seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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The Kilmichael Ambush

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAThe Kilmichael Ambush is carried out near the village of Kilmichael in County Cork on November 28, 1920 by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during the Irish War of Independence. Thirty-six local IRA volunteers commanded by Tom Barry kill seventeen members of the Royal Irish Constabulary‘s Auxiliary Division. The Kilmichael ambush is politically as well as militarily significant. It occurs one week after Bloody Sunday, marking an escalation in the IRA’s campaign.

As dusk falls the ambush takes place on a road at Dus a’ Bharraigh in the townland of Shanacashel, Kilmichael Parish, near Macroom.

Just before the Auxiliaries in two lorries come into view, two armed IRA volunteers, responding late to Barry’s mobilisation order, drive unwittingly into the ambush position in a horse and side-car, almost shielding the British forces behind them. Barry manages to avert disaster by directing the car up a side road and out of the way. The Auxiliaries’ first lorry is persuaded to slow down by the sight of Barry placing himself on the road in front of a concealed Command Post, wearing an IRA officer’s tunic given to him by Paddy O’Brien. Concealed on the south side of the road are six riflemen, whose instructions are to prevent the enemy taking up positions on that side. Another six riflemen are positioned some way off as an insurance group, should a third Auxiliary lorry appear.

The first lorry, containing nine Auxiliaries, slows almost to a halt close to their intended ambush position, at which point Barry gives the order to fire. He throws a Mills bomb that explodes in the open cab of the first lorry. A savage close-quarter fight ensues. According to Barry’s account, some of the British are killed using rifle butts and bayonets in a brutal and bloody encounter. This part of the engagement is over relatively quickly with all nine Auxiliaries dead or dying.

While this part of the fight is going on, a second lorry also containing nine Auxiliaries has driven into the ambush position. This lorry’s occupants, at a more advantageous position than Auxiliaries in the first lorry because of their distance from the ambushing group, dismount to the road and exchange fire with the IRA, killing Michael McCarthy. Barry then brings 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 volunteer Jim O’Sullivan instantly and mortally wounding Pat Deasy. Barry then orders his men to open fire and not stop until told to do so. Barry ignores a subsequent attempt by remaining Auxiliaries to surrender, and keeps his men firing until he believes all the Auxiliaries are dead.

At the conclusion of the fight it is observed that two IRA volunteers, Michael McCarthy and Jim O’Sullivan, are dead and that Pat Deasy, brother of Liam Deasy, is mortally wounded. Although the IRA fighters think they had killed all of the Auxiliaries, two actually survive, one very badly injured and another who escapes and is later captured and shot dead. Among the 16 British dead on the road at Kilmichael is Francis Crake, commander of the Auxiliaries in Macroom, probably killed at the start of the action by Barry’s Mills bomb.

Many IRA volunteers are deeply shaken by the severity of the action, referred to by Barry as “the bloodiest in Ireland,” and some are physically sick. Barry attempts to restore discipline by making them form-up and perform drill, before marching away. Barry himself collapses with severe chest pains on December 3 and is secretly hospitalized in Cork. 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 contribute to his illness, diagnosed as heart displacement.

The political fallout from the Kilmichael ambush outweighs its military significance. While the British forces in Ireland can easily absorb 18 casualties, the fact that the IRA had been able to wipe out a whole patrol of elite Auxiliaries is for them deeply shocking. The British forces in the West Cork area take their revenge on the local population by burning several houses, shops and barns in Kilmichael, Johnstown and Inchigeelagh, including all of the houses around the ambush site. On December 3, three IRA volunteers are 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 is an indication that the violence in Ireland is escalating. Shortly after the ambush, barriers are placed on either end of Downing Street to protect the Prime Minister‘s office from IRA attacks. On December 10, as a result of Kilmichael, martial law is declared for the counties of Cork, Kerry, Limerick and Tipperary.

The British military now has 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 December 11, in reprisal for Kilmichael and other IRA actions, the centre of Cork city is burned by Auxiliaries, British soldiers and Black and Tans, and two IRA men are assassinated in their beds. In separate proclamations shortly afterwards, the authorities sanction “official reprisals” against suspected Sinn Féin sympathisers and the use of hostages in military convoys to deter ambushes.

(Pictured: The Kilmichael Ambush Monument at the ambush site)


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Ahern & Blair Conduct Talks at Hillsborough Castle

ahern-blair-hillsboroughTaoiseach Bertie Ahern and British Prime Minister Tony Blair conduct talks at Hillsborough Castle on March 3, 2003, in the latest bid to salvage the floundering Good Friday Agreement. The negotiations last eight hours.

This meeting is very important, as it is Tony Blair’s last chance at intensive negotiation before his attention is totally caught up in the Iraq War. Progress cannot afford to slip further as the Stormont Assembly election has to be formally declared by March 21 if it is to take place as scheduled on May 1.

David Trimble, representing the unionists, has said the Irish Republican Army (IRA) must “go out of business” before his party will re-enter a coalition government with Sinn Fein. In late 2002, he uses the word “disbandment” but he is now careful to avoid being overly prescriptive.

He wants visible, verifiable decommissioning to restore unionist confidence, severely damaged by the IRA spy ring allegations which led to the collapse of devolution in October 2002. Trimble is also urging sanctions to punish republican politicians if the Provisionals renege.

The key demands of the republicans are demilitarisation, guarantees that unionists cannot pull down the Stormont Assembly again, devolution of policing and criminal justice, further police reforms, and a dispensation for 30-40 fugitive IRA members to go back to Northern Ireland without prosecution.

Republicans insist discussions must not revolve around getting rid of the IRA. They prefer to interpret the prime minister’s talk of “acts of completion” as an admission of failure to implement his obligations under the Good Friday Agreement, shortcomings they outlined in a 57-page dossier handed in to Downing Street.

Tony Blair claims he does not want to get involved in a bartering game – but in fact the government is prepared make major moves in return for IRA concessions. The prime minister is offering a radical three-year plan to withdraw 5,000 of the 13,000 soldiers in Northern Ireland and tear down a large number of border watchtowers and military bases.

Sinn Fein wants written guarantees on troop withdrawal and police reform, criminal justice and on-the-run terrorists. But important details need ironing out.

Policing and the return of fugitive paramilitaries are extremely sensitive issues for both republicans and unionists. A balance must be struck so that on-the-runs, mostly republican, are freed on licence after some sort of judicial process but not given amnesty, unacceptable to unionists.

Government sources claim Sinn Fein is poised to join the policing board, endorsing the police service for the first time, but this too will require delicate handling to ensure unionists don’t walk away.

One British government source states, “Everybody knows what has to be done, the question is if the will is there to achieve it. One of the problems is no one is absolutely clear what the IRA is prepared to do.”