Controversy dogs revamp of Kilmichael ambush site

This report is courtesy of the Southern Star newspaper….

NOW, what do you think of this: from the moment a West Cork committee secured €100,000 in public funds to start up the Kilmichael ambush site it’s been mired in a polemic that may yet lead to questions in Dáil Eireann?

Central to the controversy is the legacy of deceased historian Peter Hart who depicted Tom Barry and the West Cork IRA as ‘serial killers’. His poisonous evaluation ironically fostered the notion that the time had arrived for an acknowledgement, preferably deferential, to be paid to those who fought to prevent the establishment of the Republic.
To what extent Hart’s revisionism impacted on the ambush site revamp is open to question. Nevertheless, his ghostly influence can be detected in the committee’s successful planning application.
In a letter to the planning authority, the Heritage Council of Ireland (a State quango) emphasised the need for a ‘balanced interpretation’ of what happened at Kilmichael, and that the balanced interpretation should ‘reflect modern scholarship on the ambush.’
The Kilmichael Historical Society agreed, stating that they ‘aimed for a balanced interpretation in our signage, etc.’
Subsequently, the approved plans incorporated the possible erection of a replica Crossley tender and a plaque recalling the names and ranks of the British Auxiliaries who perished in the ambush.
Outrage was expressed at giving the notorious Auxiliaries equality of status with IRA volunteers. In response, the spokesperson for the Kilmichael Joint Task Group, Seán Kelleher, denied that any commemoration of the Auxiliaries was contemplated and that no replica of a 1920 Crossley tender would appear on the site.
Mr Kelleher also strongly rejected the idea of Auxiliaries being mentioned in terms of parity with the men of the West Cork IRA.
Interesting too that the Kilmichael Historical Society became a registered company in April 2013, with ‘the aim and objective of promoting and encouraging interaction with other bodies local, national and international with similar aspirations.’
Immediately, concern was voiced that this might open the door to commemorating the Auxiliaries via the participation of groups like the British Legion.
Mr Kelleher denied this was going to happen.
‘Desecration’ claim
Then Tony McCarthy entered the scene. Pulling no punches, last week in this newspaper he accused the developers of having ‘desecrated’ the site.
Mr McCarthy, a member of a voluntary organisation that locates and restores republican monuments to volunteers killed in the War of Independence in County Cork, complained that the ambush site had been over-developed.
He deplored the destruction of many of the natural contours that contributed to the beauty of the desolate landscape and that some IRA positions had been covered over by new footpaths and topsoil.
What profoundly shocked him was the fact that the command post from which Tom Barry directed the battle had been ignored. Although the site had a maze of recently-constructed gravelled paths, not one track facilitated access to the command post, the hub of the battle around which the events revolved.
All the controversies point to the absurdity of taking revisionism and political correctness too far
According to Tom Barry, the command post faced the oncoming lorries. He describes it in Guerilla Days in Ireland as a small, loosely-built narrow wall of bare stones, providing little cover.
Tony McCarthy was perplexed: ‘Why was the spot from where Tom Barry began the battle excluded?’ he asked, speculating that the omission might have had something to do with the inscription on the monument that marks the command post.
It says: On this road too died seventeen terrorist officers of the British Forces on 28 November 1920.’
Baulk at ‘terrorists’
Did the development committee baulk at the word ‘terrorist’ and at the implied accusation that Britain officially employed terror as a political weapon in its war against the IRA?
Was the exclusion of the command post intended to introduce the ‘balanced interpretation’ to the Kilmichael narrative that the Ambush committee presented as a stated aim in its planning application?
Yet, when originally erected, Tom Barry’s endorsement of the monument and its inscription made perfect sense, as many readers of this newspaper whose families suffered at the hands of the barbarian Auxiliaries could attest to.
Because, let’s face it, not even the most benign interpretation of British atrocities can mitigate Auxiliary terrorism – such as the burning of Cork city, the torture and mutilation of prisoners, reprisal killings, the assassination of elected officials, the destruction of homes, and random shootings -as in the case of the cold blooded murder of 73-year old Canon Magner and Timothy Crowley.
Or, that ten days before the Kilmichael ambush, Auxiliary Cadet Guthrie shot dead an innocent civilian, Jim Lehane of Ballyvourney! Guthrie later boasted in a pub that ‘he had got the bastard’ and that shooting the Irish was the ‘one way of teaching them manners.’
He managed to survive the ambush but the IRA tracked him down and killed him.
Stain on history
Historian Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc points out that the activity of the British armed forces in Ireland is such a stain on Britain’s military history that ‘history books, and school text books either gloss over the role their forces played or ignore it altogether. Local military museums omit any reference to the war in Ireland, though a few will mention in passing the more recent “troubles.”  Even the Imperial War Museum, which has an exhibit on the 1916 Rising, does not mention the War of Independence.’
Yet, thanks to Hart and others, promoting ‘tolerance’ in this country by means of conferring a bogus respectability on the actions of uniformed terrorists has acquired the sheen of political correctness.
The fact of the matter is that the Crossley tender row, the plaque commemorating the Auxiliaries, and the command post controversy do not at all point to a ‘balanced interpretation’ of the Kilmichael ambush, but rather to the absurdity of taking revisionism and political correctness too far.
In the meantime, how dispiriting it is to see the place Tom Barry chose as the location for ‘a fight that would be vital not only for West Cork, but for the whole of the nation’ in the process of being turned into a ‘Davy Crockett versus the Injuns’ tourist trail.
Against such a background, it’s possible that the Kilmichael Joint Task Group, which is representative of the Kilmichael-Crossbarry Commemoration Committee and the Kilmichael Historical Society, has forgotten a simple truth: the past is never dead.
Which is a reason for reflecting on Tom Barry’s observation in his book Guerilla Days in Ireland.  He solemnly informed his men the attack could only end in the smashing of the Auxiliaries or the destruction of the Flying Column.  If the Auxiliaries were not broken, he said Ireland would suffer until another generation arose.
In other words, in order to understand the past, what is important is the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ – not the tourist trails or the balanced interpretations!


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