“The hills were bleeding and the rifles were aflame”
THOSE were the words used by poet Sigerson Clifford to describe the turmoil that had cast a bitter shadow on Ireland during the war of independence.
On November 21, in a rural area of West Cork called Clogher, just north of Dunmanway, Irish revolutionary Tom Barry began organising his flying column for a day that would change their lives forever. The column that was training would come to be known as ‘The boys of Kilmichael’
On November 24, Barry would move his men to a point closer to Ballineen -Enniskeane (a twin village) for security reasons. He feared an unexpected encounter with crown forces before his plan of action had materialised.
A lone figure arrived on horseback to the house in the countryside. As he dismounted, the houseful of young men were preparing themselves for the next day; however, spirituality was also an imperative component. Local curate Patrick O’Connell had reached his destination to hear the confessions from each volunteer.
Upon concluding his meeting, Fr O’Connell approached their leader Tom Barry and said: “Are ye going to meet the Sassenach?” To which Barry replied: “Yes, father.” He wished them good luck and rode off on his horse into the dead of night.
The rain poured down upon them as they left just after 2am. The obscurity of darkness meant the volunteers had difficulties seeing other members in front of them. As they travelled to meet their foe, a young boy, Pat Deasy, followed, determined to fight for his country like his older brother Liam.
One particular volunteer informed Barry that Deasy had been following. Barry was not eager to include Deasy as it was said he had been sick the week before the ambush and may also have been considered too young. After he pleaded his case, Barry allowed him to participate.
Each volunteer had 35 rounds for their rifles along with revolvers and grenades. They were no longer willing to stand by and watch their country brutalised by a foreign enemy and had one clear agenda: send a message to crown forces that the IRA was now a force to be reckoned with.
They arrived shortly after 8am and despite the bitter, unforgiving temperature, were ready to complete their mission. Hiding covertly amongst the heather, their hearts and minds were filled with a mixture of pride, fear and uncertainty. Would this be a victory or one of great carnage?
Barry noticed a particular coat that Paddy O’Brien of the Ballinacarriga Company was wearing a few weeks earlier and tactically procured it, requesting that O’Brien wear civilian clothes in the weeks prior to the ambush. He had great plans for this particular item of clothing.
The volunteers waited over eight hours. Despite the seemingly endless wait, they were primed for battle and just after 4pm that afternoon two lorries were seen approaching from the Macroom side. There was no turning back now and Barry had requested his men to prepare for battle.
As the first lorry approached, Barry donned O’Brien’s coat as his mind turned the key on a plan which was one of misdirection. The purpose was to make the driver of the first lorry slow down on the assumption Barry was a British officer.
He exhaled sharply, standing in the middle of the road with the distinctive coat, creating a deadly distraction. Oblivious to what was going on, the soldiers endeavoured to decipher whether this man was one of their own, but before they could conclude he shot the driver and hurled a mills bomb grenade towards the lorry.
The second lorry, now aware they were under attack, struggled to turn around on the narrow road upon which they were travelling. Having become trapped in the grassy verges, they had no choice but to alight the vehicle and begin firing.
As auxiliaries were being shot at by the volunteers, it is debated that they called out ‘We surrender’. Three volunteers, taking them at their word, stood up, and two were instantly killed. Jim O’Sullivan and Michael McCarthy. Pat Deasy was mortally wounded.
Two auxiliaries managed to escape but one — Cecil Guthrie — was apprehended later and killed. He is the only auxiliary to be buried in Ireland. After a number of years his remains were exhumed from a bog and he was re-interred in the north-west Cork village of Inchageela.
Deasy passed later that evening at Buttimer’s farm house in Gortroe and he and his fellow dead were temporarily buried in a nearby bog. Days later, in the middle of the night, Fr O’Connell would again risk his life by affording them a proper burial in the church grounds of Castle Town Kenneigh. Seventeen auxiliaries were killed that night.
Reprisals for Kilmichael consisted of the burning of homes nearby, but one of the most notorious incidents was the murder of Dunmanway’s Canon Thomas Magner and a young man Tadgh Crowley by crown forces.
Magner was 69 and had been out walking when he stopped to assist Crowley and another man, who were having car trouble. This tragedy outraged the whole country and the British were said to have refrained from further attacks in Dunmanway. As a result, Canon Magner and Tadgh Crowley became known as the “saviours of Dunmanway”.
In 1966, a monument was unveiled by the V. Rev. C. O’ Brien, P.P Kilmichael. Inscribed on the monument are the names of the three who lost their lives. They shall be spoken of among their people. The generations shall remember them and call them blessed.
Film makers Brendan Hayes — author of this article — and Jerry O’Mullane, along with David Sullivan and Bernie O’Regan, are working on a documentary to commemorate the centenary of the Kilmichael ambush. The working title is Forget Not The Boys and the date for screenings is yet to be announced due to the current national restrictions.