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 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 of great political significance as it came just a week after Bloody Sunday and marked a profound escalation in the IRA's guerrilla campaign.
The Auxiliaries were commissioned officers and were raised in July 1920 and were regarded as a highly trained elite force by both sides in the conflict. The Auxiliaries engaged at Kilmichael all had previous experience in World War I.
The Auxiliaries and the Black and Tans rapidly became highly unpopular in Ireland for their intimidation of the civilian population and their arbitrary reprisals for IRA actions - including house burnings, beatings and killings. Only a week before the Kilmichael ambush, the Auxiliaries had fired on a football match in Croke Park, 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 - shooting at least one civilian dead. In his memoirs, Tom Barry noted that the IRA had (up until Kilmichael) 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 , he assembled a flying column of 36 riflemen at Clogher. The column had just 35 rounds for each rifle as well as a handful of revolvers and two mills bombs (hand grenades). Barry scouted possible ambush sites 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 the 27th. The IRA volunteers took up positions in the low rocky hills on either side of the road.
As dusk fell between 4:05 and 4:20 PM on 28 November, the ambush took place on a road at Dus a' Bharraigh in the townland of Shanacashel, Kilmichael Parish, near Macroom.
Just before the Auxiliaries 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 this by directing the car up a side road and out of the way. The IRA got the Auxiliaries' first lorry to slow down by placing Barry himself on the road, wearing what Barry claims was an IRA officer's tunic given to him by Paddy O'Brien, but what the British would later claim was one of their own uniforms. The British would also claim that the IRA had worn British uniforms, including steel trench helmets. Barry, however insisted that, with the exception of himself, they were all dressed in civilian clothes, although they were using captured British weapons and equipment.
The lorry, containing nine Auxiliaries, slowed almost to a halt 35 yards (~30 m) from the ambush position before Barry gave the order to fire. At this point he threw a hand grenade into the open cab. A savage close-quarter fight ensued. According to Barry's account, some of the British were killed using rifle butts and bayonets. The British later claimed that the dead had been mutilated with axes, although Barry dismissed this as atrocity propaganda. All nine Auxiliaries in the first lorry were killed.
While this fight was still going on, a second lorry also containing nine Auxiliaries had driven into the ambush position and its occupants were exchanging fire with the IRA squad who had not engaged the first lorry. When Barry brought the men who had attacked the first lorry to bear on the second lorry, he claims the Auxiliaries called out to surrender, but then opened fire when the IRA men emerged from cover, killing two of them. Barry then said he ordered, "Rapid fire and do not stop until I tell you!".
Barry stated that he ignored a subsequent attempt by the Auxiliaries to surrender, and kept his men firing at a range of only ten yards (8 m) until he believed all the Auxiliaries were dead. In fact, two survived, though badly injured. Among the dead was Colonel Crake, commander of the Auxiliaries in Macroom. Two IRA volunteers - Michael McCarthy and Jim O'Sullivan - were killed outright and Pat Deasy (brother of Liam Deasy) was mortally wounded..
Two Auxiliary officers survived the ambush. One, HF Forde survived, though shot in the head and was brain-damaged and paralysed. Forde was left for dead by the IRA. Ironically, the severity of his injuries saved his life. He was picked up by the British the following day and taken to hospital in Cork and was later awarded £10,000 in compensation. The other survivor, Cadet 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 and Guthrie's remains were disinterred and handed over to the Church of Ireland authorities at Macroom. He was then buried in a proper grave.
Many of the IRA volunteers were severely shaken by the action and some of them were physically sick. Barry tried to restore discipline by making them form-up and perform drill, before they marched away. Barry himself may have been psychologically affected by the fight, as he collapsed with severe chest pains on 3 December and had to be secretly hospitalised in Cork City. It is likely 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 medical problems.
The political fallout from the Kilmichael ambush far 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 deeply shocking for them. 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 source for what happened at the Kilmichael ambush is Tom Barry's own account, as detailed in his book, Guerilla Days in Ireland (1949). However Barry's version of events was disputed in The IRA And Its Enemies (1998) by Professor Peter Hart. Hart claims that Tom Barry's claim of a false surrender is an invention and that the surviving Auxiliary officers were exterminated after they had surrendered.
Controversy continues in Ireland over Hart's claims.
Particularly controversial is Hart's use of anonymous interviews with veterans of the ambush. Meda Ryan, author of Tom Barry, IRA Freedom Fighter (ISBN 1856354806), disputed Hart's claim to have interviewed such IRA veterans, claiming that no veterans were alive by the time Hart claimed to have interviewed them.
In addition Hart has cited an unsigned typed '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, captured by the British. Ryan and another historian, Brian Murphy, assert that it is a forgery because it contains errors of fact Barry that would not have made.
Hart has stood by his account.
In popular culture:
A famous rebel song "The Boys of Kilmichael" commemorates the ambush. The poet Patrick Galvin wrote a new final verse critical of "revisionist" historians.
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.