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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Four Courts Bombardment, Civil War Begins

four-courts-bombingOn June 28, 1922 the Provisional Government of the Irish Free State bombards the Four Courts in Dublin, which anti-Treaty forces had taken by force, and the Irish Civil War begins.

On April 14, 1922 a column of 200 men led by Rory O’Connor occupies the Four Courts, hoping to provoke an armed confrontation with British forces which are in the process of evacuating from Ireland following the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty the previous winter which had split the Irish Republican Army (IRA) into two opposing factions. The occupation is a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the Provisional government who seeks a smooth transition to a viable independent Irish state in the 26 counties of southern Ireland.

On June 22 Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson is gunned down by two IRA assassins and on June 26, the Free State Army Deputy Chief of Staff General J.J. O’Connell is kidnapped by the Four Courts IRA garrison. Michael Collins has also shipped guns issued by the British to arm the new Irish Army to Northern IRA units to defend themselves from Ulster loyalists.

Collins, no longer able to resist British pressure, receives two 18-pounder artillery guns and a stock of 200 artillery shells from the store at Kilmainham. The guns are set up at Parliament Street and Winetavern Street and Bridgefoot Street and Usher’s Quay across the River Liffey from the facade of the heavily fortified Four Courts where the Anti-Treaty IRA has barricaded themselves. Free State troops establish a cordon around the building, closing streets with riflemen and machine gunners occupying windows and rooftops. Among the IRA leaders inside are Chief-of-Staff Joe McKelvey, Director of Engineering Rory O’Connor, Quarter Master General Liam Mellows, commander of the IRA’s 2nd Southern Division Ernie O’Malley, Commandant Paddy O’Brien, Commandant Tom Barry and many others. The IRA mostly drawn from 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 1st Dublin Brigade are armed with rifles, five Thompson submachine guns and two Lewis machine guns as well as an armoured car nicknamed “The Mutineer.”

The bombardment begins on June 28 as artillery guns supervised by Emmet Dalton begin blasting the Four Courts at point blank range every fifteen minutes from across the River Liffey. The complex of buildings also comes under a hail of rifle and machine gun fire. However the strong stone walls of the 18th century Four Courts hold out. A number of the shells overshoot their target and land near General McCready’s British Army headquarters. IRA leader Ernie O’Malley later claims to have witnessed a gun crew fighting a duel with a sniper in the dome of the courts. The failures of the first day lead the impatient British to offer two more 18-pounders as well as heavy howitzers and aircraft in order to destroy the Four Courts once an for all.

On the 29th, Free State troops storm the eastern wing of the Four Courts, suffering three fatalities, 14 wounded and taking 33 prisoners. The republicans’ armored car, “The Mutineer,” is disabled and abandoned by its crew. Early the following day Paddy O’Brien is injured by shrapnel and Ernie O’Malley takes over military command in the Four Courts. By this time the shelling has caused the Four Courts to catch fire. In addition, orders arrive from Oscar Traynor, the anti-treaty IRA commander in Dublin, for the Four Courts garrison to surrender, as he is unable to reach their position to help them. At 3:30 PM on June 30, O’Malley surrenders the Four Courts to Brig. Gen. Paddy Daly of the Free State’s Dublin Guard unit.


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The Crossbarry Ambush

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERADuring the Irish War of Independence, Tom Barry and the West Cork Flying Column of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) rout a superior force from the Essex Regiment of the British Army at Crossbarry, County Cork on March 19, 1921.

A force of one hundred IRA members under the leadership of Barry are involved in a major skirmish with up to 1,000 British troops at Crossbarry. English intelligence has determined that Barry’s West Cork Brigade is based near Crossbarry and plans a major encirclement and assault. Poor planning and timing ensures that the British forces get separated before attacking Barry’s men. Barry is a brilliant guerrilla fighter and strategist who directs an attack against an initial force of approximately 140 men, before he orders his men to break out.

Charlie Hurley, one of the Brigade commanders who is injured during the Upton train ambush, is staying in a house with a pro-republican family, where he is recuperating from serious wounds he had received at Upton a month earlier. When he realises that he is surrounded by the British forces, he flees the house, as Tom Barry comments in his book, to reduce the danger to those in the house. He is shot dead by the pursuing troops. Barry remarks that Hurley “went to meet his death like a true Irishman.” A ballad exists that commemorates him. In addition, the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) grounds in Bandon, County Cork are named after him.

Reports as to casualties differ. The IRA claims that over thirty British are killed while official British figures are ten killed and six IRA men killed. Whatever the numbers, it is probably the largest single military engagement in the Irish War of Independence as the IRA knew major battles with British troops would be a disaster for them and rarely got involved in full frontal action. While the casualties may not seem that large, Crossbarry is a major morale victory for the IRA who had “defeated” a British force of over one thousand. Prime Minister David Lloyd George states that the Crossbarry and Kilmichael ambushes convinced him of the need for a truce and a treaty with the Irish rebels.

(Pictured: Crossbarry Ambush Memorial, Crossbarry, County Cork)


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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.