Kilmichael: The Life and Afterlife of an Ambush, by Eve Morrison, Irish Academic Press, 292 pp, €19.95, ISBN: 978-1788551458
The ambush at Kilmichael on November 28th, 1920 in which nearly all members of a large party of the Auxiliary crack unit of former army officers were killed is quite well-known among those studying the Irish War of Independence and, through songs, far beyond. However, although it had the largest death toll in incidents of that kind and shocked the military establishment at the time, it is in itself not that remarkable in the context of the conflict then raging in Ireland. A discussion of the exact details of what happened would therefore in normal circumstances not get further than the pages of a local history journal. The fact there has been a lot of debate on the circumstances in which the casualties fell and in particular how it sparked off fundamental and often emotional discussions about the uses and abuses of history in Ireland certainly justifies a further exploration of it for a wider audience. This book indeed covers not just the events at Kilmichael, but touches on many, maybe too many, associated topics, including how the ambush was reported on, studied and remembered, but also the events in the Bandon Valley in April 1922, Tom Barry, Peter Hart, revisionism, the politicisation of history, and more.
Despite a diligent attempt to try and uncover what happened at Kilmichael on the basis of the material available, this study makes it clear that the events can never be established with certainty. This is not just because Eve Morrison did not get access to all existing source material, but also, and mostly, because the objective truth of such an occasion can by definition not be uncovered, particularly when relying primarily on the memories of some of those involved, which are, as Morrison also argues, always distorted by time and emotions, and are also context-dependent. Nobody engaged in close fighting, which always comes with chaos and mayhem, can calmly observe the entirety of happenings and will only remember some of what they are directly engaging with, often that which threatens their survival. All of this can result in conflicting readings of the same events being in a sense all true.
Although Morrison makes her own specific judgements, the evidence she presents can indeed reconcile the essence of almost all the different assertions made. The disagreements among participants, historians and others revolve primarily around the claim that there was a false surrender by the Auxiliaries which justified the killing of some of them after they had surrendered. Whether or not these can be seen as executions ‑ and with it prove the barbaric nature of the IRA ‑ is important in the context of the Irish self-perception of their struggle for independence and also in a narrower sense of the justification for the actions of the Provisional IRA during the Troubles. These political implications have also led many to allege manipulation of the evidence and have sparked of often emotional arguments and irreconcilable interpretations.
Although these debates are what makes Kilmichael such a hot topic, it is useful to show that an inclusive description of events, which incorporates all conflicting elements, can be made and would run as follows.
An IRA column commanded by Tom Barry had received permission to ambush a unit of Auxiliaries who regularly travelled on a particular road near Kilmichael. They had been lying in position for hours, and with light fading they started to doubt whether to stay on when two trucks containing seventeen Auxiliaries and one Black & Tan were seen to approach. A car with armed Volunteers had then just arrived at the ambush site and drove into a side road. This element possibly gave rise to stories of a trick with a brokendown car driven by IRA men posing as British soldiers being used to get the lorries to stop. It is more likely that Tom Barry stood by himself on the roadside in his Volunteers uniform with a Sam Brown belt around his waist. This and the fact one of the attackers wore a steel helmet he had received as a present probably gave rise to the idea the Volunteers had posed as British soldiers, but this was not part of a ruse. The first lorry ran into the party of Volunteers led by Barry, who probably brought the truck to a standstill by shooting the driver. The men in the lorry were overcome by rifle and shotgun fire and a Mills bomb thrown, most likely into the back of the lorry, killing some of the men there. The others came out and were killed subsequently. The second lorry stopped before a bend in the road, possibly in view of the Volunteers commanded by Barry, tried to reverse and ended up in a ditch, where it was attacked by the other section of Volunteers divided in two parties, one on each side of the road. Here a fight ensued, with the Auxiliaries taking cover on both sides of the road. Some were killed or injured during the exchange of fire as were three Volunteers who had imperfect cover on the hillside overlooking the ambush site. After dealing with the first lorry Tom Barry and his unit moved towards the second one. It is unclear whether the Volunteers that were hit had already been shot before he came around the corner, but the shooting stopped then while a few remaining active Auxiliaries were seen to throw away their rifles ‑ possibly in a form of surrender, possibly to draw their revolvers, or both.
Volunteers, possibly believing the fight was over. had got up and approached the survivors, probably as a result of a pre-agreed order to storm the lorries with bayonets on hearing three blasts of a whistle blown by Barry. Some Auxiliaries had by then been killed, others were lying injured on the ground and some were hiding under the lorry. When the Volunteers approached some of the injured or surrendered Auxiliaries tried to use their revolvers against the approaching Volunteers. This is widely acknowledged by different commentators, even by Auxiliaries commander General Frank Percy Crozier, and it may have been experienced by Volunteers as a form of false surrender. This led to some of the wounded Auxiliaries being shot again, and at least one finished off with a bayonet and another with the butt of a rifle. Whether fire from these wounded Auxiliaries had actually hit any Volunteers, as Barry states, makes little difference to the feelings of anger and insecurity the shooting engendered among them. The subsequent violence against the remaining Auxiliaries including the injured and possibly some of the dead probably gave rise to allegations of mutilation, but may have been an attempt to ensure none of them were able to shoot again or it may have been a product of anger over the dead and injured Volunteers. At the same time some Auxiliaries who were found under the lorry came out with their arms raised and were subsequently killed, whether later or in the heat of that moment is unclear, but it is likely that it happened directly following the other killings and was ordered by Barry. The shooting of men who had surrendered in what could be seen as a second surrender may have been a considered act of revenge, or a split second order in a confused situation.
Morrison agrees with the factual aspects of the above account but not necessarily with all the interpretations given. For example she accepts that Auxiliaries resumed firing after being overcome but does not consider the possibility this could be seen as a false surrender. In the final analysis it is questionable how important is the detail of what actually happened at Kilmichael, or even whether Barry deliberately lied about this or just amplified a memory to suit his self-image. In all conflicts there are people who do not act according to the Geneva convention, and the IRA, and the Crown Forces, were no exception in this fight. Making wider political judgements on the legitimacy of the conflict based on such incidents is therefore always questionable. The execution of those who had surrendered also happened on other occasions in Ireland at the time. After the successful Carrowkennedy ambush in Mayo for instance IRA men involved demanded that some of those who surrendered be executed because of past behaviour but in this case the officers refused to allow this.
This book features an honest attempt to present the available evidence, but the project of uncovering “the truth” may depend on the illusion that historical and political debates can be settled by facts. Morrison criticises the British record in Ireland and contrasts the behaviour of unionist leaders in the North unfavourably with that of IRA leaders, but she cannot escape being part of the debate and therefore also reading the evidence in a subjective manner ‑ as all of us would. Although she is open about her position in the debate, the lack of recognition on all sides that emotions and political positions influence one’s reading of the available material lies at the heart of much of the acrimony in the debates surrounding Kilmichael. In Morrison’s case it can be witnessed in the choice of asides and description of the historical context she chooses to highlight. These put developments in a particular light, such as mentioning that more civilians accused of spying were killed at the end of 1920, the relevance of which is unclear, or that the Anti-Treaty IRA “had almost no popular support”, which is belied not just by election results in 1922 and 1923 but also by the fact they could safely operate well into 1924. One can also wonder why the murder of McKee, Clancy and Clune after Bloody Sunday is euphemistically described in the words they “did not survive the night”, and why it is mentioned that there were only few unofficial reprisals after Kilmichael, as if the security forces not attacking innocent civilians was an accomplishment. Such choices are not necessarily intentional but they highlight what the author finds striking. We all make such choices, but they do reveal our outlook.
In general that observation applies more strongly to some of those defending Barry, but it also applies to Morrison’s assessment of him. Yes, Barry embellished the truth, changed his story and was selective in what he told, but it is unclear on what basis Morrison can be sure he was a narcissist or on other personal judgments. One might also quibble with the strength of evidence she presents that Barry changed his story. The fact the “false surrender” was not mentioned in his initial report to GHQ captured by the police or in a letter to the Pension Board, does not necessarily mean Barry invented it in the 1940s, as the false surrender was information that was not relevant in the context of the nature of those sources; neither GHQ nor the Pension Board needed a justification for the actions of Barry or his men. It is also unclear why Meda Ryan’s claim that he did protest against the omission of the false surrender from a newspaper article in 1932 is dismissed solely on the basis that the source is not publicly available, or why Morrison does not accept Flor Crowley’s statement supporting Barry’s claim based on the argument that as a friend he felt compelled to do so. That the supposed false surrender most likely did not cause any deaths among the Volunteers, as she does show, does not prove Barry lied, just that he may have perceived what happened differently from some others involved.
The attempt to take the neutral position she aspires to on the last page of this book can thus not be entirely sustained. No one can make an entirely “honest appraisal of past events and how they are remembered”. Crucial is the question of whether the evidence presented and assessments made in this book will be accepted by those with other interpretations of events. Morrison realises that “[o]vertly astringent prose, arrogance and excessive negative judgements are needlessly alienating and often counterproductive”, but the language she uses to describe her strongest detractors sometimes fall into some of those categories, to the point that she states that she is not willing to engage with them or their assertions. The danger is then that legitimate arguments of opponents are conflated with overtly paranoid interpretations of the evidence.
This relates in particular to the work of the late Peter Hart. Morrison’s underlying desire to protect Hart’s legacy is a complicating factor in this book, to the extent that she states that “His detractors are now mine”. On the basis of Hart’s personal papers, Morrison has convincingly shown that the most extreme criticisms of him are unfounded, including interviewing a dead man or fabricating evidence, but she acknowledges that one can critique him for his mistakes, arguments and the tone of his work. Implying that these faults can somehow be excused because “Hart’s mistakes weigh less heavy than those of who criticise him” is problematic. That Hart and his work have become a political football has in fact more to do with the way he treated the events in the Bandon valley in 1922 than with the false surrender issue. The claim that the killings of thirteen Protestants there were sectarian and the comparison made with ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, which had just occurred when he published his book, are largely responsible for this. Those opposing the Provisional IRA used this issue to try to demonstrate that the organisation was inherently sectarian and could not be trusted with power in Northern Ireland.
Hart’s omission from the British intelligence reports he edited of the sentence which acknowledged that in contrast to all other areas information was given to the authorities by Protestants in the Bandon valley is still undefended and undefendable. It is true, as Morrison shows, that the sentence cannot directly be used to show those killed were informers, but that does not automatically make the killings sectarian. The point here is that the sentence proves there was information given by people living there, and that suspicions were therefore justified. Crucial here is that the victims were not chosen randomly, as is shown by the fact they lived miles apart, over an area in which a lot of other Protestants lived. Between the homes off the various victims lived many Protestants who were not attacked. Those shot were therefore chosen deliberately; no matter how shocking this was, it was not an indiscriminate killing spree targeting any Protestant in the area. The serious implications it had for the position of Protestants in the new Irish state was widely appreciated and explains the strong negative reaction of the IRA leadership locally and nationally. Whether there was indeed evidence that these particular people had given information is irrelevant. Perhaps the suspicions were unfounded; perhaps there were ulterior motives, such as an attempt to intimidate local Protestants, but there were indeed suspicions of informing, which could justify the killing on political grounds to those involved. That does not take away from the fact that a suspicion of spying would in the case of a Catholic not so easily lead to them being killed. The fact these men were killed during the Truce was at least partly inspired by their religion and thus partly motivated by sectarianism, but only in a very broad sense. Both Hart and myself have shown that IRA violence against civilians was more commonly targeted on those not belonging to the majority community, like Protestants, but also including Travellers and other Catholic outsiders. Such mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion are often a factor in conflict situations.
It has been suggested that this unexplained omission by Hart was put to political use and it led to accusations of him being a neo-unionist who manipulated evidence for political purposes; this is a step too far. As I encountered him on a personal level, Hart’s sympathies did not seem to be outspoken but they lay closer to unionists, or at least Protestants, than to republicans. That should in no way be an issue in itself. But the fact he did not distance himself from publicists like Kevin Myers and Eoghan Harris, some historians and unionist politicians in the North who used his work for political purposes does not help matters as it makes the accusations of intentional distortion of the historical truth more credible. The fact that his work was almost instantly awarded the Ewart-Biggs prize, named after a British ambassador to Ireland murdered by the IRA, is an example of the way politics intersects with history-writing, regardless of the obvious merits of his work.
Having highlighted Eve Morrison’s personal involvement in the debate I must acknowledge my own. I was indeed friends with Peter from 1989 onwards and we discussed issues, for example in relation to his confrontational approach way before publication of his work, and also the usefulness of his style of presenting conclusions for a unionist agenda. Even though fundamentally our assessments of the IRA and their campaign do not differ very much they could be and have been picked up in very different ways. It is also true that this affected my career opportunities in Belfast. I know from insiders that the decision to offer Peter Hart a permanent position in Queen’s in 1999, which had a negative effect on my own chances of obtaining such a position, were partly politically inspired. This certainly engendered emotions in me, but no conflict with Peter.
That the results of historical inquiry can be put to political use is nothing strange or new. Morrison herself shows that old-IRA men, as well as historians, were reluctant during the Troubles to celebrate or even discuss the independence struggle in a positive light for fear of giving encouragement to the Provisionals. Although John Regan’s exploration of the political agenda of Irish historians sits uncomfortably with many, this suggests he is at least partly right, as historians and others were aware of the possible implications of their writings. Even after the end of conflict in Northern Ireland the incentive to challenge republican narratives has remained strong. The physical conflict may be over but politically it is still going on, as is shown by how Hart’s work was used after 1998. This is not so remarkable as one might think. Professional history-writing was in its origin primarily a political project. Governments in the late nineteenth century wanted narratives that supported the state and national unity and funded the creation of history departments at universities. We may have moved away from that as a profession, but that does not mean we can separate the person and their politics from the historian. Perhaps I am being naive, but it would be helpful if we could all try and stick to debating arguments and evidence without making even those personal.
Joost Augusteijn is a senior university lecturer at the Institute for History at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands.