18 November 2005

Remembering the Past - Kilmichael Ambush

An Phoblacht

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Photo: Tom Barry

On 21 November 1920 a column of 36 IRA riflemen were mobilised at Clogher, County Cork, for a week's training in advance of an attack on the Auxiliaries. At 2am the following Sunday the IRA Flying Column fell in at Ahilina. Each man was armed with a rifle and 35 rounds of ammunition. A few had revolvers, and their commander Tom Barry who had been appointed Training Officer and Commanding Officer of the 3rd West Cork Brigade Flying Column, had two Mills' bombs, which had been captured in a previous ambush at Toureen.

At 3am the men were told for the first time they were moving in to attack the Auxiliaries between Macroom and Dunmanway. Fr O'Connell had heard the men's confessions at the side of the road. On an extremely cold, wet night, the men began moving to Kilmichael to take on the dreaded Auxiliaries.

All IRA positions were occupied at 9am. The hours passed slowly. Towards evening the gloom deepened over the bleak Kilmichael countryside. At 4.05 pm. an IRA scout signaled the enemy's approach.

The first lorry came round the bend into the ambush position. Tom Barry, dressed in military style uniform stepped onto the road with his hand up. The driver gradually slowed down. When it was 35 yards from the Volunteers command post a Mills' bomb was thrown by Barry and simultaneously a whistle blew signalling the beginning of the ambush.

The bomb landed in the driver's seat of the uncovered lorry. As it exploded, rifle shots rang out. The lorry, its driver dead, moved forward until it stopped a few yards from the small stone wall in front of the command post. While some of the Auxiliaries were firing from the lorry, others were on the road and the fighting was hand-to-hand. Revolvers were used at point blank range, and at times, rifle butts replaced rifle shots. The Auxiliaries were cursing and yelling as they fought, but the IRA coldly outfought them. In less than five minutes nine Auxiliaries were dead or dying.

Barry and the three men beside him at the Command Post, moved towards the second lorry. This had been engaged by No 2 Section, which was in the middle of the ambush area, high up on the rocks.

The second group of Auxiliaries had taken up positions beside the ditch. Some had taken cover behind their lorry as the fight went on. Barry, with the three men at the Command Post, crouched along the dyke. When they were about half way between the two lorries they heard the Auxiliaries shout: "We surrender! We surrender!" Some actually threw away their rifles and the firing stopped. The Volunteers accepted the surrender. In No 2 Section some Volunteers who thought it was over, stood up. But the Auxiliaries again took up their guns; some used their revolvers to open fire. Following this encounter three Volunteers were fatally wounded.

When he saw this Tom Barry gave the order: "Rapid fire and do not stop until I tell you." The Auxiliaries once again shouted "We surrender" but on this occasion the order was given to "Keep firing on them. Keep firing, No 2 Section. Everybody keep firing on them until the ceasefire". The small IRA group on the road was now standing up, firing as they advanced to within ten yards of the Auxiliaries. When the ceasefire order was finally given there was an uncanny silence as the sound of the last shot died away. Sixteen Auxiliaries were dead and one seriously wounded. Volunteers Michael McCarthy of Dunmanway and Jim Sullivan of Rossmore also lay dead, and Pat Deasy was dying.

The lorries were set ablaze. The column was ordered to drill and march for five minutes. They then halted in front of the rock where Michael McCarthy and Jim O'Sullivan lay, where they presented arms as a tribute to the dead Volunteers. Just 30 minutes after the opening of the ambush the column moved away to the south, intending to cross the Bandon River upstream from the British-held Manch Bridge. Eighteen men carried the captured enemy rifles slung across their backs. It started to rain again and the men were soon drenched. The rain continued as the IRA marched through Shanacashel, Coolnagow, Balteenbrack and arrived in the vicinity of dangerous Manch Bridge. The Bandon River was crossed without incident and Granure, eleven miles south of Kilmichael, was reached by 11pm

The engagement at Kilmichael was the first between the IRA and the previously invincible Auxilaries and one of the most important battles of the Tan War. The British establishment could not comprehend how 18 battle-hardened officers fell in combat against what they previously dismissed as 'rabble'.

The first engagement between the IRA and Auxilaries, took place at Kilmichael, County Cork, on 28 November 1920.

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