Historian finds IRA commander Tom Barry tried to join British civil service

Details to published in special Irish Times supplement 1920 - War of Independence

IRA commander Tom Barry.

IRA commander Tom Barry.


IRA commander Tom Barry tried to join the British civil service in Ireland just a year before carrying out the Kilmichael ambush.

Barry, an ex-British veteran of the first World War, became one of the most revered and successful of IRA fighters in the War of Independence.

The Kilmichael ambush on November 28th 1920 outside Bandon in Co Cork resulted in the worst British reverses of the war. Sixteen Auxiliaries were killed.

In Guerrilla Days in Ireland, his bestselling autobiography published in 1949, Barry wrote that his national conscience had been awoken when he heard of the Easter Rising while serving with the Royal Field Artillery (RFA) in Mesopotamia in 1916.

However, historian and former Irish army soldier Gerry White has discovered that Barry failed an examination for the position of male clerk in the Ministry of Labour in Ireland in 1919. His file in the UK National Archives in Kew reveal he also requested, unsuccessfully, to be posted to the British civil service in India in 1920.

Barry was prominent in the Bandon Branch of the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Sailors and Soldiers (NFDDSS) and addressed a large meeting of them in Cork in November 1919 in which he complained that jobs were being given to civilians who did not serve in the war when they should be been given to “discharged and demobilised men”.

Mr White, who has spent several years researching Barry’s life, writes in 1920 - War of Independence, published by The Irish Times on Wednesday, that it would appear he was not radicalised by the Easter Rising as he had claimed, but was among the tens of thousands of Irish-born British soldiers who returned to Ireland with no prospects of employment.

“Ignored by the ‘King and Country’ they had fought for, many now turned to politics while others expressed support for the radical and separatist politics of the Republican movement,” writes Mr White.

Other ex-servicemen turned against the British government too and three who were elected in the municipal elections of January 1920 supported the election of Tomas MacCurtáin as the first republican lord mayor of Cork. MacCurtáin was shot dead in March 1920 by a group of rogue Royal Irish Constabulary officers.

Mr White pointed out that Barry made no reference to this activities as an ex-servicemen or his attempts to get a job with the British civil service in the pages of Guerrilla Days in Ireland.

“This is understandable, but in reality, he was just one of thousands of veterans all over Europe whose military service and post-war experiences would shape the decisions they made when they returned home,” he writes.

“Scarred by his wartime service, physically abused by men in khaki, angered by the treatment of ex-servicemen, unable to secure government employment and inspired by the Easter Rising, in the summer of 1920 Tom Barry made a decision that would change both his life and the nature of the conflict then raging in Ireland,” he writes.