as the 100,000 British troops were marched into captivity the Japanese band struck up "The Boys of Kilmichael".
An attack on British trucks in British director Ken Loach's Palme D'Or (2006) winning film The Wind That Shakes The Barley is based on the Kilmichael Ambush. However some details of the ambush in the film are different. In the film only one volunteer dies and all the British are killed. Also the ambush in the film takes place during the day. In addition, the leader of the ambush in the film wears a British Army uniform, whereas Tom Barry reported that he wore Volunteer Paddy O'Brien's IRA officer's uniform. The purpose was the same, to make the driver of the first lorry slow down, on the assumption that Barry was a British officer. However, some details of the battle, the order to form up into ranks and the content of the speech after the battle by the ambush leader is similar to what happened on November 28, 1920 at Kilmichael.
- The Truth About the Boys of Kilmichael, Sunday Business Post, November 26, 2000
- Michael Hopkins The Irish War of Independence, p. 88–91
- Barry, Guerrilla Days in Ireland p
- Barry, Guerrilla Days in Ireland, p. 38-41
- Tom Barry, Guerrilla Days in Ireland p. 44-45
- Barry p44
- Tom Barry, Guerrilla Days in Ireland p. 45
- Meda Ryan, IRA Freedom Fighter, p. 43
- Auxiliaries Annihilated at Kilmichael, in Rebel Cork's Fighting Story, Mercier, 2009, p. 142 (book orig. publ. 1947, from an account in The Kerryman newspaper in 1937)
- Discussed in Niall Meehan review (p12) of Terror in Ireland 1916-23, 2012, David Fitzpatrick (ed)
- Meda Ryan, Tom Barry, IRA Freedom Fighter, p. 43, Morrison p. 168-172
- According to Pat Twohig’s Green Tears for Hecuba, Guthrie was identified as the member of the Auxiliaries who had previously killed a civilian, Séamus Ó Liatháin, in Ballymakeerahe on 17 October. See Manus O'Riordan, Forget not the boys of Kilmichael in Ballingeary Historical Society Journal 2005 (reproduced in http://www.indymedia.ie/article/69172)
- Ryan p. 47
- Barry, Guerilla Days, p. 54–55
- Tom Barry IRA Freedom Fighter by Meda Ryan (ISBN 1-85635-480-6), pp. 95-7
- Michael Hopkinson, Irish War of Independence, p. 88
- Gerry White, Brendan O'Shea, The Burning of Cork, p9
- See for example: What Is The Dispute About Kilmichael And Dunmanway Really About?; and similar articles; also History Ireland, 2005, Vol 13, Numbers, 2,3,4,5; Terror in Ireland 1916-23, David Fitzpatrick (ed) - review by Niall Meehan (including David Fitzpatrick, Eve Morrison, responses); Niall Meehan, Reply to Professor David Fitzpatrick and to Dr Eve Morrison’s response to criticism of Terror in Ireland 1916-1923; John M Regan, The History of the Last Atrocity; Eve Morrison, Reply to John Regan; John M Regan, West Cork and The Writing of History; Pádraig O Ruairc review of Terror in Ireland, History Ireland v20 n3 May June 2012, plus letter contributions by Maureen Deasy, Sean Kelleher, Niall Meehan, Eve Morrison, Maura O'Donovan, John Young, http://www.historyireland.com/letters-extra/peter-hart-etc/, http://www.historyireland.com/letters-extra/kilmichael-2/ (both accessed 8 September 2013)
- Niall Meehan, Reply to Jeffrey Dudgeon on Peter Hart, Irish Political Review, November 2011, Vol 26 No 11, contains publicly reported dates of deaths of Kilmichael veterans during the 1980s.
- Meda Ryan, Tom Barry, IRA Freedom Fighter, Mercier, p69.
- Scéal Tom Barry, TG4, Dir. Jerry O'Callaghan, 19 January 2011, cited in Niall Meehan review of Terror in Ireland 1916-1923, David Fitzpatrick, ed., 2012.
- D.R.O'Connor Lysaght (21 May 2013). "Critique and slander: D.R.O'Connor Lysaght and Ireland’s Historical revisionists".
- Meehan, Troubled History, p23-4, also, n75,76,79.
- Eve Morrison, Kilmichael Revisited, pp. 167, 168, 169, (in David Fitzpatrick Ed. Terror in Ireland, 1916-1923, 2012).
- Niall Meehan review of Terror in Ireland 1916-23, David Fitzpatrick (ed), including David Fitzpatrick, Eve Morrison, responses.
- Meehan reply to Fitzpatrick and Morrison response to his review.
- Eve Morrison, Kilmichael Revisited, p167, 168, 169, (in David Fitzpatrick Ed. Terror in Ireland, 1916-1923, 2012).
- Niall Meehan review of Terror in Ireland 1916-23, David Fitzpatrick (ed), including David Fitzpatrick, Eve Morrison, responses.
- Meehan reply to Fitzpatrick and Morrison response to his review.
- Meda Ryan, History Ireland, May-June 2005, v13, n5)
- See discussion in Meehan review of Terror in Ireland, 1916-23, Morrison response, Meehan reply, linked above and below
- See: Terror in Ireland 1916-23, David Fitzpatrick (ed) - review by Niall Meehan (including David Fitzpatrick, Eve Morrison, responses);NIall Meehan reply to Professor David Fitzpatrick and to Dr Eve Morrison’s response to criticism of Terror in Ireland 1916-1923'; John M Regan, The History of the Last Atrocity; Eve Morrison, Reply to John Regan; John M Regan, West Cork and The Writing of History; History Ireland review by Padraig O'Rourke v20 n3 May June 2012, plus letter contributions Sean Kelleher, Niall Meehan, Eve Morrison, Maura O'Donovan, John Young, plus letter by Maureen Deasy
- Why Spinwatch is publishing John Young’s Statement.
- Tom Barry, Guerrilla Days in Ireland
- Richard Bennet, The Black and Tans
- Peter Hart, The IRA and its enemies
- Michael Hopkinson, The Irish War of Independence
- Peter Hart, Meda Ryan, et al., in History Ireland, 2005, Vol 13, Numbers 2,3,4,5
- Niall Meehan, Brian Murphy, Troubled History - a tenth anniversary critique of Peter Hart's 'The IRA and its Enemies'
- David Miller, British Propaganda in Ireland and its significance today (foreword to Murphy)
- Eve Morrison, Kilmichael Revisited, in David Fitzpatrick, Ed. Terror in Ireland, 1916-1923
- Brian Murphy, The Origin and Organisation of British Propaganda in Ireland in 1920.
- Meda Ryan, Tom Barry, IRA Freedom Fighter
- NY Times, November 30, 1920, Sinn Feiners kill 16 Cadets
- NY Times, December 2, 1920, OFFICIAL REPORT ON CADETS' MURDER; Wounded Men "Massacred and Mutilated," Says Official--Cites "Treachery" by Inhabitants
- Irish Independent, November 26, 2000, Bloody fable of Kilmichael's dead
- The Kilmichael Ambush - A Review of Background, Controversies and Effects
- Distorting Irish History (One), the stubborn facts of Kilmichael: Peter Hart and Irish Historiography
- Terror in Ireland 1916-23, David Fitzpatrick (ed) - Niall Meehan review (including David Fitzpatrick, Eve Morrison, responses),
- Niall Meehan reply to Professor David Fitzpatrick and to Dr Eve Morrison’s response to criticism of Terror in Ireland 1916-1923
- The History of the Last Atrocity
- Eve Morrison, Reply to John Regan
- West Cork and The Writing of History
- Why Spinwatch is publishing John Young’s Statement