Kilmichael in the British Press

Kilmichael in the British Press


The Kilmichael ambush on November 28th 1920 was one of the most dramatic and audacious attacks carried out by an IRA the Irish War of Independence. Less than a week after Bloody Sunday, for the first time the IRA had targeted the Royal Irish Constabulary Auxiliary Division, a group of ex army officers brought in to specifically target IRA operations. The decimation of one of these ‘elite’ units at Kilmichael by an IRA Flying Column, consisting of mainly farm labourers and other civilians, marked a stark contrast to the British Prime Ministers, David Lloyd George, claims just a few weeks previous that they had ‘murder by the throat’ in Ireland. For many years, much of what we know of the Kilmichael ambush came from Tom Barry’s Guerrilla Days in Ireland. Then in the late 1990’s Peter Hart’s controversial  The IRA and its Enemies, sparked off a series of intense debates regarding the details of what happened at Kilmichael. During the course of this debate a considerable volume of source material was discovered, or re-discovered, and our knowledge of the ambush was greatly advanced. While many of the ambush’s details are still contested and often politicised, the reaction to Kilmichael in the mainstream British media has received less attention.

The immediate aftermath of the ambush saw front page headlines adorn several British newspapers. The Leeds Mercury ran a front page banner headline which read “15 AUXILLIARY EX OFFICERS MASSACRED.” Beneath it several paragraph headlines purported to reveal the details of these ‘foul murders.’ It was claimed that the IRA party numbered 100, that they wore khaki and steel helmets, and even that they had rifled the bodies, steeling personal effects, clothing and money. After 100 years of scholarly research it would appear that these claims had little basis in reality. Instead they were based on alleged police telegrams from Ireland which were read in the House of Commons by the Under Secretary for Ireland, Sir Hamar Greenwood.[1] Several other newspapers reported similarly distorted facts on their front pages, among them the Sheffield Evening Telegraph, Pall Mall Gazette, and the Birmingham Daily Gazette. [2] Greenwood’s words were reported as follows:

…he said he had received a telegram that evening , which he read to the House. It was one of the most distressing he had ever had to read to the house.

The military division to which he referred was composed entirely of ex-officers. The telegram read: From Macroom in the County Cork district.

Inspector Craik (sic) went on two lorries with a patrol at 3:30 yesterday. They were ambushed in County Cork by eighty to one hundred men. Fifteen of the Auxiliary force were killed, one is missing, and one is wounded and dying.

Their arms and ammunition were taken, and the lorries were burned. The ambush is supposed to have been at about 10pm last night. Full details were not to hand. The bodies are being taken to Macroom.

A further telegram had been received from the head of the police in Ireland, which ran:

The ambush consisted of eighty to a hundred men, all dressed in khaki, and wearing steel helmets. They fired from both sides of the road, and they also directed an enfilade fire straight down the road.

By force of numbers, some of my poor fellows were disarmed and then brutally murdered. Their bodies were rifled. Their money and valuables were taken, and even articles of clothing were taken from the corpses.[3]


Whether the reports were intentionally exaggerated for propaganda purposes or a legitimate misunderstanding of what happened remains unclear. Curiously, most newspapers also carried news of reprisals which were expected or had already occurred. Thus, any negative image which the erroneous reports succeeded in giving the IRA, was almost immediately matched by an equally negative image of Crown forces rampaging mercilessly among the civilian population. These reprisals had become so commonplace that even the British government seemed to ignore their potential for adding greatly to the effect of republican propaganda. On the evening that Hamar Greenwood announced the happenings at Kilmichael, he was reported as having concluded by telling the house:

Tonight at Macroom 15 gallant British officers are lying dead, the victims of Irish assassins and I do not think that the House wishes to proceed to a question relating to some odd patrol in Ulster or to some house being burned and property destroyed in the face of this challenge to the authorities of this house (cheers).[4]

It seemed a remarkable statement from a man tasked with overseeing the government of Ireland. It almost implied that ‘some house being burned’ was unimportant compared with ‘this challenge to the authorities of this house.’ Hamar Greenwood didn’t quite say that Crown sponsored arson was appropriate, but he did seem to imply that he did not wish to consider it, or the effect it was having on innocent Irish people. His peculiar abdication of this responsibility came just a fortnight before the burning of Cork.

By 1 December the infamous stories of mutilated bodies were reaching the British press. They featured in the Halifax Evening Courier [5], while the Nottingham Evening Post seemed to provide the best example of a paper fully embracing their government’s publicity. That paper ran an alleged police report which featured the IRA having had a British army lorry acting as a barricade on the road, and having engaged in the mutilation of dead bodies. A summary of the alleged official report was accompanied by what it claimed was an eyewitness account of the ambush’s aftermath:

An officer who discovered the mutilated bodies of the auxiliary cadets ambushed near Macroom on Sunday says: “It was the ghastliest thing I have ever seen. I went all through the war and never saw anything quite so horrible as the spectacle of the roadside. It was simply littered with bodies bashed and battered in a way that makes my flesh creep when I think about it. I daren’t attempt to picture in detail all the horrors of the scene.

The first man we found was lying face downwards. We turned him over and he was smiling. I couldn’t help thinking he died gamely enough. Twenty yards further on the road two were lying together and one had been badly butchered. Half his face had been blown away by a revolver. A little way off from him was another man. I turned him over and he groaned. His head was shot and cut. We took him away as speedily as possible and now he just lives. He was the only man to come out of it alive.

A few yards further on still lay another of our chaps. His scalp had been torn off his head, and it was clear this had been done with a knife or a bayonet, and after death too. Near to him was a man whose right arm had been nearly severed. The only one I saw unbutchered was Bayley, who had driven the first car.

Besides acting like savage beasts, the raiders robbed the dead of all their money, and there was one man I knew for a fact had £100 in his possession when he set out on patrol. They stole their rings, watches, - everything, in fact, which had the least value, including puttees, boots, leggings, and coats.[6]

The account is an interesting one. It has some elements of truth like the one survivor and the disfigured bodies. Yet, on balance, it seems likely to have been invented or forged. Although it was reported that a doctor who examined the bodies later testified that they had been wounded after death, it has been established that close quarter fighting would cause similar disfigurement, as would Mills Bombs/Grenades, which were used in the initial attack, and that any testimony regarding disfigurement which was given at the compensation hearings must be considered in the context of its being likely to stimulate more generous awards for the relatives of the deceased. It also needs to be taken into account that the doctor in question, Dr. Kelleher from Macroom, son had been killed by the IRA in Granard just a few weeks previous.[7] It also seems unlikely that entire bodies of soldiers, from any western civilisation, would participate in the mass theft of money, or other items, from enemy corpses. Likewise, the claim that one man carried £100 with him, seems very suspect given the value of such a sum at that time. None of the IRA witnesses reported any theft, and while they did admit firing into bodies which may or may not have been dead, after the alleged false surrender, no IRA combatant mentioned any post-mortem mutilation.[8] Furthermore, in keeping with their own Guerrilla warfare tactics a timely escape from the scene of such an attack would have been impeded by such unnecessary actions.

The Sheffield Daily Courier had inflated the size of the IRA force to 200 and had also added a trench cut across the road to the story.[9] The Daily Mirror informed its readership that the ‘brave men’ killed at Kilmichael were unfortunate that the moonlit night favoured the IRA, who shot at them from the woods that surrounded the site.[10] There was little wooded cover at the site and the ambush took place in the twilight.

With tall tales now widely circulating in the British media, the Pall Mall Gazette turned its attentions to the funeral arrangements for the British servicemen who had died at Kilmichael. Under the front page headline WIDESPREAD HUNT FOR TERROR GANG, the paper claimed widespread activity in curbing ‘Sinn Féin’ activity on both sides of the Irish Sea, and claimed that Irish Republicans were losing support in America before discussing the funeral arrangements:

The funeral arrangements of the sixteen members of the auxiliary division of the RIC, who were shot at Kilmichael on Sunday night, are now almost complete.  

The sixteen bodies are now lying at Macroom Castle. They will be taken to Cork tomorrow morning, when a solemn and impressive funeral procession will take place, similar in character to that occurring last Thursday in London.

Tomorrow evening the bodies will be placed onboard a destroyer, accompanied by a guard of honour of auxiliaries, and will be brought either to Fishguard or Pembroke Docks. They will then be sent to the different places of interment selected by relatives, with members of the auxiliary division in attendance in each case.[11]

The procession to which the article referred was probably the funeral procession for the British dead of Bloody Sunday, although that procession had actually occurred on the previous Friday (not Thursday).[12] A similar scene occurred in Cork city on 2 December as the bodies of Britain’s Kilmichael dead were carried in procession from Victoria Cross, through the city centre, to Custom House Quay. The staunchly unionist Skibbereen Eagle reported the funeral dirges of a brass band, columns of troops and police marching with reversed rifles, businesses closed as per the instructions of the British authorities, and a largely respectful crowd lining the streets. When the bodies reached Custom House Quay, they were carried aboard a destroyer and laid on the deck. The Eagle reported that:

It was an intensely sad spectacle, and a most touching incident occurred just as the last of the bodies were placed onboard. An elderly gentlemen of powerful physique, dressed in deep mourning, went on board the destroyer and walked up and down between the coffins, raising the flag, in each case tenderly, and reading the name n the breastplate. He had tried about six before he found the one for which he was looking. It was lying on the side of the boat. He raised the corner of the Union Jack and read “Cadet B.D. Webster” and taking from his pocket a visiting card, he placed it first on the breastplate, then inserted the corner of it under the breastplate to prevent it falling off. The powerful frame shook as he placed the flag in position on his son’s coffin, and, labouring under the most intense emotion, he turned from the scene as if heartbroken. Many of the by-standers were moved to tears as the venerable looking gentleman left the vessel.[13]

As moving as the Eagle found the above spectacle to be, it was absent from the British press. Whether as a result of lack of interest, lack of Irish reportage, or otherwise, the British print media did not enter into detail on the procession through Cork. They did however mention the arrival of the bodies in Britain, and various local newspapers reported the burials of what they generally considered local heroes. The West Bridgeford Advertiser contained the following account of the arrival of six bodies on London:

Six of the sixteen victims of ‘Sinn Fein’ who were cruelly massacred near Macroom, after being ambushed by overwhelmingly superior numbers, were brought to London and at Paddington several hundred people crowded on the bridge and around the barrier on the arrival platform.

There was no military display nor were any official representatives present. It was just the simple home-coming of soldiers who had made the great sacrifice in the course of their duty.

About a dozen men from the J Division of the RIC auxiliary force were the only mourners, with the exception of a Roman Catholic priest, a nun, and a youth, who were also inside the barrier.

A few minutes after the express arrived the first of the flag covered coffins was brought out and carried across to the first of the five motor hearses in waiting. The others followed rapidly. On each coffin was a simple wreath of chrysanthemums from comrades in Ireland.[14]

One of the more interesting aspects of the report was the use of the word ‘soldiers.’ British newspapers tended to refer to these men as military, or soldiers. They frequently printed the names of the dead accompanied by the cadet rank that they had held in the RIC, but also referred to the military rank they had held in the armed forces. The governmental pretence that the auxiliaries were policemen, did not always carry through to newspaper obituaries.[15]

With the sensation of the ambush quickly overtaken by the burning of Cork and other violent events, the British newspapers turned their attentions elsewhere, though in January 1921, there was some brief reportage of compensation for the families of auxiliaries killed at Kilmichael.[16] This was particularly interesting as the compensation cases did not hear from the only British survivor Lt. Forde. Yet, three days after the Sunday Pictorial published a photo of Forde which was re-published in the Freeman’s Journal of the following day, the Cornishman newspaper printed what it alleged was his recollection of the ambush:

A large number of the attackers … rushed into the road shouting in the foulest language. They proceeded to handle us all very roughly, not excepting those who were by this time dead.

After knocking us about they called on us all to stand up and hold our hands up. There was no response for a time, but after about two minutes two of the party were able to stagger to their feet and were immediately shot down again at very close range by the Shinners.

Then one of the cadets who had been lying on his back, groaned heavily and turned over. One of the civilians who had a rifle and bayonet walked up to him and plunged the bayonet into his back.[17]

It is worth noting that reports of Dr Kelleher’s evidence at the compensation hearings included extensive descriptions of the wounds inflicted on the sixteen dead bodies and there was no report of any bayonet wound to the back.[18] Thus while the Cornishman’s report provides another perspective on the ambush, it is a distinct possibility that the perspective is exaggerated, or even fictional.

Three years later, on 22 April 1924, a brass tablet memorial was dedicated to the Crown’s Kilmicheal dead in the Church of Ireland Macroom and the event was outlined in a brief column in at least one British newspaper.[19]

The ghosts of Kilmichael seemed to be finally laid to rest in 1926 when the Lancashire Evening Post ran the following small article on page 2:

The remains of Cadet Guthrie, of the RIC auxiliary force, who had been missing since the Kilmichael ambush of 1920, in which 16 members of the Crown forces were killed, have been found in a bog near Macroom. They are to be interred in a neighbouring graveyard at the public expense.[20]

The sensationalist words like ‘massacre’ and ‘murder’ had been replaced by more factual adjectives like ‘ambush’ and ‘killed.’ The Lancashire Post neglected to mention that the Free State government had sought out and recovered Guthrie’s remains at the request of his relatives. The cadet had been shot while trying to make his way back to Macroom and was buried in the locally renowned, Gearagh. He was re-interred in Inchigeelagh cemetery and lies there in solitude to this day.

In 1932, both the Leeds Mercury, Western Daily Press, and Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer each ran the same paragraph about the twelve-year commemoration ceremony, which was dominated by the membership of a newly installed Fianna Fáil government. The paragraph was concerned with a protectionist agenda announced by some senior Fianna Fáil personnel and the focus on a united Ireland by others. It also repeated the unverified stories born ten years previously regarding eighty to one hundred men dressed in khaki and wearing steel helmets.[21]

Any cursory perusal of the British print media in the wake of the Kilmichael ambush indicates that the event certainly created shock and some outrage in Britain. Newspaper reports were highly inaccurate, but that is to be expected of reportage of an event which couldn’t rely on eye-witness testimony. Details were further obscured by the inaccurate official reports, whether these were unintentional mistakes or intended as propaganda in an attempt to conceal their own inefficiencies or to vilify the IRA it is unclear. Regardless they, in part, achieved this as is evident in these press articles. One hundred years on the details of what exactly happened Kilmichael continue to be debated and ‘revised’. While Kilmichael, often seen as a major 'win' for the IRA and a turning point in the Irish War of Independence, would endure in Irish historical and folk memory, the sensation did not last terribly long and very quickly disappeared from British press and public consciousness.

[1]Leeds Mercury, 30 November 1920.

[2] Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 30 November 1920. Pall Mall Gazette, 1 December 1920. Birmingham Daily Gazette, 30 November 1920.

[3] Leeds Mercury, 30 November 1920.

[4] Gloucestershire Echo, 30 November 1920. IN reality, sixteen auxiliaries were killed outright at the ambush.

[5] Halifax Evening Courier, 1 December 1920.

[6] Nottingham Evening Post, 2 December 1920.

[7] Belfast Newsletter, 12 January 1921. The newspaper (which was a very pro-unionist publication) reported that Dr. Kelleher of Macroom had testified that post-mortem wounds had been inflicted on the bodies. It should be pointed out that Kelleher’s son had been killed by the IRA in Kiernan’s Hotel in Granard. The Skibbereen Eagle, an equally loyalist publication, reported that Kelleher had stated that four of the sixteen bodies were wounded post-mortem, one with a sharp instrument which may have been an axe. Meda Ryan, Tom Barry: IRA Freedom Fighter, Mercier Press, Cork, 2002, p84.

[8] Ryan, Tom Barry, pp53 (Tom Barry ‘We advanced into them still firing making sure they were all dead’) 59 (Jack Hennssy ‘firing at living and dead auxies on the road.’)

[9] Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 1 December 1920.

[10] The Daily Mirror, 1 December 1920.

[11] Pall Mall Gazette, 1 December 1920.

[12] Illustrated London News, 4 December 1920.

[13] Skibbereen Eagle, 4 December 1920.

[14] West Bridgeford Advertiser, 11 December 1920.

[15] See MCH essay: Kilmichael Casulaties.

[16] Westminster Gazette, 13 January 1921.

[17] Cornishman, 19 January 1921.

[18] Skibbereen Eagle, 4 December 1920.

[19] Northern Whig, 22 April 1924.

[20] Lancashire Evening Post, 10 November 1926.

[21] Yorkshire Post & Leeds Intelligencer, 28 November 1932. Leeds Mercury, 28 November 1932. Western Daily Press, 28 November 1932.