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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Irish Free State Suspends Executions

irish-free-state-executionsOn February 8, 1923, the Irish Free State suspends executions until February 18, offering an amnesty to anyone who surrenders before that date.

In the aftermath of the sudden death of Arthur Griffith and the killing of Michael Collins, in August 1922, William T. Cosgrave becomes chairman of the provisional government. Cosgrave and his colleagues remain wedded to a ruthless military and political strategy that ensures, by May 1923, a decisive win over the Republicans and the end of the Irish Civil War. Cosgrave’s analysis is that “the executions have had a remarkable effect. It is a sad thing to say, but it is nevertheless the case.” He could also be chilling in his resolve: “I am not going to hesitate and if the country is to live and if we have to exterminate 10,000 republicans, the 3 millions of our people are bigger than the ten thousand.”

The Free State suspends executions and offers an amnesty in the hope that anti-treaty fighters will surrender. However, the war drags for another two months and witnesses at least twenty more official executions.

Several Republican leaders narrowly avoid execution. Ernie O’Malley, captured on November 4, 1922, is not executed because he is too badly wounded when taken prisoner to face a court-martial and possibly because the Free State is hesitant about executing an undisputed hero of the recent struggle against the British. Liam Deasy, captured in January 1923, avoids execution by signing a surrender document calling on the anti-treaty forces to lay down their arms.

The Anti-Treaty side calls a ceasefire on April 30, 1923 and orders their men to “dump arms,” ending the war on May 24. Nevertheless, executions of Republican prisoners continue after this time. Four Irish Republican Army (IRA) men are executed in May after the ceasefire order and the final two executions take place on November 20, months after the end of hostilities. It is not until November 1924 that a general amnesty is offered for any acts committed in the civil war.

In highlighting the severity of the Free State’s execution policy, however, it is important not to exaggerate its extent. The Free State takes over 12,000 Republicans prisoner during the war, of whom roughly 80, less than 1%, are executed. How those who are executed are chosen from the others captured in arms is unclear, however many more men are sentenced to the death penalty than are actually shot. This is intended to act as a deterrent to anti-Treaty fighters in the field, who know that their imprisoned comrades are likely to be executed if they kept up their armed campaign.

Perhaps this realism is also beginning to affect the republican self-declared “men of faith.” Dan Breen, who leads an IRA column in Tipperary during the Civil war, tells his fellow republicans, “In order to win this war you’ll need to kill 3 out of every 5 people in the country and it isn’t worth it.”


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Occupation of the Four Courts in Dublin

occupation-of-four-courtsAbout 200 Anti-Treaty Irish Republican Army militants led by Rory O’Connor occupy the Four Courts in the centre of Dublin on April 14, 1922 in defiance of the Provisional Government. They intend to provoke the British troops, who are still in the country, to attack them, which they believe will restart the war with Britain and re-unite the Irish Republican Army against their common enemy. They also occupy other smaller buildings regarded as being associated with the former British administration, such as the Ballast Office and the Freemasons’ Hall in Molesworth Street, but the Four Courts remains the focus of interest. On June 15, O’Connor sends out men to collect the rifles that belong to the mutineers of the Civic Guards.

Winston Churchill and the Cabinet of the United Kingdom apply pressure on the Provisional Government to dislodge the rebels in Four Courts, considering their presence there as a violation of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Michael Collins, President of the Provisional Government Cabinet, tries desperately to persuade O’Connor and his men to leave the building over the next three months. At the Third IRA Convention, the executive is split over whether the Irish Government should demand that all British troops leave within 72 hours. The motion is defeated, but the IRA splits into two factions opposed to the government, one conciliatory, led by Liam Lynch, Sean Moylan, and Liam Deasy, and the other less moderate, led by Tom Barry and Joe McKelvey.

During the month of June 1922, the Provisional Government engages in intense negotiations with the British Cabinet, seeking to diffuse the threat of imminent civil war. However, the conservative British Cabinet refuses to cooperate.

On June 22, 1922, arch-Unionist Sir Henry Wilson is assassinated by two IRA men, both former British soldiers, Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan. It is considered by some that this is done on the orders of Michael Collins, who has been a close friend of Dunne in the London Irish Republican Brotherhood. David Lloyd George writes an angry letter to Collins which includes the line “…still less can Mr. Rory O’Connor be permitted to remain his followers and his arsenal in open rebellion in the heart of Dublin… organizing and sending out from this centre enterprises of murder not only in the area of your Government…”

On June 28, 1922, after the Four Courts garrison has kidnapped J.J. “Ginger” O’Connell, a general in the new Free State Army, Collins begins shelling the Four Courts with borrowed British artillery. O’Connor and 130 men surrender on July 3 and are arrested and imprisoned at Mountjoy Prison. This incident sparks the Irish Civil War as fighting breaks out around the country between pro and anti-treaty factions.