EYE ON THE PAST NO. 1458
MUCH has been written in the past week about the Kilmichael ambush, so much so that I was contacted by a number of readers seeking clarification arising from statements made by politicians and questions posed by the media concerning the events of 28 November 1920.
Kilmichael is described in Samuel Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of Ireland published in 1837 as ‘a parish partly in the barony of east Carbery but chiefly in the western division of the barony of western Muskerry, county of Cork six miles from Macroom on the road to Dunmanway.’ In the parish of 1837 was to be found a constabulary police station and a number of large estates, including that of Greenville House which was attacked in 1822 by the Whiteboys whom we are told ‘were repulsed and several of them killed’.
Ninety-eight years later the rural landscape of Kilmichael was to be the scene of a bitter and deadly battle between Irish Volunteers led by Tom Barry and members of the Auxiliary police force, commonly called the Auxiliaries. The Auxiliaries were formed to support the R.I.C. on the suggestion of Winston Churchill after an earlier similar proposal of the R.I.C. Inspector General had not been acted upon. The British authorities recognised that the Black and Tans, formed in March 1920, had not succeeded in putting down the rebellious Irish. The Auxiliaries, inaugurated on 23 July 1920 were paid one pound a day and operated separately from the Black and Tans and the R.I.C. They were an elite force, members of which had responded to recruitment advertisements seeking ‘ex officers with first class records.’ The Tans were temporary constables who were paid ten shillings a day to augment the R.I.C. The Auxiliaries were based in the counties where the Irish Volunteers were most active. Apart from time spent in training on the Curragh the Auxiliaries did not serve in county Kildare. However, Black and Tans were to be found in every county and several Black and Tans were based in Athy R.I.C. barracks which was located in the former cavalry barracks close to Woodstock Castle.
The Auxiliaries, numbered approximately 2,200, were recruited from amongst former British Army, Navy and Air Force officers. Strange to relate that approximately 18% of the Auxiliaries and the Black and Tans were Irish men. Because of their World War I experience the Auxiliaries were formidable fighters who operated on military lines divided into companies. Unlike the Black and Tans who were allocated to R.I.C. Barracks as additional policemen, the Auxiliaries were a mobile force travelling in Crossley Tenders in the ongoing fight against the Irish Volunteers.
The Kilmichael ambush, which was the first occasion the Cork West Brigade engaged with the Auxiliaries, was comprehensively studied in a book published a few years ago by Sean Murphy, a retired Irish Army Commandant, as well as receiving extensive coverage in several other books published over the years. Guerrilla Days in Ireland’ by Tom Barry who lead the Volunteers of Kilmichael was published in 1949. Ewan Butler’s ‘ Barry’s Flying Column’ appeared in 1971 and in 1995 the Kilmichael Commemoration Committee issued a slim book, ‘The Wild Heather Glen’ which outlined personal details of the men who took part in the ambush. Since then the Ennis based historian Meda Ryan has written an excellent book with the title ‘Tom Barry I.R.A. Freedom Fighter’. The Canadian historian, the late Peter Harte, wrote two books on the Irish War of Independence. ‘The I.R.A. and its Enemies’ appeared in 1998 and five years later his controversial ‘The I.R.A. at War 1916-1923’ was published. The latter book questioned Tom Barry’s claim that a false surrender by the Auxiliaries at Kilmichael which Barry claimed resulted in the killing of three Volunteers prompted Barry’s order not to allow any of those ambushed to survive. Seventeen Auxiliaries were killed, including one young man who escaped but was later shot and buried in a nearby bog. The sole Auxiliary survivor suffered injuries which left him a lifelong quadriplegic. One of the Auxiliary cadets who was killed was Charles Wainwright who was a former captain in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and who was likely to have soldiered with men from Athy during World War I.
The Auxiliaries were involved in some of the most shocking incidents of the War of Independence. None more so than the killing and mutilation of the Loughnane brothers in Shanaglish South near Kinvara, Co. Galway just two days before the Kilmichael ambush. Twenty-nine year old Pat Loughnane and his 22 year old brother Harry were arrested by members of the D Company Auxiliaries who were based in Lennaboye House, Galway. The Loughnanes were put through unimaginable torture by the Auxiliaries and their mutilated and burned bodies were thrown into a pond near Ardrahan. Both were officers of the local Sinn Féin club, while Pat was an I.R.A. Volunteer.
It is very difficult to read of atrocities committed not only by the Auxiliaries, the Black and Tans, the R.I.C., but also it must be said by the I.R.A. during the War of Independence. Accounts of acts of savagery and brutality on all sides can be found, as well as examples of good soldiering behaviour which on the part of some Black and Tans prompted Tom Barry to claim ‘quite a number of them were rather decent men.’
However, decency was in short supply during the War of Independence. There were so many examples of atrocities committed by Crown Forces and regrettably many examples of violence with a sectarian or an agrarian aspect committed by Irish men many of whom I suspect were not members of the Irish Volunteers. Popular mythology has tended to hide many historical truths surrounding events of the War of Independence. One should read the recently published ‘The Dead of the Irish Revolution’ by Eunan O’Halpin and Daithí Ó’Corráin to fully appreciate the horror of our past guerrilla war which ended with the truce of 11 July 1921.