Take no prisoners

“There are some who will blush at the mention / Of Connolly, Pearse, and MacBride / And history’s new scribes in derision / The pages of value deny.” This was the stanza added in 1998 by the Cork poet Patrick Galvin to John F. Hourihane’s ballad commemorating the IRA ambush at Kilmichael on November 28, 1920, in which seventeen British Auxiliaries and three republicans were killed. Hourihane’s original verse lionized “the boys of Kilmichael, who feared not the might of the foe”. More than seven decades after this pivotal moment in the Anglo-Irish War, Galvin charged Ireland’s revisionist historians with disrespecting its revolutionary generation.

His polemic targeted especially the pioneering, controversial work of the late Canadian historian Peter Hart. Before his untimely death in 2010, Hart produced a series of essays and books identifying sectarianism in the republican campaign in west Cork during the Irish War of Independence. His assessment of the attack at Kilmichael contributed to his provocative critique. In The IRA and its Enemies (1998), for example, Hart contradicted the IRA commander Tom Barry’s heroic version of events. In his famous memoir Guerilla Days in Ireland (1949), Barry had claimed that the Auxiliaries staged a false surrender, causing republican fatalities and compelling the IRA to give no quarter. Citing anonymized interviews with republican veterans, Hart’s book rejected Barry’s account, arguing instead that the Auxiliaries had surrendered sincerely, only for IRA volunteers to put them to death ruthlessly in a “massacre”. Sparking acrimonious arguments about the methods and ideologies of Ireland’s revolutionary generation, the Kilmichael debate became a cause célèbre, animating historians, commentators, politicians and the veterans’ descendants.

Eve Morrison has been a protagonist in these historiographical disputes for more than a decade. Her chapter in David Fitzpatrick’s edited collection Terror in Ireland, 1916-1923 (2012), for example, endorsed Hart’s questioning of the “false surrender” account. In the letters pages of Irish newspapers several correspondents took Morrison – and the late Hart – to task. Claim and counterclaim grew increasingly rancorous. As Morrison notes in Kilmichael: The life and afterlife of an ambushthe furore surrounding the ambush has generated more heat than light.

Eschewing the “misinformation and slander” of those bitter historiographical exchanges, Morrison synthesizes her vast research on early-twentieth-century Irish republicanism, seeking both to clarify the historical record of the attack and to assess more fully its contested memory. Connecting comprehensive reading of the 1,773 witness statements – by which, from 1947, the Bureau of Military History collected veterans’ accounts of the conflict – and a perhaps unique trawl of republicans’ correspondence, private papers, and oral and written testimonies, Morrison is an authoritative voice. Throughout the book she marshals sources to illustrate not only what she struggled and historians thought had happened at Kilmichael, but what they thought it meant throughout the twentieth century, as post-revolutionary Ireland to define its foundation story and international position.

Morrison begins by reconstructing the ambush, situating its context at a pivotal stage of the Anglo-Irish War. Addressing the Lord Mayor’s banquet at the Guildhall in London on November 9, 1920, David Lloyd George, the prime minister, claimed that his government had “murder by the throat” in Ireland. Within three weeks, the ambush at Kilmichael – the single greatest loss of life suffered by crown forces during the war – signaled the hollowness of this boast. The following summer, with a truce agreed, Lloyd George met the president of Sinn Féin, Éamon de Valera, in London to propose a negotiated settlement. As Morrison shows, the momentous events at Kilmichael in November 1920 dismayed those in Whitehall who believed they were comprehensively winning the war, though she stops short of arguing that it brought the British to the table.

Her command of detail is undeniable, especially in her opening reconstruction of the attack. The most thought-provoking aspects of the book, however, are the chapters that trace how the ambush has been retold, contested and contested in Irish political life, both in the complex republican tradition and in vernacular memory. Alternately celebrated and vilified, Kilmichael figures here as what the French historian Pierre Nora called a lieu de mémoire, whose contentiousness illuminates the ambiguous and often uneasy place of Ireland’s “revolutionary decade” in the national story. Morrison’s book is especially welcome at the difficult conclusion of Ireland’s “decade of centenaries” – a century on from the internecine civil war that divided erstwhile republican comrades.

This forensically researched book details with acuity how even IRA volunteers in West Cork disagreed about the course of events and their wider ramifications. Veterans telling their war stories, Morrison argues, were generally loath to contradict their commander, Barry. For the most part republicans “wanted” to believe in the “false surrender … not the chaotic, merciless event that much of the veterans’ testimony describing”. The close reading of activist memoir that Morrison offers is vital for unpacking and understanding these dissenting voices. There is a detailed discussion, for example, of Towards Ireland Free (1973), the incendiary memoir of the west Cork veteran Liam Deasy, whose brother Pat died at Kilmichael. Deasy’s version of events drew a blistering riposte from Barry, who described the book as a “travesty of history”.

Throughout Morrison’s book Barry appears as the principal guardian of the “false surrender” account. As she notes, throughout his long life his retellings of the ambush varied to a degree. But he maintained his central assertion: the Auxiliaries’ false surrender forced him to take no prisoners. Morrison’s evocation of the “polarising” Barry captures both his cachet within republicanism and his idiosyncrasies: “To some, he was the ‘man who would do things’, a ‘good bloody man’ and a ‘great soldier’.” Others remembered an abrasive individual, respected but not particularly liked, who was notorious for wanting ‘to be top dog in everything’, bragging about his military prowess and dramatic entrances: ‘Do you know who I am?’.

Especially after his bestselling memoir was published in 1949, Barry enjoyed his reputation as a renowned republican guerrilla. Yet throughout his life tactical dilemmas collided with his unshakeable ideals: like so many of his comrades, he resolutely endorsed republicans’ objectives while questioning their methods. He fervently opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty, but by the spring of 1923 urged anti-Treaty IRA Irregulars to end what he considered a futile campaign against the nascent Irish Free State. In 1938, after a significant tactical disagreement on the General Army Convention, he resigned as IRA chief of staff. In the early 1970s Barry lauded the Provisional IRA’s insurrection against British rule. But he became critical of the Provisionals’ tactics, not least after the Birmingham pubs in 1974, when twenty-one civilians were killed.

After the disputes that stemmed from Towards Ireland Free, Barry stopped attending official commemorations, instead simply laying a private wreath at the site of the attack. Representatives of the Republic of Ireland’s two largest parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, eulogized the commander on his death in 1980. Only Hart’s inquiries in the 1990s precipitated wholesale reassessment of Kilmichael.

Illustrating the unease and silences that have many retrospectives of the ambush and its place in the republican campaign, Morrison skilfully elucidates how the outbreak of conflict in Northern Ireland in 1969 complicated ideals of national independence. Grandees in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil alike routinely lauded the previous generation’s struggle, but became anxious about the implications of republican insurgency in the north. During the 1970s and 1980s many of the “old IRA” veterans who glorified Kilmichael were at pains to distinguish themselves from the Provisional IRA volunteers who claimed to be continuing the same struggle. Commentators who upheld the legitimacy of the “old IRA” sharpened their distinctions from the “terrorist” Provos. The late University College Cork historian and independent senator John A. Murphy, for example, positioned the Kilmichael ambush as part of a “story of resistance by a sturdy people to the oppressors of their class and nation”, in contrast to the “terrorist” campaign of the Provisionals, who “disgraced” republicanism’s name.

Morrison positions her “reasoned inquiry and honest disputation” as an antidote to the “toxic analytical framework” of the “revisionist-anti-revisionist” dichotomy that has, for many, defined Irish historiography since the mid-twentieth century. Yet despite its expert detail, Kilmichael Sometimes misses the opportunity to explore explicitly the fundamental question of why the search for veracity has proven so sensitive and so acrimonious. The degree of controversy generated by the events in west Cork a century ago – or, rather, by their retrospective narration – surely illuminates much about the perennial controversies of nationhood that continue to resonate in Irish politics today. It is hard to disagree with Morrison’s assertion that it is “impossible to know exactly what happened at Kilmichael”. The attack took place in a febrile atmosphere charged with definition, suspicion and recrimination. Veterans disputed the events in which they had participated. There is, Morrison avers, “very little evidence” to support Barry’s account of a false surrender. But nor do the sources wholly support Hart’s depiction of a ruthless republican “massacre”. Perhaps, as so often, the truth lies in between. The intractable discord surrounding Kilmichael reveals more about the chaotic context of the Irish War of Independence – and the continual contestation of its meaning – than about the precise sequence of events.

Nonetheless, Morrison’s book constitutes above all a valuable illustration of how historians’ interest in memory continues to enliven and enhance writing about the Irish past. As Ireland’s decade of centenaries draws to a close, Kilmichael demonstrates how examining collective, contested memory, in all its complexity and contingency, enhances understandings of difficult pasts. Eve Morrison here provides a propitious lens through which to assess the disputed legacies of the Irish revolution more broadly.

Jack Hepworth is Canon Murray Fellow in Irish History, St Catherine’s College, Oxford. He is the author of ‘The Age-Old Struggle’: Irish republicanism from the Battle of the Bogside to the Belfast Agreement, 1969-19982021

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