The month of November 2020 has some significant centennial anniversaries and commemorations of events which took place during the Irish war of independence. What I will be focusing on are three of those historic events which ultimately led to the famous Kilmichael ambush.
The first of those events took place 100 years ago, in Dublin, on the 1st of November (“all saints day”) 1920, with the British military forces torture and execution (hanging) of 18 year old Kevin Barry. Barry’s death (murder) led to a huge outpouring of grief and anger all over Ireland. the British strangle hold and hostile actions in Dublin led the republican military leadership to a plan of action.
At this time the English were sending to Ireland intelligence agents from all over the kingdom, particularly the middle east with sole purpose to root out and destroy the IRA’s organizational leadership. these deep-cover secret intelligence agents were nicknamed “the Cairo gang.” the gang adopted a strategy of assassinating members of Sinn Fein unconnected with the military struggle hoping doing so would bring the IRA leaders, especially Michael Collins, into the open.
Harking back to the Fenian brotherhood forming the secret “shooting circle” to deal with spies, informers, turncoats and traitors some 50 years earlier, Michael Collins put together, under his direct command, “the squad” also known as an “active service unit” and ultimately called “the twelve apostles.” Which leads to the second significant event of November 1920. the most well-known operation executed by the apostles occurred on “Bloody Sunday” 21 November 1920, when they, along with assistance from the IRA Dublin Brigade, assassinated 14 members of the Cairo gang at various locations in Dublin while wounding another 6.
The third event deals with the black and tans retaliation to the assassinations by crashing into Croke Park during the Gaelic football match between Dublin and Tipperary and machine -gunning the attendees killing 14 civilians including one of the players, Michael Hogan, and wounding 68.
100 years ago on the 28th of November 1920 at Kilmichael, county cork, thirty-six Irish volunteers from the 3rd West Cork Brigade “flying column” under the command of commandant Tom Barry ambushed and killed seventeen members of the dreaded British auxiliaries. Making a dramatic escalation in the IRA’s military campaign.
During the spring and summer of 1920 over 500 members of the Royal Irish Constabulary had resigned and the government in London came up with the plan to reinforce the remaining RIC with a paramilitary police force made up of former British world war I soldiers who became known as “the black and tans.” This group was followed up by the “auxiliaries.” recruited from ex-British officers who had held commissioned rank from lieutenant to brigadier-general and had been in combat on one or more fronts during world war I. They were highly trained, experienced and absolutely ruthless. reputed and publicized by the brits as the pick of England's best soldiers.
In August 1920, 150 auxiliaries arrived in Macroom Town and took over Macroom Castle as their barracks. For months they were permitted to rampage through the countryside while not a single shot in anger had been taken at them. Following the Bloody Sunday massacre at Croke Park in Dublin on 21 November 1920, the leadership of the IRAs southern division made the decision to attack and commandant Tom Barry prepared for the ambush. Not only was Barry a brilliant military tactician he also possessed a keen strategic mind and not a single detail in planning the ambush was overlooked.
At 2:00am on Sunday, November 28th “the boys of Kilmichael” assembled for their march to the ambush site. Each volunteer was armed with a rifle, a few had revolvers, Barry dressed in a borrowed IRA officer military uniform, also carried two hand grenades. at 3:00am the men were finally told they were on the way to attack an auxiliary force between Macroom and Dunmanway. They reached the ambush site at approximately 8:15am at which time all were informed of the battle plan. they were also told the positions they were taking allowed for no retreat and that when the enemy arrived it would a fight to the death.
At approximately 4:00pm one of the scouts signaled the auxiliaries approaching in two lorries. As the first lorry came around the bend into the ambush site Barry stepped into the road with his hand up. The driver of the lorry, seeing Barry in his IRA uniform, began to slow down. Barry threw one of his hand grenades into the uncovered lorry. The grenade exploded killing the driver and the fire-fight was on. In less than five minutes nine of the auxiliaries lay dead or dying. As the second lorry came to a stop it too came under fire. Some of the auxiliaries were lying on the road returning fire while others had taken up positions beside the ditch next to the road, or had taken cover behind their lorry when one or more of the auxiliaries shouted “we surrender.”
The firing stopped and three of the volunteers stood up. The auxiliaries once again began firing and the three volunteers fell. Barry gave the order to open fire. A short time latter the auxiliaries once again shouted “we surrender” but Barry gave the order to “keep firing on them” “keep firing.” Everyone kept firing until Barry blew the whistle and gave the order to cease fire. With the fighting finally over seventeen auxiliaries and two volunteers, Michael McCarthy and Jim O’sullivan, lay dead and the young 16 year old Patrick (pat) Deasy mortally wounded.
The engagement at Kilmichael, the first between the IRA and the previously invincible auxiliaries, has been recognized as being one of the most important battles of the Anglo-Irish war. Shaken to the core, the British military command could not comprehend how 17 battle hardened officers fell in combat against what they had previously dismissed as nothing more than an armed rabble.
Because of a Bateman-Deasy/Hayes family friendship with commandant General Barry and a Deasy family (cousins) relationship to Liam and Patrick Deasy it was my unique privilege to have had the opportunity of a personal visit and tour of the Kilmichael ambush site with Commandant General Barry in the summer of 1968 and again at the 50th anniversary in 1970.
“God Save Ireland!”
Bob Bateman is former AOH National Historian, Liaison to the Irish National Caucus, and Congressional Ad Hoc Committee for Irish Affairs (1976-1982). And, famously and most fittingly for this Prize, he is great-grandnephew of the Fenian Captain Timothy Deasy (1839–1880). On September 18, 1867, Deasy was rescued from a prison van in Manchester, England, escaping to America. The incident gave rise to the motto and the song, “God Save Ireland” about the Manchester Martyrs.