“Tom Barry, How the British Soldier became an Irish Hero”

by Shane Daly

I’m not one that believes that war is a glorious thing, I think that it is bestial and the First World War taught me that. There is nothing romantic about war. The only war which I can justify to myself is a war of liberation.” – Tom Barry

Throughout the course of the Irish Revolutionary period there were many events worthy of academic study. The years between 1912 and 1923 were turbulent. They were massively destructive yet rather paradoxically constructive.

It was because of the aforementioned turbulence that the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in 1921. Furthermore, the South attained its much sought after Independence and the Irish Free State was formed in 1922. Fortunately, however in achieving such landmark events, landmark people are a virtual inevitability. When obtaining Independence, a country needs leaders and Tom Barry played no small part.

In early, silent westerns distinguishing the good guys from the bad was a simple task. The bad guys wore black hats and the good guys wore white hats. In the eyes of the Republican Barry found himself prominently in the latter category. However, despite becoming a household name in Ireland. Barry’s father was a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary, a fact that would complicate Barry’s efforts to enter the IRA later in life. However, Barry could not foresee the path he was to play in Ireland’s fight for freedom, he would one day destroy barracks like the one where his father worked and kill RIC men like his father.

Barry offers little description of his childhood. His memoir effectively begins with his decision at 17 years old, to join the British Army;

“In June, 1915, in my seventeenth year, I had decided to see what this Great War was like. I cannot plead I went on the advice of John Redmond or any other politician, that if we fought for the British we would secure Home Rule for Ireland, nor can I say I understood what Home Rule meant. I was not influenced by the lurid appeal to fight to save Belgium or small nations. I knew nothing about nations, large or small. I went to war for no other reason than that I wanted to see what war was like, to get a gun, to see new countries and to feel a grown man. Above all I went because I knew no Irish history and had no national consciousness.”

So he bade farewell to the rugged Rosscarbery hills, and said goodbye to his friends, his parents, his brothers and his sisters. He embarked on his initial training as a soldier in the British army. His first port of call was Athlone and the next was Woolwich. He eventually found himself with the Royal Artillery. Bombardier Barry seemed to enjoy the excitement of military life. However, with the advantage of hindsight he became highly critical of the handling of the campaign in Mesopotamia.

After many futile attempts, costing a considerable amount of lives, in trying to break the Turkish-German ring, the British army withdrew from Kut. It was during this rest period that Barry stumbled on a communiqué regarding the Easter Rising in Dublin. The communiqué was titled SPECIAL REBELLION IN DUBLIN and Barry credits it with his road to-Damascus political conversion;

“I read it and re-read it three or four times. It concerned Dublin and my people, the Irish. It put me thinking. What the hell am I doing with the British army? It’s with the Irish I should be!”

The notice described the 1916 Rising, it referenced how a group of ‘rebels’ took over the GPO as well as other buildings in the city of Dublin and how they were shelled and eventually overcome by the crown forces but not before many of the ‘rebels’ had been killed. The notice outlined several weeks, it told of arrests, the executions of the Rising’s leaders and how the other ‘rebels’ were jailed for the parts that they played in the battle. However, the Great War dragged on and it was not until after demobilisation that Bombardier Barry returned to Cork in February 1919, and returned to his family home in Bandon.

Bandon is situated in west Cork. West Cork for the most part is a poor land, where bogs and mountains predominate. Some parts were fertile, places like Clonakilty and Skibbereen. The majority of the people in these areas lived a meagre existence. These families were reared on poverty and had nothing to look forward to except emigration to America or other lands. Therefore, the poorest parts of the countryside we’re sparsely populated. Barry wrote that the prosperous lands had been commandeered by the conquerors many centuries prior.

A study of the names of these occupiers is a history lesson in itself as here predominated the descendants of the mercenary invaders who defeated Red Hugh in the battle of Kinsale in 1601 and laid claim to the lands since. In 1919, the ‘Big House’ near all the towns was a predominant feature and of first importance in the lives of the West Cork people. In the ‘Big House’ lived the leading British loyalist, secure and affluent upon his many acres, high walls enclosed him and his lifestyle. Around him lived his labourers, gardeners and household servants, whose sole purpose in life was to serve their lord and master. In the towns, many of the wealthy shopkeepers would bow before the ‘great’ family, in their eyes those in the ‘big house’ were Gods and no less.

Barry is highly critical of the political submissiveness of the population in these areas. He wrote that owing to the sub servant nature of these people they were happy in their master’s benevolence. They did not question how it was the dwellers of the ‘big house’ had come to acquire the thousands of acres and wealth they had become accustomed. Nor did they think of themselves as the descendants of the rightful owners of the stolen lands. According to Barry the men and women living in these ‘big houses’ lived in an unaffected, privileged bliss.

The ornate and affluent nature of their inherited surroundings requiring them to force the Irish people to submit to unattainable rent prices, unworkable and overpriced land and inevitable starvation. The people of West Cork were no anomaly, Barry argues, they too were subjected to a depraved and miserable existence. However, they had enough. They knew that the only way to remove themselves from their unfortunate circumstances, drastic measures had to be taken and they had exhausted their efforts at the polls. In Guerilla Days in Ireland, an armed revolt seemed more logical at that moment than ever before. It was through this frustration that the flying column was born.

As the son of a retired RIC officer, Barry’s motives for joining the IRA were suspicious. Men of high ranking within the Irish Republican Army were wary of his willingness to join and were reluctant at first. According to Meda Ryan, Barry’s motive for wanting to join was legitimate, however the IRA hierarchy had to be cautious.

“Tom Barry didn’t know then, nor was he ever to know, that the first reaction of Sean Buckley and other Brigade Officers was one of mistrust. Why was the son of an RIC man, who had spent four years in the British army and upheld their policy on his return to Ireland, seeking membership of the IRA? Naturally we had to be cautious. Questions were asked:

Could he be a spy? Was he genuine? They set traps for him. He was well tested.”

Barry himself admits that he never once read Sinn Fein’s programme and the fact that three quarters of the Irish people had at the end of 1916 declared in a British General Election for a Sovereign Independent Irish Republic was of little concern to him. ‘These things seemed to be of little matter then, but what did matter was that one had to decide whether to aid the occupying forces and be a traitor, sit on the ditch and be a cynic or join your own people and do the right thing. However, as the struggle developed and many young men died in battle by the bullet, one soon learned that programmes that included political, social and economic contexts were important and that being the army of a democratically elected government, defending its people and its embryonic institutions changed the world-wide image of the IRA and enhanced the morale of its Volunteers.’

As well as his Father being a retired RIC man another reason for the IRA hierarchy’s suspicions was that upon Barry’s return from war he remained close to the men in the British army he served with. He was often seen in the company of British army personnel stationed at Bandon. Barry however at all times maintained that he fraternised with these men as they fought alongside him at war and he trusted them. However, Barry knew that if the IRA were to even consider admitting him to their ranks he had to distance himself from this social circle. As the months of 1919 passed he cautiously moved into a different circle of friends in Bandon. According to Meda Ryan, one of the events that gave Barry’s motives for wanting to join the IRA and made its members warm to him was the fact that in 1919 he was arrested by British forces which duly gave him a beating in the hope of extracting from him information about the IRA. This event had a profound effect on Tom and the result was a ‘changed’ Tom Barry emerged. Tom himself admitted he was held up ‘several times and questioned about people by pups who had seen no war. The arrogance of the conqueror, the invader made me realise some day if there was a fight coming I would be on the side of Ireland’.

Meda Ryan argues that in August of 1919 Sean Buckley, Charlie Hurley, Liam Deasy and other high ranking members in the IRA were of the opinion that in the rapidly changing pattern of action and the increase of violence by the British forces, morale had reached a low ebb within the IRA. They decided that there was a requirement for a highly trained Brigade Column. Furthermore, if there was to be a trained Brigade Column, a capable man was needed to train it. Sean Buckley made it known that he wanted to speak with Tom Barry and he was sent for, Tom was no longer at home as he had left, under the anticipation of another arrest by the British.

One week later Tom Barry was interviewed by IRA hierarchy Charlie Hurley and Ted O’Sullivan, while other officers listened to the process. It has been documented by Liam Deasy who was present at the time of Barry that;

His answers were direct and clear. He was smart and military in his appearance and gave the impression of being sharp, quick and dynamic. He presented himself to me as a very likeable person and won my complete confidence… We felt that he would have much to offer as a professional soldier who had seen active military service in the Middle East.”

Tom Barry came through the IRA’s testing process and the interview unscathed. Barry served in the Cork No. 3 Brigade, also known as The West Cork Brigade. The Brigades jurisdiction was broad. It covered areas such as the Old Head of Kinsale, Waterfall, Crookstown, possibly most importantly Kilmichael, it stretched to the southern Pass of Keimineigh on to the Kerry border, west of Glengarriff, to meet the sea after enclosing all the Castletownbere peninsula. In the Third West Cork Brigade there were seven Battalions which were situated around the main towns and

British strongholds. The First Battalion was organised around Bandon. The Second, Clonakilty;

Third, Dunmanway; Fourth, Skibbereen; Fifth, Bantry; Sixth, Castletownbere; and Seventh,

Schull. Each of the seven Battalions was divided into a number of Companies. Furthermore

Battalions, Companies and Sections were comprised of unequal numbers. For example, the Bandon Battalion had thirteen companies and was the strongest Battalion, however its personnel exceeded the combined numbers of the Bantry and Castletownbere Battalions combined. Likewise, one Company might have fifty members, while another company could have in excess of one hundred. The quantity of members in each Battalion was elastic. It was manufactured this way to allow for different factors of population in certain areas. According to Barry at its peak the Third West Cork Brigade had three thousand combatants, very few of whom were armed.

Barry presents the Anglo-Irish war in West Cork as a battle between David and Goliath. He reports British military and police forces in West Cork numbered three thousand. In addition to the troops that were in West Cork, several thousand more that were stationed in garrisons outside its borders were called upon for operations in West Cork. Barry’s column faced what he continued to portray as an insurmountable task. They were armed with the most modern weapons available, they had a plentiful supply of machine-guns, field artillery, armoured vehicles, signalling equipment and cars, jeeps and various other means of transport. The finances of the world’s arguably greatest and largest empire were at their command.

However, to further consolidate the IRA’s position as underdog, West Cork IRA members were untrained in the use of arms and were unable to perform simple military tasks such as the ordinary foot-drill. Barry states that they were practically unarmed, even during the middle of 1920, the whole Third West Cork Brigade had only thirty-five rifles, twenty automatics or revolvers, roughly thirty rounds of ammunition per rifle and roughly ten rounds of ammunition for each automatic or revolver. The West Cork IRA had no transport, they had no machine-guns or any other weapons, except a small supply of explosives such as mill bombs and a limited number of shot-guns. They had no money and were an entirely unpaid volunteer force. Each Brigade stood independently, without hope of outside reinforcements should disaster fall upon it. As Barry described it, the whole National movement made its own war, gloried in its victories and took responsibility for its defeats. He argues that each century had seen the humiliating defeat of valiant Irishmen who had attempted to break free of the Crown forces shackles. A further bad omen was that the history books showed that after its defeat in 1601, West Cork did not take a worthy part in any of the numerous Risings post 1601. Barry is quoted as saying;

And sadly it must be recorded that, when West Cork women and children died in 1846 and 1847 of hunger, while the British ascendancy seized their food, not a West Cork man drove a pike through any one of the murderers of his family.”

This clear hostility towards the British government in Ireland would remain a feature of Barry’s public persona for the rest of his life. The road to Kilmichael for Tom Barry really began at the first training camp he led at O’Brien’s house in Kilbrittain. All the men in training slept in one barn. Training consisted of ten hours a day, this generally continued for one week to inculcate military discipline and to teach elementary tactics. He explains;

The men were told to act as if they were expecting an attack at any hour of the day or night… They practiced occupying their defence positions, aiming and trigger pressing and moving in extended order as directed. It was an unorthodox approach to training, but the circumstances necessitated this departure.”

The matter of most importance, according to Barry was that men were able to shoot straight and move in proper formation, ‘their ability to salute or to form fours smartly wasn’t in the circumstances, considered.’ The full military practice together with the lectures, written work and map-reading meant, according to Barry, ‘that the men’s minds held nothing but thoughts of war. I stressed to the men that they would be called upon to undertake long marches, they would often go hungry and sleep rough – in a field or in a barn.’

His discipline, organization skills and fearless, dynamic personality gave confidence to those that fought alongside him, Meda Ryan quotes one veteran ‘there is such a thing as a born soldier, and Tom Barry was one…. once he was in the movement he threw his heart into it. He was in it spirit and body. The soldier in him wanted to push the men forward,’ Tom Barry, a slightly built twenty three year old had his own recipe to winning respect ‘You have to make sure that your troops are more afraid of you than they are of the enemy. I did that.’ said Barry.

Writing over twenty-five years later, Barry saw the essence of the Flying Column clearly. The paramount objective of any Flying Column, in the circumstances then prevailing, should be, not to fight, but to continue to exist. Even if it never mounted an attack it was a continuous challenge and hindrance to the enemy and forced him to maintain large garrisons to meet the threatened onslaught on his military forces, and for the security of his civil administration. The fact that there was an armed column of men moving around must seriously affect the morale of garrisons.

The flying column would attack whenever there was good grounds for believing that it would inflict more casualties on an enemy force than it would suffer itself. It would choose its own battleground, and when possible, would refuse a battle with the enemy if the circumstances were unfavourable. It would often seek out the enemy in the hope of engaging in battle but would not always accept an enemy challenge. This tactic sought to avoid disaster at all cost. Consistent with those two unchanged blue objectives, the mission of the Flying Column was at all times to harass, kill, capture and destroy the British forces and to keep in check his attempts to rebuild his badly shaken civil administration.

The task that lay ahead of the Third West Cork Brigade was an unenviable one, in view of the preponderance of the strength and resources of the British forces. Obviously, a careless and unorganized Flying Column would not last a week without disaster. For Barry, only the best types of Volunteers, severely commanded, trained and disciplined, would survive to fulfil their role. As Brigade Training Officer this responsibility fell on his shoulders. The town of Macroom was in fact outside the West Cork IRA’s Brigade area. However, the Auxiliaries that used Macroom as their garrison, seemed from the moment of their arrival to raid further south of Macroom, and into the Third West Cork Brigades territory. Barry knew that they must strike a blow against the Auxies, but knew it was paramount that he bided his time for the correct opportunity. Barry claimed that he was the first to take on the dreaded Auxiliaries;

‘Strange as it may appear, not a single shot had been fired at them up to this by the IRA in any part of Ireland to halt their terror campaign. This fact had a very serious effect on the morale of the whole people as well as on the IRA. Stories were current that the ‘Auxies’ were super-fighters and all but invincible. There could be no further delay in challenging them.’

On the 21st of November 1920, a Flying Column of thirty-six riflemen were mobilised in a town named Clogher for one full week of training in preparatory to the attack on the Auxiliaries. The same week prior to the organisation of the training camp, a Brigade meeting took place where officers in command posts outlined attacks they had been informed of that had been carried out by the Auxies. However, Barry wanted the plan to attack them kept secret and therefore never mentioned the objective he had outlined to occur in the forthcoming seven days. Immediately after the meeting Barry went to meet the Volunteers he had organised to assemble at Clogher.

This column comprised entirely of new men than that of the column that fought in the recent I.R.A. ambush at Toureen. Barry travelled on horseback to the Kilmichael area two days prior to the ambush. Having studied the area, he became conscious of the terrain, he decided that the Auxiliaries should be attacked on the road between Kilmichael and Gleann crossroads. His thinking behind this was that he felt his column could not fight the enemy closer to Macroom, as they could call on reinforcements quickly from their garrison there. At 2 a.m. on the morning of the ambush, the Third West Cork Brigade met in a farmyard near Enniskeane. Each man was given a rifle and thirty six rounds of ammunition.

The men were not informed of their target until 3 a.m. that morning. Tom Barry had arranged for Fr. O’Connell to travel on horseback from Enniskeane to hear each man’s confessions, and he heard each man’s confession by a ditch on the road to Enniskeane. What transpired next on a small stretch of road in Kilmichael, West Cork was to change Irish History irrevocably.