Tom Barry said Provos only had ‘themselves to blame’ for losing support

Kilmichael commander did not support PIRA bombing of civilian targets

Tom Barry, the architect of the Kilmichael ambush during the War of Independence, "point blank" refused to support republican hunger strikers in Portlaoise prison during the Troubles because of the tactics of the Provisional IRA, correspondence shows.

Barry, a veteran of the Anti-Treaty IRA in the Civil War who died in 1980, was regularly called upon by republicans to endorse IRA violence during the Troubles.

In his now deleted tweet, Sinn Féin TD Brian Stanley likened the Kilmichael ambush to the killing of 18 British soldiers at Narrow Water in August 1979 by the Provisional IRA, claiming they were "the 2 IRA operations that taught the elite of [the] British army and the establishment the cost of occupying Ireland. Pity for everyone they were such slow learners".

He has since apologised for it.


Barry was an early supporter of the Provisional IRA but he became disillusioned with its tactics especially after the Birmingham pub bombings of 1974 which killed 21 people and injured 182 others, saying that even an Ireland "overflowing with milk and honey" was not worth the price of such an attack. Instead, he would have bombed Whitehall and Scotland Yard.

He outlined his views in an interview with The Sunday Independent in March 1976 in which he stated: “I back the right of Republicans to shoot, kill and bomb British occupying forces. Nobody can deny that. But I do not back the bombing of obvious civilian targets like pubs and that bloody carry-on.”

In a letter in UCD archives, Sheila Humphreys (also known as Sighle Humphreys), a republican veteran of Cumann na mBan, recalled a telephone conversation she had with Barry.

The unsent letter is undated, but events in it correspond with the hunger strike that was going on in Portlaoise Prison.

In March 1977 20 Republican political prisoners, including the former Sinn Féin deputy Martin Ferris, began a hunger strike over prison conditions. After 47 days on hunger strike, they gave up without forcing any concessions.

Public support

Humphreys was asked by Maire Comerford, another veteran of Cumann na mBan, to approach Barry about declaring public support for the hunger strikers.

The phone call which lasted between 25 and 30 minutes did not go well, Humphreys recalled.

“But he would not allow his name to go forward. He refused point blank to have his name included. He said that the men who were carrying out the recent killings especially that last shooting could not be called IRA,” she wrote.

"He said that he had recently been invited to Derry and Belfast, but had refused both invitations. Since the hunger strikes began he had been approached to use his influence in certain quarters, but had also refused and had told whoever had approached him that he should realise that the organisation was losing support from all quarters and that they had only themselves to blame."

Historian Brian Hanley, who came across the letter while researching his book The Impact of the Troubles on the Republic of Ireland, 1968-79 says the killings Barry may be referring to are the shooting dead of three businessmen in early February and March of 1977 by the IRA, Jeffery Agate, Donald Robinson and James Nicholson.

Mr Hanley stressed that though Barry, who died at the age of 83, was appalled by civilian casualties, he would have “shed no tears” for the members of the Parachute Regiment killed at Narrow Water.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times