British propaganda on Tom Barry ‘given too much credence’

Revisionist telling of IRA soldier’s story does not tally with accounts from time, says historian

Tom Barry. Author Brian P Murphy told the annual General Tom Barry Commemoration that Barry “placed a high priority on a sound historical narrative”. Photograph: Antairmdearg/Wikimedia Commons

Tom Barry. Author Brian P Murphy told the annual General Tom Barry Commemoration that Barry “placed a high priority on a sound historical narrative”. Photograph: Antairmdearg/Wikimedia Commons


IRA Flying Column commander Tom Barry was acutely conscious of the importance of historical narrative when writing about the nature of the War of Independence in west Cork, a leading historian has told a commemoration in Cork.

Brian P Murphy, author of The Origins and Organisation of British Propaganda in Ireland told the annual General Tom Barry Commemoration to mark the 95th anniversary of the Kilmichael Ambush on November 28th, 1920, that Barry “placed a high priority on a sound historical narrative”.

According to Dr Murphy, Barry in all his writings sought to establish two points – that the IRA units under his command in west Cork and other IRA units elsewhere fought within the rules of war and that there was no sectarian element to the campaign in west Cork.

Barry was keen to stress that the families of Protestants in west Cork were not attacked unless they were Loyalists who were co-operating with Crown Forces and Barry’s version of history is supported by Protestants at the time in contrast to the views of revisionist historians today, said Dr Murphy.

“The aims and concerns of Barry have an immediate relevance to the writing of history at the present time when some historians, notably from Trinity College Dublin, have attempted to show that Barry’s two fundamental concerns were not sustainable,” he said.

“Firstly, they claim that the IRA did engage in a campaign of terror and secondly that the IRA did target Protestants on account of their religion,” said Dr Murphy, adding it was illuminating in such circumstances to listen to what Protestant voices at the time were saying.

Lloyd George’s adviser Lionel Curtis reported: “Protestants in the South do not complain of persecution on sectarian grounds. If Protestant farmers are murdered, it is not by reason of their religion but rather because they are under suspicion as Loyalists. The distinction is a fine but a real one.”


Former British soldier Erskine Childers who came from a Protestant background and committed himself to the Irish cause, also outlined the non-sectarian nature of the IRA campaign in 1919 in his unpublished account of “The Irish Revolution” held in the Trinity Manuscript Room.

The IRA campaign was not “indiscriminate or undisciplined. At no time, neither then nor subsequently, have civilians – Protestant Unionists living scattered and isolated in the South and West, been victimised by the republicans on account of their religious opinions or religion,” wrote Childers.

Childers also expressed his views in the newsletter of Dáil Éireann, the Irish National Bulletin which attempted to convey a factual record of events which was attacked by British propaganda agents such as Major CJ Street and Capt HBC Pollard who called it “a malignant and lying sheet”.

Such views have been echoed in modern times by Roy Foster who described the bulletin as “brilliant at scaling up any [British] military activity into a notorious looting or sacking” and in opting for a British propaganda narrative of the conflict, Foster marked out a path followed by many revisionists, said Dr Murphy.

“Significantly it [the Irish National Bulletin] is not to be found in the index of Peter Hart’s book [The IRA and its Enemies Violence and Community in Cork] nor is it referenced in Eve Morrison’s article on ‘Kilmichael Revisited’ in the book by the Trinity History Workshop, edited by David Fitzpatrick and titled ‘Terror in Ireland 1916-1923’,” said Dr Murphy.

According to Dr Murphy, the failure of Hart, Morrison and others to advert to the Irish National Bulletin with regard to Barry’s arguably most celebrated engagement at Kilmichael led them to attach too much credence to the views of British propaganda regarding the ambush.

In a detailed analysis of how the ambush was reported, Dr Murphy argued “an official British report” into Kilmichael which referred to bodies of the Auxiliaries being “butchered and mutilated” did not accord with the findings of a medical examination carried out by Jeremiah Kelleher a day after the ambush.

According to Dr Murphy, Dr Kelleher’s examination did not justify the official British report on the ambush, yet Hart “incredibly, even after reading Dr Kelleher’s findings stated ‘the British report should not be so completely dismissed’”.

Morrison similarly mentions Dr Kelleher’s medical report but she has not let it affect her critical view of both Barry and the ambush, Dr Murphy told the attendance of about 100 people at the commemoration in Fitzgerald’s Park in Cork city.