Revolutionary Remembrance: Kilmichael, And A Rebuttal To The Southern Star

It is the centenary decade, so you’re going to bump in to varying opinions about commemoration and remembrance. Occasionally, they will be of the overly-outraged, illogical kind.

Like the below. Written by a figure called “Archon”, it is an opinion piece from the West Cork newspaper the Southern Star on proposed developments at the site of the Kilmichael ambush of November 1920. For the uninitiated, this was one of the largest, and possibly most famous ambushes of the Irish War of Independence, when a unit under Tom Barry were able to surprise a basically wipe out a small convoy of British Auxiliaries.

Various parts of this article and the criticism contained therein fall foul of my own “Nine Tenets” when it comes to revolutionary remembrance (in fact, all of them except #2 are included in the proposed new site or opposed by the author).

Let’s take the words of “Archon” one bit at a time. You can read the full, original article here. Archon’s words are in italics.

WOULD the British erect a memorial to the German aviators who indiscriminately slaughtered men, women and children in bombing raids on Britain during the Second World War?

Of course not!  Our neighbours are not that mad or sufficiently brainwashed to debase or dishonour their history. Sadly, on this side of the pond things are different.

It’s an odd way to start out, considering that the British did plenty of bombing of their own volition, more than Germany in fact. This hyperbolistic claim is just the start of a recurring problem though, of equating commemoration with “honour”.

An example is the plan for the ‘development’ of the Kilmichael ambush site, details of which Catherine Ketch exclusively revealed in last week’s Southern Star.  

Another recurring theme: the use of ‘quote marks’ in a negative sense. Writers who do this at the level you are about to see lose a lot in my eyes. They claim they’re just quoting from the original text, but what’s really going on is obvious.

In what yet may win an all-Ireland prize for the diminution of one’s own historical identity, the ‘development’ includes a plan to erect a plaque recalling the names and ranks of the British Auxiliaries who perished in the ambush.

In other words, the IRA’s success at Kilmichael, a key moment in the war against British army murder, burnings and torture in West Cork, is to be turned into a metaphor for a sort of ping-pong match – the Irish team on one side, British on the other.

Here’s the main crux, and my main issue.

Listing the names of the dead British soldiers does not equal veneration and it does not detract from the names of the IRA men who also fought there. The British were a part of the equation, one that we, as a people, are too often willing to ignore and relegate to the role of faceless “bad guys”. Something as simple as listing their names at the site where they were shot down would be the most basic step in counter-acting that process.

Or as some critics are asking: ‘is the entire ambush site to be turned into a Disney-style theme park?’

Which critics? Invoking nameless critics, without any attribution, is an obvious example of what some have dubbed “weasel words“, an attempt “at creating an impression that something specific and meaningful has been said, when in fact only a vague or ambiguous claim has been communicated.”

And wait until you see what Archon considers to be an equivalent to Disneyland (I would wager the person who said this has never been to Disneyland).

Also disturbing is the fact that no public discussion has taken place on the €100,000 revamp of the ambush site, which is being carried out by the Kilmichael Historical Society and the Kilmichael and Crossbarry Commemorative Committee.

This would actually be a fair point, if the rest of the article indicated in any way, shape or form that the opposition was anything but “Keep it as it is, traitor”. There is no dialogue to be had with the position that Archon sets out here.

And, while the two organisations deserve credit for their initiative to refurbish the ambush monument, the complexity of their plan runs the risk of belittling the noble Republican heritage that the West Cork IRA passed on to later generations.  

I’m not sure I like what this implies, considering how public perception of the IRA has changed since the War of Independence.

According to the approved planning application, alterations to the ambush site will include walkways, information signs, parking facilities, gravel footpaths, and 30  guideposts topped with stainless steel bands that are described as ‘an element of public art’ and intended to ‘add a bit of interest’.  

Yeah, that sounds like Disneyland alright. More sarcasm quotes. To think, people want to scar a place of historical curiosity by putting up information signs and making it easier for people to actually visit it.

The tree posts will represent the volunteers and the location where they concealed themselves during the firefight. Their ‘subdued materials’ will not make them a traffic distraction.  

Personally, I actually think that’s a great idea. The Kilmichael ambush site is surprisingly big after all, and such an initiative could do a lot to bring a sense of scale to the fighting that occurred there. More sarcasm quotes of course.

And then comes the final indignity: 

Indignity. The author thinks information signs and a walkway are an indignity.

I think the problem here, and its one I note a lot in other commemorations, is that Kilmichael is being treated like it is a graveyard. It isn’t.

…a picnic area!  Or what the Kilmichael Historical Society and Kilmichael-Crossbarry Commemoration Committee describe as a stone seat wall.  

Presumably it will be a nook where the visitors can take a break from all that history stuff and where they can eat the sangers, polish off an auld bottle of beer, let the kiddies play at ‘soldiers,’ relax, balm out in the sun and listen to a bit of pop on County Sound.

Probably the worst sarcastic moment, where the author decided to branch out his/her criticism to take in tourists. God forbid they should want to visit the site and maybe have something to eat there. God forbid they bring their families. God forbid an effort should be made to make the memorial look nice. God forbid, we, the Irish, should try and be welcoming to such people.

Nope, they and their “kiddies” can just stay out of West Cork along with their pop music (seriously, how old does the author sound in that last segment?). The Kilmichael grave…, I mean ambush site, should remain a place of quiet solemnity and unexceptional surrounds.

Tourists also will be able to contemplate what the planning application refers to as the ‘skeleton of a Crossley Tender,’ a type of vehicle the British used for carrying troops.  

Another great idea. The IDF recently got a good response to the restoration of the Sliabh na mBan, so I can only hope similar endeavours are carried out elsewhere.

The purpose of this thing, as the planning application delightfully put it, is ‘to reference the involvement of the British troops and the struggle posed upon them’ – a most unusual way of encapsulating the ambush, the false surrender, the destruction of the lorries and the intensity of the battle!  

A planning application is not required to detail the ambush in a blow-by-blow style. It’s a planning application, not a scene from The Wind That Shakes The Barley.

In a letter to the West Cork Planning Office, reference is made to the IRA’s Third West Cork Brigade Flying Column as ‘a group of local patriots that defeated a battalion of British Auxiliaries’ (a battalion, mind you!) and that the site is important for those ‘following the independence trail!’ The letter argues that the place is ‘poorly developed and interpreted.’ Hence ‘the dire need’ to ‘improve the whole area at the monument site.’

Look at all these sarcasm quotes. Look at that exclamation point, as if the idea of an Independence Trail, the sort of thing the Americans have implemented quite well in places like Boston, is anathema to Ireland and West Cork.

Oh, and I’ve seen the Kilmichael site. It is poorly developed. It is in dire need of improvements.

I mean, look at it:


That’s literally it. That bleak stone memorial at the side of a country road frequently covered in bird droppings, with a few information posts, frequently covered in vandalism. That’s what is currently at Kilmichael. The writing on the stone refers to the IRA volunteers as “blessed” and makes zero reference to the British side in any terms. This is what the “critics” and Archon think represents acceptable history and remembrance.

Interesting too that Ian Doyle of the Heritage Council of Ireland, a State quango that advised on the development, expressed the opinion that there was ‘a need to achieve a balanced interpretation of what happened at Kilmichael, that reflects modern scholarship on the ambush.’

In the light of the controversy ignited by the now deceased historian, Peter Hart, over allegations that Tom Barry and the IRA in West Cork were serial murderers, Mr Doyle’s comment had anti-revisionist bells loudly ringing, although we are not in any way suggesting Mr Doyle is a revisionist or that he had a revisionist interpretation of history in mind.

But the comment was serious enough for Tony McCarthy, a member of the Timothy Kennefick Commemoration Committee and a leading critic of the ‘redevelopment,’ to ask if Tom Barry’s version of the ambush was ‘old fashioned history or indeed untrue.’

“Revisionist” is what some people call attempts to shine a brighter light on the Irish revolutionary period, if you didn’t know. In fact, let’s quickly quote Peter Hart himself on the topic:

“…this refers to a supposed school of Irish history which, while claiming to be neutral and scientific, is in fact anti-republican, anti-nationalist and pro-British…Many people were called revisionists by their opponents but no one ever called themself that – a sure sign of pejorative labelling.”

Any academic, politician or writer who doesn’t simply repeat the jingoistic and hilariously biased firsthand accounts from the early 1920s, who attempts to study both sides of an event and come up with a new interpretation is a “revisionist”. Revisionism is a dirty concept to people like Archon.

Of course, it’s nonsense. Utilising evidence, studying it in the right way, consolidating account with other accounts to come up with the most truthful and correct interpretation possible, that isn’t revisionism: its history. Proper history, done correctly.

And it is exactly what this country needs. And it is what Kilmichael needs. The disputes over what happened on that November day should not be ignored in favour of a purely republican outlook, just because a more thorough look might bring up some unpleasant aspects to IRA activity in the area.

And no, Tom Barry’s account is not completely trustworthy. Off course it isn’t. He was the commander of an IRA unit, engaged in a propaganda as well as a physical war, and later writing from a place where he was trying to defend his activities from accusations of war crimes. A lot of people died at Kilmichael, in foggy circumstances. Why should we automatically take Tom Barry’s word for it?

(By the way, W.H. Kautt’s “Ambushes and Armour” probably has the best approach taken to the Kilmichael ambush that I have ever read, that seeks to find a probable middle course between the varying accounts. His essential argument is that the size of the battlefield may indicate that the “false surrender” of Barry’s account was actually genuine, but was only undertaken by one part of the convoy, without the knowledge of others who continued firing. No villainous deception, no cold blooded executions, just misunderstandings and fog of war.)

I have seen, read and researched enough local history in Ireland to know that it is some of the most untrustworthy stuff imaginable. I’ve seen enough skirmishes in Irish antiquity inflated into titanic clashes, seen enough tiny IRA ambushes aggrandised into Crossbarry or Kilmichael-like affairs, seen enough propaganda morph into stubbornly accepted history. We need less entrenched local feeling and more “revisionism” frankly.

But no, no “revisionist” thinking can be allowed, we should not even begin to contemplate the idea that things might be a tad more complicated than heroic freedom fighters killing the evil tyrants. Please.

Like others, Tony McCarthy is concerned that a trivialisation of the ambush might be taking place. He believes that the proposal to erect a replica of a 1920 Crossley Tender (2.2 metres high and 5 metres in length) plus a plaque to the British Auxiliaries within a short distance of the Kilmichael monument will shift the focal point away from the monument itself.

How? How will it do this? If anything it will draw more attention to the monument and the ambush site. It will get more people visiting. Why is this a bad thing?

Unless the author is worried that greater attention might lead to a greater discussion on the rights and wrongs of what happened at Kilmichael. Heaven forefend.

Other critics…

Who? Who are these critics? What is their stake in the argument? Can I completely trust their opinion to be unbiased and without prejudice?

…fear that a plaque to the British soldiers would popularise Kilmichael as a place where the Auxies have equal status with Republicans and consequently that they too should be commemorated for their courage, their own political beliefs (in the British Empire) and for the fact that ‘both sides were only doing their job’.

I can’t wait to see how a plaque listing names and ranks will equate to this. Maybe it’ll have a Union Jack and will play “God Save The Queen” or something, since I can’t see how a list of names does any of the above.  It seems as if Archon and others are imbuing such a plaque with more power and meaning than it has to have, as I have previously spoken about. In the end, these people have as much historical power as we, as individuals, give them.

After all, it can be argued that the countless atrocities the Auxies committed in West Cork, including the murder of the aged Canon Magnier and Tadhg Crowley of Dunmanway, the burning of homes and businesses and the incineration of the centre of Cork city, are events of long ago and water under the bridge.

They are. They very much are “water under the bridge”, water flowing into the ocean, on the other side of the world by now. These things happened over 90 years ago. Stop being outraged about something that had no discernible effect on your circumstances whatsoever.

Tony McCarthy thinks differently: ‘To erect memorials for the forces who oppressed our people’s desire to establish an independent Republic would bring shame, not alone to the dead volunteers of Kilmichael, but also to the countless numbers of men and women in every generation who fought to substitute the name of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter by the common name of Irishmen and women,’ he said.

Oh, grow up. Where can I even begin to start here? Perhaps with speaking on behalf of men dead for generations like you know them?  Or maybe forgetting the Protestants in West Cork killed by the IRA?

And those heroic Kilmichael volunteers. Apropos of nothing, did you know that Tom Barry tried to organise an alliance between the IRA and Nazi Germany in 1937? He actually travelled to Germany as part of that effort.

I’m not saying that to try and discredit Barry. But if we are willing to accept that Barry, as well as being a courageous flying column leader, also tried to make friends with a state synonymous with evil, and so may not have been the shining beacon that the “critics” wish to paint him as (instead, he was simply human), then maybe we can also make room for the names and ranks of some British soldiers?

He went on:  ‘It has been my experience that fair-minded visitors, English and other, of whom there are very many, come here with deep appreciation of our people’s struggle for dignity and independence. ..

Yeah, I’m sure English people are flocking to the current Kilmichael site. What a load of nonsense.

Oh, and “anti-revisionist” is nothing to do with “fair-minded”. The opposite in fact.

…Our goodwill and openness of mind would not be seen by such visitors as a reason to erect monuments to those who opposed the establishment of an independent Ireland.

An openness of mind not being extended to those who turn up with “kiddies”, food or pop music of course. And again, a plaque or monument does not mean veneration. Listing names does not mean celebration.

Tony McCarthy argues that the Kilmichael ambush site is of national importance…

No argument here.

… and should not be tampered with in the interests of tourism, a so-called ‘independence trail’ or from a revised political interpretation of history.

No. It is exactly because it is a site of national importance that it should be updated, refurbished, made part of any local tourism plans. It is an important historical site and should be treated as such, as somewhere that can be a focal point for education, tourist interest and correct revolutionary remembrance, one based on the best modern scholarly approaches, not the falsehoods and biased portrayals of the past.

He’s called on the Kilmichael Historical Society and the Kilmichael and Crossbarry Commemoration Committee to hold an open meeting to discuss the matter and to advertise the meeting in national and provincial newspapers, and in the general media.

Great. I’m sure such a meeting will be most productive when it is insisted:

-No changes to the monument be made.

-No new plaques or monuments be built.

-No other additions to the site be contemplated.

-No children are allowed at the site.

-No food is allowed at the site.

-No music is allowed at the site.

-No new study into the Kilmichael ambush be contemplated or referenced.

-That the British who died there remain nameless and faceless.

-That any attempt to tie Kilmichael into a larger refurbishment of Irish revolutionary period sites be stopped.

-That any attempt to encourage greater tourism to the site be halted.

-And, presumably, that the Kilmichael site itself be bordered up and gated, entrance only allowed to those who swear off “revisionist” history and promise to treat any activity that goes on there with all the of the exuberance, excitement and interest as a funeral.

We agree.

I’m sure you do.

Revolutionary remembrance needs more of an effort, nationally and locally. It needs sites like Kilmichael to be improved and advertised, so that we can better see a crucial battleground in the fight for our independence, and one of the most debated and investigated sites in our recent history.

Yes, that means building new things there. Yes, it means encouraging tourist to visit and bring their families. Yes, it means acknowledging that the British were there too, and were more than the slavering hounds of IRA propaganda. Yes, it means coming to the understanding that commemoration does not mean veneration.

It does not need stagnation and stubborn refusal to even hear about change, change to the site or change to pure perceptions.

Unfortunately, that appears to be exactly what has happened, as this report details. Rowbacks and towing the line. No Crossley Tender, no plaques, because of objections from local historians, more interested in keeping the site as it is right now than possible expanding it. Oh, and definite hints that nothing other than the strict heroic republican version of events will ever be tolerated. Let the stagnation continue.

I wish the Kilmichael Historical Society and the Kilmichael and Crossbarry Commemorative Committee the very best of luck in their work, but it already appears as if they have surrendered in the fight for better revolutionary remembrance. And that’s a shame.

Irish historian Padraig O’ Ruairc has written a much better piece than Archon on this issue, which you can read at the Irish Story website.

This entry was posted in History, Ireland, Revolutionary Remembrance, War and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Revolutionary Remembrance: Kilmichael, And A Rebuttal To The Southern Star

  1. David Navarre says:

    Wrote a long comment and it got blanked!

  2. David Navarre says:

    So, what I had written was that I think this is a great post. Memorialization is one of the things we seem to struggle with after all wars. Following the American Civil War, feelings were raw for decades and some issues still bring on heartbreak and virulent positions about a war that is 150 years old.

    I think that, from the photo of the literally road-side memorial, that Kilmichael is destined to be forgotten if nothing is done. There’s no place for anyone who visits that memorial to do any visiting other than to simply stop their car and take a brief photo of the memorial. With no interpretive signage, only those steeped in the history will have any understanding. With no place to park or to sit and contemplate the event, no one will spend more than a few minutes there. To opine that the location should only be for the truly devoted (and, from the sound of Archon’s writings, only those from one side, in a ridiculous biased manner) is to relegate the location to the dustbin of history and make the masses ignorant of what happened.

    In Normandy, there is a German cemetery in La Cambe, down the road from Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery. It doesn’t serve as a ‘celebration’ of those German soldiers, but as a memorial to them and as a stark reminder of the cost of war. If memory serves, the graves were dug by German students in the 1950s (a consolidated of scattered gravesites) and is supported by funds from Germany. It’s a reminder to Germany as well as France and the rest of the world that wars are costly things. When you wander the gravesites and see the graves of boys who lost their lives it makes one sad. It does not glorify their deaths, nor diminish the accomplishment of those who liberated France.

    So, enhancing the memorials at Kilmichael will not bring a sudden surge of anti-Republican activity, but serve as a reminder of the cost, to both sides, of the bloody conflict. Adding space for visitation, interpretation and quiet reflection will only enhance the status and understanding of the site, not detract from it. Hopefully, cooler and wiser heads will prevail.

  3. Pingback: NFB’s Top Ten For The Year (2013) | Never Felt Better

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