Opinion – False surrender at Kilmichael?

by Shane Daly

Anyone that comes into my house and my country and tries to take over by force, I’m going to kill them and I’ll use any and every means to do it and I’m saying that in the winter of my life… and I am not one bit sorry for it, to any man or God.” – Dan Breen

For anyone that is unsure of what exactly a ‘False Surrender’ is, to put it very simply, it is a method used in wartime to trick the enemy. A group of men from army ‘X’ will pretend the give up and surrender. They will put down their weapons and hold their hands up in view of the enemy. Under the impression that the opposition has surrendered, men from the opposing army ‘Y’ will reveal themselves from their hiding places, only to be shot dead immediately by other members of army ’X’ who had stayed hidden.


Guerilla Days in Ireland’ offers Tom Barry’s account of the fight at Kilmichael, and the concept of the ‘false surrender’ features prominently in it. That issue remains controversial to this day. Many historians differ on the subject of Barry’s account of a ‘false surrender’ at the ambush site. Barry’s claim is that a ‘false surrender’ was used by the Auxiliaries to shoot and kill three men that were part of his column. Some argue Barry used the ‘false surrender’ to justify his killing of Auxiliaries, had they subsequently surrendered. Some historians believe that Barry concocted the ‘false surrender’ entirely, to cover up the slaying of Auxiliary soldiers who had genuinely given up and raised a white flag. The late historian Peter Hart’s book ‘The I.R.A. and Its Enemies Violence and Community in Cork 1916-1923’ was published in 1998 and is based on his PhD thesis from Trinity College Dublin is a highly controversial publication in which he refutes Tom Barry’s claim of a false surrender. In stark contrast to Meda Ryan’s publication on the topic, this work by Hart is probably the most prevalent in the entirety of the anti-false surrender debates.

The false surrender remained unquestioned for fifty-three years until the release of Liam Deasy’s book, ‘Towards Ireland Free’, in which the details were conspicuous in their absence. Deasy inserted an account of the Kilmichael ambush by I.R.A. participant Paddy O’ Brien. He made no mention of any ‘false surrender’ whatsoever. Until the release of this book, the Tom Barry account remained uncontested. It was this account that drew the attention of modern Irish historians, and led them to question Barry’s account in Guerilla Days in Ireland. The omission angered Tom Barry so much that he felt compelled to answer Deasy in print. The authorship of Deasy’s Towards Ireland Free book adds another layer to the controversy. It later transpired that Liam Deasy was ill at the time of writing the book, and he allowed Rev. John Chisholm to edit it. Fr. Chisholm later wrote ‘I endeavoured to preserve the style found in manuscripts supplied to me, but I am conscious that all too often it is my own style that prevails.’ This admission could have contributed to the decision to omit mention of a ‘false surrender’ from the book. Barry put his opinion in writing in an angry pamphlet he called ‘The Reality of the Anglo-Irish War, 1920-1921 in West Cork, Refutations, Corrections and Comments on Liam Deasy’s Towards Ireland Free’, he made very clear his disgust;

Liam Deasy’s book purporting to be a factual history of the struggle for Independence in West Cork has had a build-up in an attempt to prove its authenticity unequalled by any other book, such as Dan Breen’s, Ernie O’ Malley’s, Rebel Cork’s Fighting Story, Beaslai’s records, Barry’s or any other. The usual publisher’s blurb is aided by an editor, Reverend Fr. Chisholm, and finally a press conference at the Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin, at which a specially bound copy of the book is duly presented to An Taoiseach, Mr. Liam Cosgrave. Yet, such a build-up does not make it a reliable or factual book about the period 1920-1921, and I propose to prove this. This is only a short comment on the book, and I pledge myself to publish, as soon as possible, a detailed report on those parts I consider a travesty of history. Frankly, when I first glanced through the book, I was puzzled at some of Deasy’s statements, but later I was angered at his presentation of events and his alleged informants. The omissions, of great importance, were so vital to a true picture of what occurred that it was hard to understand. Individuals are all praised fulsomely and excessively, but coupled with that, a picture is given which denigrates the Flying Column, and if true, must show the Column Commander as a moron, incapable of commanding a single sniper, not to mention a Flying Column.”

Unfortunately for Barry the release of his publication happened the day before Liam Deasy passed away from a long term illness. The timing of the release of the publication caused quite a backlash, and may have undermined Barry’s credibility. The backlash was so strong that Anvil Books (the book’s publisher) released an explanation on behalf of Barry;

PUBLISHER’S NOTICE

The manuscript of this booklet was delivered by the author to us in January 1974, long before any knowledge of Mr. Liam Deasy’s illness was known to either the author or ourselves. Due solely to the well-known difficulties that have beset the printing industry in general during the past year, and to other more specific problems also, it was not found possible, despite the author’s urgings on a number of occasions, to have the final galley-proofs in the hands of our reader until Monday, 19 August. It is now, of course, a further fact of history that the person with whose writings this work is primarily concerned, Mr. Liam Deasy, died on the following day, Tuesday, 20 August. Footnotes that will be found on various pages have been drafted and inserted by us, as publishers,

Anvil Books Ltd,.

November 1974.”

However, Deasy’s account of Kilmichael challenges another version of the ambush written decades earlier. Stephen O’ Neill, fought at Kilmichael and wrote about the ambush in 1937, before the publication of Tom Barry’s Guerilla Days in Ireland. O’ Neill’s account mentions a false surrender similar to that described by Barry, years before Barry wrote his memoir. Here is

O’ Neill’s version;

The silence was broken by the O/C’s whistle, which was the signal to open fire. Simultaneously a bomb struck the first lorry which put more than its mechanism out of action and rifle fire was opened on the lorries from both sides of the road. The first lorry being in the ideal position from our point of view, many of the occupants were either killed or wounded in the first few minutes. The remainder took what cover was available and fought courageously, even though wounded, but within five minutes they were all accounted for. As can easily be understood, the second lorry, though coming within the ambush, was not in such a suitable position when fire opened. The Auxiliaries were able to take cover afforded by rocks on the roadside, and replied to our fire. Their expert marksmanship and long training made itself felt, and for some time we failed to dislodge them. The O/C, with three of the section responsible for the destruction of the first lorry, came to our assistance, with the result that the attack was intensified. On being called to surrender, they signified their intention of doing so, but when we ceased at the O/C’s command, fire was again opened by the Auxiliaries, with fatal results to two of our comrades who exposed themselves believing the surrender was genuine. We renewed the attack vigorously and never desisted until the enemy was annihilated.”

Another version of events that would back up both Barry’s and O’Neill’s claims was given by Volunteer Timothy Keohane who recalled vividly witnessing the false surrender on the day of battle;

About 4 p.m. our scouts to the west reported the approach of an enemy convoy. Our orders were to allow the leading lorry to pass our position, to be dealt with by the party at the command post at the eastern end. The first lorry then drove past us and fire was opened on it by the section to the east at Tom Barry’s post. We then opened fire on the second lorry, as did the other sections, north of the road. The Auxiliaries, who survived the opening burst, jumped from the lorries and took what cover they could behind rocks at the north side. The enemy party in the leading lorry was disposed of in about five or six minutes, but the survivors from the second lorry continued to fight for about 20/30 minutes. At this; stage Tom Barry blew, a. blast on his whistle as a. Signal that all men should get on to the road. At the same time he moved with his section along the road from the east to take the survivors in the rear. Tom Barry then called on the enemy to surrender and some of them put up their hands, but when our party were moving on to the road the Auxiliaries again opened fire. Two of our men (John Lordan and Jack Hennessy, I think) were wounded by his fire. Pat Deasy had been wounded, while Tim Sullivan and Mick McCarthy (V/C Dunnanway Battn.) had been killed prior to this happening. The O/C (Tom Barry) immediately ordered an all out attack, and after a few sharp bursts the enemy forces were silenced.”

Further accounts given by others further support Barry’s version of the false surrender. I.R.A. intelligence officer and police official Eamon Broy outlined his understanding of the event;

….on 28th November, 1920, a force of 18 Auxiliaries was annihilated at Kilmichael, near Macroom, in the Co. Cork. British propagandists alleged that, not satisfied with merely killing the Auxiliaries, the I.R.A. had then mutilated the bodies with axes. What really happened was that some of the Auxiliaries called out that they were prepared to surrender; and when the I.R.A. moved forward in order to accept the surrender the Auxiliaries again commenced firing and killed three Volunteers. The remaining Volunteers resumed firing and did not desist until the whole Auxiliary force was wiped out. This axe propaganda thus contradicted the main propaganda.”

Historian Meda Ryan is inclined to accept Barry’s version of the story as factual, and her work on the topic has supported the pro-Barry side of the debate. Her book Tom Barry IRA Freedom Fighter provides many details from both sides of the story. However, she is perhaps too willing to defend Barry’s account rather than subject it to strong scrutiny. She does, however, offer additional evidence taken from her own interview with Kilmichael Ambush veterans when they were alive. Interestingly, one of these is Paddy O’Brien, whose account of the ambush in Liam

Deasy’s book omits mention of the false surrender. Ryan records Paddy O’Brien as saying;

‘…Well sure, it was that false surrender, that’s how our boys were killed. The Auxies paid for their tricks.’

Furthermore, the strain of battle was not unique to the men in Barry’s Column as he began to show the trauma of battle himself shortly afterwards. In Patrick O’Brien’s statement given to the Bureau of Military History he describes possible symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress in Barry in the days following the fight, O’Brien recalls;

Barry was ill in McCarthy’s house at Kilmoyarne near Ahiohill and he sent for me. I thought him real bad and so did the people of the house and I immediately sent for Dr. Fehily. When the doctor came he found Barry kneeling at the side of the bed. The doctor was alarmed at the appearance of him with the two eyes turned in his head and he got to work on him. He gave Barry two injections and then took out a blue pencil and marked the position of his heart. I saw him doing this myself and Barry’s heart was quite out of place – about one inch down. I stayed with Barry two days more in McCarthys’. Mary O’Neill, who was a trained nurse of some years’ experience, came here and between us we brought Barry to her house at Shanaway. This was on the night of 7th December and next day the Gaggin ambush was carried out by the Column. This was too near to be wholesome and on the 9th we brought Barry to Reardon’s of Granure. Mary O’ Neill accompanied myself and Barry, having the road well scouted in advance. While in Granure John Lordan came with his sister, Bebe Lordan. She was a nurse, too, and she took over from Mary O‟ Neill. Herself and her brother brought Barry to a house at Newcestown, Sean Buckley of Bandon, the brigade I/O, having sent word that Barry could be got into hospital in Cork. From Newcestown he was brought to Cork, and made his recovery in hospital there.

William Kautt in his book Ambushes and Armour, refers to the British claim the I.R.A. volunteers mutilated the dead bodies after the fight hints at possible further proof of a false surrender, as if this did occur it would surely be a spontaneous act carried out as reprisal for the false surrender. He states;

The final charge laid by the British against Barry and the column was that of mutilating the dead after the fight was over. Barry strenuously denied this charge. There is sufficient evidence that the bodies were brutalized, but insufficient evidence produced thus far to claim by whom. The evidence that Ryan provides described the battle as being ferocious, and going hand to hand in the case of the first lorry. This would not have produced the types of wounds that were described by those who viewed the corpses, witnesses who were certainly familiar with the wounds created by close-quarters fighting, as seen in the trenches of Flanders. Ryan is quite correct when she says that the I.R.A. were not carrying axes, but the lorries did. What has not been explained by Barry’s detractors is why a fairly large group of full-time guerrillas would stand around watching while several of their comrades hacked away at the dead with axes. To what purpose; rage at the false surrender? But those who say the bodies were mutilated claim there was no false surrender. Surely such an act of wanton barbarity would have been spontaneous and have come with whatever was immediately at hand. Is it not much more likely that such aggression would have been let loose with their rifles-butts and bayonets? Axes would have required premeditation because they would have had to retrieve them from the lorries and then attack the dead. Finally, why would the column not have exfiltrated the area as quickly as possible? They knew they were in a known location as soon as the first shots went off; they had to expect a relief force. It does not make sense that the rebels disciplined enough to have ambushed the enemy and hold their positions would have done this. The problem then becomes; how can one explain the credible reports of physical damage to the British dead by trained observers?”

He goes on to say that a possible explanation for the extensive injuries to the dead Auxiliaries can be found in the statement given to the Bureau of Military History by Thomas Duggan. In it Duggan recalls;

His men were cooling down and the Horror of twenty four bleeding corpses was growing upon them. At that critical moment, an old man, in his clean Sunday flannel jacket, drove twelve cows down the road and over the bodies.”

Kautt goes on to give his opinion on false surrender;

What most people do not understand is that the act of surrendering is extremely dangerous because forces are normally expecting to make hostile contact and usually fire as quickly as possible. This means that the surrendering enemy has to take the risk that they will be shot if they must expose themselves to indicate surrender; hence the reason one would use a white flag if possible. Mistakes happen, but the problem is so common that it escapes most people. A more likely scenario at Kilmichael than outright murder is that Auxies, out of view from each other, were fighting and reloading, fighting for their lives, when one individual or group called the surrender, lout of sight or hearing of the others. The others continued reloading and shooting, they may have been reloading and out of a firing position (one does not stay exposed when reloading) when the call went out. If so, what would they have seen when they came back into a firing position? An easy target if the volunteers had stood up. It is difficult to imagine a soldier, unaware of his comrades’ attempts to surrender, not taking the shot. Would this be a false surrender?

Most definitely. Would it be done on purpose? Certainly not.”

Hart’s assertions are obviously sensational and also directly challenge Tom Barry’s well established narrative. Hart’s premature death in 2010 has only made his highly contested viewpoint more difficult to navigate. The Kilmichael debate has long been a focal point of the study of the Anglo-Irish War. Unless new and ground-breaking evidence reveals itself in the future, the controversy will continue. The truth about the false surrender may only rest in the eyes of each individual reader.

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