“The Evolution of the Kilmichael Commemoration Narrative”

Picture: Mike Searle under Creative Commons Licence.

by Shane Daly

You murdered so and so and so and so…….! Yes I killed them I said, all killing is murder to me, I make no apologies for killing and the only real thing I was ever sorry (for) was the number that escaped.”– Dan Breen

The evolution of the Kilmichael narrative is an important aspect of its memory. The way in which the event was commemorated close to the time of the ambush illustrates how people viewed the ambush and its participants.

The vocabulary used in the early commemorations during the 1930s help us to unlock the minds of those in the area interested in keeping the Kilmichael Ambush alive. This chapter ‘The Evolution of the Commemoration Narrative’ will try to determine if the commemoration of the Kilmichael Ambush altered over the course of time and if its memory has been romanticised by Tom Barry’s book Guerilla Days in Ireland, including the ‘False Surrender’ debate. Did the story told at the Kilmichael Ambush commerorations lead the public to place their heroes on a pedestal? The following excerpt is taken from a newspaper account in 1932. It shows the heavy emphasis placed on remembering fallen republicans. Celebration of the I.R.A. victory at Kilmichael is largely muted;

…. it was decided to hold a commemoration celebration on Sunday, November 27th, 1932, the anniversary of the fight against British forces at Kilmichael, to honour in a fitting manner those who died in West Cork since 1916 for the Republic. Mr. Tom Barry was elected Chairman, Mr. Sean Buckley Vice-Chairman, and Mr. Tadhg Lynch, Sec. It was decided to call a general meeting for Dunmanway on October 30th. At that meeting 80 delegates represented the various districts and units in West Cork (Cork Third Brigade Area). Mr. Tom Barry, in welcoming the delegates to the meeting, outlined the work already done by the Committee re organising and advertising. The proposed arrangements were agreed to by the meeting, their adoption being proposed by Tom Hales Ballinadee, and seconded by Mr. T. Neill, Gaggin. They included-1, Mass at

Dunmanway on 27th Nov. for the repose of the souls of the men who died in Cork Third Brigade Area for the Republic; 2, a visit to the Republican graves at Castletown-Kinneigh, where a wreath will be laid; 3, a visit to the scene of the fight at Kilmichael, where a wreath will be hung on Memorial Cross; 4, mobilization of all units at 2.30 sharp at a selected place outside Dunmanway. From there the march takes place to the point of assembly in Dunmanway, where Mr. M. Twomey, Dublin, will deliver the oration. Mr. Tom Barry will preside……. It was proposed by Sean Driscoll, and seconded by Mr. Willie Barrett, that a subscription fund for the purpose of defraying the expenses incurred, be opened immediately. There was a ready response from the delegates; all contributed generously. It was also agreed that each delegate undertake to form in his area a sub-committee to arrange for finance and transport, and to ensure that as large a number as possible will be present from his area on the day of the commemoration.”

The planning of the commemoration was carried out by the veterans themselves. Old I.R.A. members also raised the funds themselves, maintaining control of the event. Two years later in 1934 The Southern Star newspaper described the Kilmichael commemoration. Here, once again Tom Barry is the fulcrum around which the commemoration hinges. The story’s headline, “Honouring the Heroic Dead”, uses loaded language that in itself tells a story;

Skibbereen was the scene of a very creditable display on Sunday, when the historic Capital of the Carberies resounded once again with the beat of drums and the tramp of marching men as members of the Oglaigh Na h-Eireann from many parts of Cork County assembled to celebrate the anniversary of the famous Kilmicheal ambush…. For weeks previous to the event a local committee, with Mr. Jerome Bohane as chairman, made arrangements for the occasion, and the fact that everything went off without a hitch on Sunday reflects the greatest credit on all concerned, The expenses incurred were subscribed locally and were supplemented by the proceeds of a very successful Coilidhe held in the Town Hall on Sunday night……. After one o’clock the town took on an animated appearance as the various contingents arrived by special trains from Cork, Bandon, Clonakilty, Dunmanway, Bantry, Baltimore, Rosscarbery and many other districts. The attendance is estimated at several thousands, and included members of various branch movements of the I.R.A., Fianna Eireann, Cumann na Cailini and Cumann na mBan, all in their respective uniforms…… A loud speaker was erected on a lorry at the Square, where a public meeting was presided over by Mr. Patrick Cadogan, of Reengaroga, who introduced Mr. Tom Barry as “one of the greatest soldiers Ireland ever produced.”

Tom Barry spoke to the gathering. He began by reading aloud names from the Roll of Honour of the West Cork Brigade I.R.A. This was done as a tribute to the men in this Brigade who had fallen in action. Barry then continued;

People of West Cork who are here assembled today to mourn for the men who gave their lives that you might be free, I would ask you at the outset to temper your mourning with rejoicing, because surely it is a thing to rejoice for that this nation had men like those we are honouring today who were ready to give their lives in the fight against a foreign oppressor rather than live in slavery under foreign subjection. These men we are honouring, these comrades of ours need not be mourned in the sense that their death was futile or that their death was avoidable; because of the sacrifice that they made they are men of such a nature that they have ever served through their death as a beacon and guiding light to those who have come after them. Their sacrifice and efforts are a touch stone to us who remain behind if we should at any time weaken in achieving what they went out and fought for. We are able in our time to decide for ourselves without confusion of thought and without the possibility of making a mistake what the objective of the Republican movement and army is why these men died and why the organisation which they belonged to is in existence today, thank God…. He appealed to the people to join the I.R.A., Cumann na mBan, Cumann na Cailini, and Fianna Eireann, because those were the organisations that, were carrying on the fight. The I.R.A, today was the same army, with the same aims and same objects as at the time the men they were commemorating died (applause). There was one thing he wished every Republican in the country to realise, and that was that if was not by attending meetings, by passing resolution’s, by parades or legislation that the British conquered this country for the past 700 years; and if was not by any such methods it was to be freed. ‘It was by force of arms the British conquered this nation, and if is by force of arms the British conquest will be undone.’ (Cheers.) The men they were commemorating could rest calmly, knowing that there would be no peace in this country without absolute and complete freedom, knowing that that organisation to which they belonged was as strong to-day as it ever was. (Cheers)”

The narrative stays the same but what is interesting to note is Tom Barry’s oration. It is not so much an address as it is a rousing call to arms, he urges the people of West Cork to join the republican movement. In no uncertain terms he argues that attending and remembering the fallen is all very well but it will not by itself win Irish Freedom. Barry shows the ferocity of both his and his fellow republican’s ambition towards the republican cause and the pursuit of a united Ireland. By this stage, the I.R.A. veterans began to plan the building of a memorial to the three men who died at Kilmichael. In 1936, they announced a fund to erect a memorial statue at the site;

A laudable movement has been launched to erect a memorial at Kilmichael to commemorate the gallant fight and victory there of the Republican forces in the height of the Anglo-Irish war. For this purpose a committee has been formed and subscriptions are now being solicited. As the memory of that brave episode deserves to be perpetuated, it is to be hoped the public will respond generously. It is arranged that a house-to-house collection will also be made in the near future.”

In 1937, the tone of the press coverage remains respectful towards those killed at Kilmichael, while Tom Barry remains a key figure in the event. The Southern Star reported;

In commemoration of the anniversary of the famous Kilmichael ambush, in which Messrs McCarthy, Deasy and Sullivan fell, Requiem Mass was celebrated at Castletown-Kinneigh at 10.30 o’ clock on Sunday morning by Very Rev. P. O’Connell, P.P. Enniskeane, for the repose of their souls. After mass wreaths were laid on the graves by Messrs C. Aherne, Dunmanway; Liam Driscoll, Enniskeane, and J. O’Neill, Kilbrittain, and the large gathering joined in the recital of a decade of the Rosary by Mrs. Tom Barry, Cork. Amongst those also present were Messrs Tom Barry, S. O’Neill, Tralee; M. Dineen, Clonakilty; F. O’ Donoghue, Mallow and P. O’Brien, Chairman of the 3rd Battalion Old I.R.A. At the head of the graves stands a beautiful Celtic Cross, fourteen feet high, with kerbing and four small Celtic crosses on the four corners. The names of those who fell at the ambush are inscribed on the cross, both in Irish and English.”

A unique element of the 1938 commemoration was that the posed photograph of ‘The Boys of Kilmichael’ was taken. The historic nature of the photograph seemed to be recognised at the time. The Southern Star explained;

There was a big gathering of members of former active service I.R.A. units in West Cork at Castletown-Kinneigh on Sunday, the eighteenth anniversary of the Kilmichael ambush. They came to honour the memory of three of the famous West Cork Flying Column who lost their lives on that occasion and whose remains rest in the parish churchyard as well as sixty other West Cork I.R.A. men who died during the Anglo-Irish war. The occasion brought together men who had not only differed in their opinions, but differed violently even in the risking of their lives in defence of those opinions. The various political parties were represented in the gathering, whose sole purpose was to do honour to those who had fallen in the fight….. During the Mass, Canon O’Connell, having asked the prayers for the repose of the souls of the deceased, said he understood it was contemplated to take photographs of the surviving members of the column who had been engaged in the fight at Kilmichael, and also of the whole flying column. ‘Personally, I must say,’ added Canon O’Connell, ‘that I am very glad and proud of whoever made such a suggestion. There is one regret I have, however, and that is that it was not done many years ago. It would hold up before the people the great patriots who risked everything for the freedom of their country, and not only those who were in Kilmichael, but those who were in the Flying Column…..”

Newspaper coverage of the Kilmichael commemorations in the formative years of the remembrance ceremonies is always positive and soaked in admiration for the men that died there. It remains that way throughout the 1930s. However, after the release of Tom Barry’s book Guerilla Days in Ireland in 1949, newspaper coverage began to emphasize the military victory more than the fallen I.R.A. Volunteers. The Southern Star in 1965 offers probably the best example of this. We are met with rich, explicit vocabulary, much larger headlines and more space is allocated to the event. It quotes a speaker comparing Tom Barry and the Boys of Kilmichael with the Spartan warrior Leonidas and his men. Kilmichael has become West Cork’s Thermopylae, with only one difference, the Kilmichael boys won. The narrative has changed, as the fighting skill of the I.R.A. has been emphasised whereas earlier publications gave attention to the fallen soldiers. This appears to have materialised due to the success of Guerilla Days in Ireland. The publication from 1965 states;

From General Tom Barry’s own account in his book ‘Guerilla Days in Ireland’ it will be seen that the Kilmichael Ambush was a very important turning point in the fight for freedom. For four or five months prior to November 28, 1920, the date of the ambush, a new British force called the Auxiliaries had been allowed to bluster through the country unchallenged, killing, beating, terrorising and burning factories and homes. Kilmichael changed all that, proving that the Auxies were not invincible, as had been widely believed. The Kilmichael Ambush was also one of the largest engagements of the guerilla war and its importance in the struggle is now to be commemorated by a suitable Memorial to be erected at the site by the recently formed Kilmichael Memorial Committee. Being in many ways symbolic of the whole West Cork effort in the fight for freedom, we think that a Kilmichael Ambush Memorial is most worthy of support from our readers and accordingly recommend it to all those who value and feel proud of the heroic contribution of the West Cork I.R.A. Brigade.”

The movement to establish a Memorial Committee was put into motion at a meeting in Dunmanway. Father C. O’Brien of Kilmichael, in his address, stated;

The men of Tom Barry’s column were no ordinary men, their courage, their resolve, their spirit of sacrifice, their supreme dedication to their country in its hour of dire need overcame all the superiority in arms, discipline and prowess in battles of their foe. The morale of the British troops at that time could not be higher. They were rightly proud of their many victories in Flanders during the Great War. Yet notwithstanding all these qualities, the dash and daring of the Irish soldier won the day. It was the British and not the Irish that were annihilated. This unqualified victory at that bare and barren stretch of road which up to the 28th of November, 1920, was known only to beggars as a resting place, now became known as the scene of a decisive battle and will be forever, known as Kilmichael. Kilmichael became the Thermopylae of Ireland and Tom Barry its Leonidas. Kilmichael gave hope and promise to the hard pressed Irish people and raised their spirits to resist to the end the sword of terror and to overcome the fear of destruction…..”

However, even though the theme of admiration is present it is on an entirely different level this time around. There is a clear break in the narrative following the release of Barry’s book Guerilla Days in Ireland. The heroics of the guerilla war that Barry and the Third West Cork

Brigade fought seems to have unearthed in the people a certain pride in the Kilmichael Ambush. Barry’s framing of the event seems to have been accepted uncritically. This remained unchanged until the release of the book The IRA and Its Enemies, Violence and Community in Cork, 1916–1923, by controversial historian Peter Hart in which he claimed Tom Barry lied about certain events that took place at the Kilmichael Ambush. Hart among other assertions claimed that Barry concocted the ‘False Surrender’ event entirely.