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Essay: Do you agree with Hart’s or Ryan’s interpretation of the Kilmichael Ambush?

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  • Published: 26 February 2023*
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Do you agree with Hart’s or Ryan’s interpretation of the Kilmichael Ambush?

The debate between Meda Ryan and Peter Hart over the Kilmichael Ambush of 1920 is one of the most contentious in that period of Irish History.  The question of whether or not the British Auxiliaries falsely surrender and subsequently killed three volunteers as related in the traditional interpretation or if the surrender of the auxiliaries was legitimate and they were therefore executed as prisoners such as with Hart’s version of events. The behaviour of the auxiliaries whilst they were stationed in Macroom has also been disagreed upon. To determine what happened at Kilmichael, one has to analyse the various accounts from IRA volunteers such as: their commander Tom Barry and the new evidence disclosed by Hart.

Peter Hart presents a revisionist view of the Kilmichael Ambush, he holds that there was no false surrender which suggests that Tom Barry was involved in improper military conduct by executing a surrendering enemy force. He attributes this to anger over the deaths of their three fallen comrades. Hart bases his argument on the several inconsistencies in Barry’s writings about the ambush. In his report written straight after the event there is no mention of a false surrender nor in his account written for the Irish Press in 1932.1 It is only by 1949 that the false surrender is incorporated into his story, this suggests that for some reason he edited this part into his story, perhaps to absolve himself from guilt or to defend his reputation. He also uses the British Reports, deemed ‘remarkably accurate’ by Hart, that do not mention a false surrender and frames the event as a massacre of the auxiliaries.2 Since almost all the auxiliaries died (the only survivor was incapacitated with brain damage for the rest of his life), there was no first-hand account from those involved on the British sides therefore the reports lack first-hand accounts and even though as Hart acknowledges they reported other events accurately, it is not more reliable than the IRA accounts.3 Most interestingly, Hart interviewed a scout and a rifleman that were present during the Kilmichael ambush and who witnessed IRA volunteers executing surrendering auxiliaries.4 The names of the scouts were withheld by Hart and are solely labelled ‘AA’ and ‘AF’. Whilst this new evidence challenges the traditional version of the ambush, much of it is not convincing especially the anonymous sources. Ryan has highlighted that all the scouts had died by 1971 and the last surviving rifleman Ned Young died six days before Hart supposedly conducted the interview.5 The anonymity of the sources undermines the strength of the evidence as there is no reason why they should be believed rather than the accounts of volunteers who had definitely been present. One can also cast doubt on the memories of the sources since these interviews took place almost seventy years after the event and especially since the combat was very fast-paced. There is a possibility that the volunteers may have been afraid of Barry and speaking out against them, especially since they may have been marginalised by the West Cork area by seemingly defending the British.  Thus, Hart’s version of events has many weaknesses, most prominently with the interviews of survivors whom cannot even be confirmed to have been at the ambush since they are anonymous, none of the new evidence presented by Hart is any more reliable than the accounts of IRA volunteers.

Meda Ryan defends the traditional version of the Kilmichael Ambush, including a false surrender from Auxiliaries which resulted in the deaths of three Irish volunteers and thereby justified the killing of the remaining auxiliaries. Ryan writes that the ambush was legitimate and was conducted properly since it was acknowledged by the British Government as ‘Military Operation’.6 This equated the IRA to an army rather than a terrorist group and conveys an idea of legitimacy on the behalf of the IRA. Ryan similarly raises questions about the authenticity of the report written by Barry in the aftermath of the ambush in which a false surrender is not mentioned, since it has many errors that Ryan claims Barry could not have made and thus the report was forged by the British Government.7 This is quite a large assumption to make even though the errors were about Barry’s deceased men, it is quite possible that under the strain of the battle and the amount of pressure Barry was under as a commander, he reported some details inaccurately. Regarding, the second account by Barry from 1932, Ryan claims that the false surrender was simply ‘edited out’ without giving information as to why it was edited out or proof that it was there in the first place.8 However, Ryan raises another valid point regarding a statement from an anonymous witness declaring “No, there was no such thing as a (false) surrender”9, Ryan claims that Hart inserted the word ‘false’ and which would allow for the existence of a false surrender. Since Ryan has already discredited the validity of the statements from the anonymous sources, this is not strong evidence for Ryan’s argument. Alternative evidence for Ryan’s argument comes from General Crozier who commanded the auxiliaries, who wrote that he suspected there had indeed been a false surrender.10 Whilst he was obviously not present during the ambush, it is significant that he would suspect that of his own men, perhaps the fact that he later resigned from his position shows that he had become disillusioned with the conflict.11 What also weakens Ryan’s version is her partiality to the Irish cause, she is Irish and so may naturally be inclined to defend the Irish, however Ryan is also directly linked to the ambush since her uncle, Pat O’Donovan, was part of the IRA section that fought in the ambush.12 Donovan corroborated Barry’s version of events with regard to the false surrender, therefore it is possible that her uncle has influenced her somewhat in her defence of Barry and the volunteers. In general, Ryan’s evidence is to a degree flawed and whilst her criticisms of Hart have been effective in some cases: such as highlighting the lack of authenticity of the anonymous sources, it has also been problematic, for example: accusing the British of forging Barry’s first account with little evidence.

In addition to the issue of the false surrender, Barry and Hart have argued fervently over the actions of the ‘C Company’. Hart claims that they behaved respectfully towards the inhabitants of Macroom, using statements from Liam Deasy (an IRA officer from West Cork, who would be unlikely to praise his enemy for no good reason) and some of the locals, who emphasised the proper behaviour of the auxiliaries.13 Ryan has countered this by giving accounts of violent raids and general cruelty of the officers from the inhabitants, including taking pot-shots at locals for entertainment, one victim was William Hawkes who after being shot had to have his leg amputated.14 Another man was killed by the Auxiliaries, James Lehane, on 17 October, however Hart has included a statement from a member of the auxiliaries who seems to sincerely regret his death.15 Despite this, the civilian sources depicting the auxiliaries terrorising the neighbourhood seem to be sensationalised,16 perhaps it may even be seen as propaganda justifying the need to retaliate. On this occasion, the accounts of the locals contradict each other, which makes it more difficult to conclude which historian has the more reliable interpretation of the conduct of the auxiliaries.

Both Hart’s and Ryan’s interpretations have weaknesses. For Hart, his lack of credible sources which corroborate the argument that there was no false surrender and the volunteers killed prisoners of war. There is a possibility that there may have been a legitimate surrender since the combat was so fast-paced and possibly traumatic for many of the younger IRA members but since Hart cannot support this evidence by retaining the anonymity of the sources who were supposedly involved in the ambush. Ryan on the other hand makes a good case for the traditional view of the ambush, however many of her criticisms of Hart’s evidence are somewhat exaggerated, such as the assumption that Barry’s first report was forged due to some inaccuracies. In addition, Ryan’s direct familial links with an IRA volunteer who fought in the Kilmichael Ambush could be viewed to increase her partiality to defending the credibility of Barry and the other volunteers (including her uncle) who asserted there was a false surrender. Regarding the conduct of the auxiliaries, the evidence is very contradictory and it is difficult to conclude which sources are reliable, however it has been ascertained that there were certain casualties due to the auxiliaries, making Ryan’s account somewhat more reliable. Neither Ryan nor Hart are wholly convincing, this can be explained by the fact that the event was so contentious. There is a wealth of information and witnesses on the IRA side but since there were no able minded auxiliary survivors, it is impossible to know if they truly did falsify their surrender.


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