As a young child sitting close to the front of a bus with my grandfather in West Cork I was quietly informed that the elderly person who had just boarded was Tom Barry.
He looked like another ordinary old man to me and his name did not immediately register, although I may have vaguely recalled talk about someone with that name.
Years later, coming across a first-edition copy of “Guerilla Days in Ireland” in my grandfather’s house, that moment on a bus was recalled.
The War of Independence in Ireland had reached a shocking climax in November 1920 when the IRA carried out a series of targeted assassinations in Dublin, killing thirteen British intelligence officers. That afternoon, the police opened fire on a crowd of spectators at a Gaelic football match and killed fourteen.
A week later, at a bend in a road in an area of West Cork called Kilmichael, Tom Barry led a planned ambush on a group of Auxiliaries.
They were former officers in the British Army specially recruited as an elite force to combat insurgents like Tom Barry. Sixteen of them were killed as a result of the ambush
Tom Barry, the central figure in “Kilmichael”, was not just the leader of the ambush party but an individual who became a magnet for opposing points of view in the civil war that broke out after the War of Independence.
Barry did not accept the treaty that allowed six counties in the north of the country to remain British and, with hindsight, it seems clear that he was right in this regard.
“Kilmichael” is the latest account to examine what happened on that bend in the road in November 1920.
It remains a contested event because there is no definitive narrative and, due to the passage of time, there probably never will be.
Eve Morrison’s account is granular in its approach and she examines virtually every written and oral account that is available, though there are papers written by Barry that have still not been released.
A particular bone of contention arises from Barry’s claim that some of the Auxiliaries pretended to surrender and then opened fire on unsuspecting members of the ambush team.
Morrison questions the veracity of this and is in favour of the likelihood that some of the Auxiliaries were shot after they had raised their hands in surrender.
It is difficult to understand why this matters, given the nature of the guerrilla war in Ireland at that time. As Barry told his men, only one side survives such warfare; it was, as Morrison puts it, a ‘chaotic merciless event’.
“Kilmichael”, which also examines debates around issues of memory and historiography, would have benefitted from an up-to-date map of Kilmichael and interested readers could consult the excellent one in Atlas of the Irish Revolution.
“Kilmichael: The life and afterlife of an ambush”, by Eve Morrison, is published by Irish Academic Press.