New evidence challenges claim Tom Barry invented story of false surrender at Kilmichael

1924 letter to Army headquarters appears to corroborate IRA commander’s version of events

Controversial claims IRA commander Tom Barry invented the story of a false surrender by Auxiliaries at the Kilmichael ambush in 1920 have been challenged by a historian.

In 1998, historian Peter Hart provoked controversy when he claimed in his work, The IRA and Its Enemies - Violence and Community in Cork 1916-1923, that Barry had invented the story of a false surrender during the War of Independence to justify his decision to execute all the Auxiliaries who survived the Kilmichael fight.

"Barry's history of Kilmichael . . . is riddled with lies and evasions. There was no false surrender as he described it. The surviving Auxiliaries were simply 'exterminated'," said the late Hart, in reference to Barry's account of the false surrender contained in his 1949 memoir, Guerrilla Days in Ireland.

Barry blamed the deaths of three of his Flying Column – Michael McCarthy, Jim O'Sullivan and Pat Deasy – on a number of the Auxiliaries shouting, "We surrender, we surrender" – only for other Auxiliaries to open fire on his men when they stood up from their positions.

"We continued behind them and I gave the order to keep firing until I said stop and then after we killed a couple more of them and they saw they were sandwiched in between two lines of fire, they started shouting "We surrender" again," wrote Barry in Guerrilla Days in Ireland.

“But having seen the false surrender, I told the men to keep firing and we did until the last of them was dead. I blame myself of course for our losses because I should have seen through the false surrender trick,” he added.

Hart, a Canadian historian who died in 2010, took issue with Barry’s account, suggesting that it only appeared in Barry’s 1949 memoir to deflect potential criticism of his actions. Hart also claimed that IRA veterans denied that the false surrender occurred at all.

Documentary evidence

However, historian Barry Keane, author of Cork’s Revolutionary Dead, has unearthed previously unreported documentary evidence from 1924 which appears to corroborate Barry’s version that the Auxiliaries did proffer “a false surrender” before they were killed by Barry and his men.

Mr Keane revealed that the document, a letter written in 1924 in support of the father of Kilmichael casualty Michael McCarthy, seeking a pension for his family, makes reference to the false surrender – some 25 years before Barry invented the story, as claimed by Hart.

Mr Keane said that on June 3rd, 1924, the Southern Command of the Irish Army wrote to Irish Army general headquarters in Dublin. That letter strongly supported Michael McCarthy's father – Daniel – and recommended that he should be granted a pension as a result of the death of his son at Kilmichael.

“It appears that when the ‘Black & Tans’ agreed to surrender, Vice-Commandant McCarthy rose from the ambush to take their surrender and was shot through the head and killed instantly” wrote the Southern Command of the Irish Army.

Mr Keane pointed out that it would appear from this letter that the false surrender story was in general circulation within the Southern Command at this date and he points out that it was unlikely that Barry would have had any input into the letter.

This was due to the fact that Barry had taken the anti-Treaty side during the Civil War and had been imprisoned by the Free State in 1922 after his capture in the Four Courts. He had ‘retired’ after the Civil War and so would have little contact with his Civil War foes in the Irish Army.

“Does this leave Hart’s thesis in tatters? It may or it may not,” said Mr Keane, pointed out this is now the third “early” reference to a false surrender which appeared long before Barry published his account of the incident in Guerilla Days in Ireland.

"There was a reference to the false surrender by Lionel Curtis in the Commonwealth Journal, The Round Table in 1921 and then there is this reference to the false surrender in 1924 which also supports Barry's version of what happened at Kilmichael in November 28th, 1920," he said

"And then there was a third reference in Ireland Forever, the 1932 autobiography of the former officer in charge of the Auxiliaries, General Frank Crozier who investigated the ambush after he resigned from the force in February 1921 and was told of the false surrender then.

“The significance of this latest document to come to light is that it comes from inside the Irish Army so it is logical to conclude that the false surrender was in general circulation in 1924 and therefore there was no need for Barry to invent it in 1949.”