The West Cork Trail: Scenes From the Anglo-Irish and Civil Wars, 1920-1922

By Capt. Donal Buckley, Irish Army (ret.)
Special to The Wild Geese Today

(Left: Where the road disappears in the center of the picture marks Tom Barry's command post, where he lobbed the grenade into the first truck of the Auxiliaries' convoy.)

Michael Collins died on August 22nd, 1922, on a lonely stretch of road in West Cork. Two years earlier, not far away, the IRA decimated a convoy of British Auxiliaries. Collins' death at the hands of former IRA colleagues underscores the immense tragedy his death, and the Civil War, represents.


During The War of Independence, officers in the Royal Irish Constabulary, Ireland's British-established police force, were resigning at an alarming rate. More than 560 had resigned in May, June, and July 1920 alone. The British Government decided to reinforce them with a force that became known as "The Black and Tans." These men were in the main made up of ex-British soldiers who came back from the trenches of World War I, not to "a land fit for heroes" as had been promised, but to depression and joblessness. They were initially provided a makeshift combination of police and army uniforms and equipment (hence the colors -- and nickname -- Black and Tan), £1 a day, and ultimately a free hand to loot, burn and kill in Ireland.

Tours of the "West Cork Trail," run by County Mayo-based Military Heritage Tours Ltd., will be regularly run through 2003. Contact Donal Buckley, via e-mail at, phone at (011) 353 94 31344, or write to MHTL, Woodfield, Derryhick, Castlebar, Co. Mayo, Ireland. You can also find a complete list of tours offered at Military Heritage Tours Web site, at

This group was followed by the Auxiliaries, or Auxiliary Cadets. These men were all former British commissioned officers and received twice the pay of the Tans. They were tough and experienced; each carried a rifle, two revolvers and two grenades. They soon were regarded as invincible and struck terror into the population wherever they went, with beatings, shootings, burnings and looting, often in retaliation for real or perceived slights.

One hundred fifty of the Auxies (as they were known) were stationed in Macroom Castle, County Cork, in August 1920.

The leaders of the IRA's 1st Southern Division made the decision to attack the Auxies, and 3 Brigade, IRA, prepared an ambush at Kilmichael. Tom Barry's Flying Column was assigned. On November 28, 1920, at 8:15 a.m., in awful weather, wet and cold, the ambush party, platoon strength, arrived. In freezing wet conditions, in late afternoon, a patrol of two truckloads of Auxies, carrying a total of 18 men, arrived.

Barry, in his Irish Volunteers uniform, stood on the road. When the lead driver saw the uniform, he slowed to investigate. As the truck approached, Barry threw a grenade into the open cab, and the fight was on. The Auxies apparently lost 17 men and Barry lost 3. One Auxie managed to crawl away some distance and was shot, another was very badly wounded, and though Barry claimed at the time that this 18th man never regained consciousness, author Peter Hart maintains in "The IRA and Its Enemies" that Cadet H.H. Forde remained paralysed with brain damage until his death decades later.

Photo by Donal Buckley
Monument erected at the Kilmichael ambush site in 1966. Engraved in Irish and English, it reads, in part, "They shall be spoken of among their people. The generations shall remember them and call them blessed.

"C" Company, which furnished the vanquished Auxies, was later withdrawn to Dublin. The carnage was a grievous blow and dramatic warning to the hitherto unbloodied Auxies, and the morale of the IRA and the Republican cause soared.

Barry, while noting that many Irish had come to see the Auxies as "all but invincible," stated, "The IRA had outfought them, and not more than 15 or 16 of our riflemen had had the opportunity to fire at them because of their dispositions. The 'super' force! Who was the Colonel Crake who commanded them and now lay dead on the road?"


Michael Collins, commander in chief
of the Free State army.

The shooting death of Michael Collins, at Béal na mBláth, was arguably the most tragic incident in Ireland's history in the 20th century. After Eamon de Valera's refusal to accept the Anglo-Irish Treaty, even though ratified by a majority in the Dáil, civil war loomed, and became inevitable after the Army Convention of March 26, 1922, when the bulk of the IRA in attendance affirmed their opposition to the treaty. This bitter, needless war saw former comrades and relations fighting against each other.

General Michael Collins decided to go to the South in a bid to stop the war. His best friend, Harry Boland, who had taken the Anti-Treaty side against Collins, was now dead, having been shot and mortally wounded while being arrested in north County Dublin. Collins was heartbroken over Boland's death, though both had been rivals for the affections of Collins' eventual fiance, Kitty Kiernan.

Courtesy of Father Jerry Cremin
Beal na mBlath, on the southern edge of Kilmurry Parish, in a picture taken by the parish's former curate.

Collins headed south from Dublin with a hastily prepared escort. At its point was a motor-cycle scout, followed by a Crossley Tender, then an open tourer in which sat Collins, his friend Emmet Dalton, and two drivers, named Corry and Quinn. Bringing up the rear was a Rolls Royce Whippet armoured car, named "Slievenamon."

Collins and his retinue met many friends and family while in West Cork, Collin's birthplace. Meanwhile, Tom Hales, commandant of Cork No.3 Brigade, IRA, moved his men to intercept Collins' entourage as it moved toward Cork City. Alert for hours, Hales' several dozen men grew impatient as the hours stretched into the evening, deciding finally that Collins wouldn't be coming. According to Tim Pat Coogan's biography of Collins, Hales' men began to disconnect the landmines, and most moved toward home or to the pub, leaving Hales with five other men in the rearguard when Collins' convoy arrived.

The last picture of Michael Collins, left, snapped as he and Emmet Dalton take the back seat of the touring car, departing Lee's Hotel in Bandon the day of Collins' death.

Those in the convoy saw the road block, and Dalton ordered the escort to "Drive like hell!" Collins countermanded the order, shouting, "No, stop, we will fight them." An exchange of gunfire followed, and, during a lull, Collins, armed with a rifle, left a protected position behind the vehicles and ran up the road to get a better shot at men he saw retreating. He turned to his right as he was reloading, and a rifle bullet, probably fired by a former British army marksman named Denis "Sonny" O'Neill, removed a section of the base of his skill. Collins fell and cried "Emmet." And so died perhaps the greatest Irish leader of the 20th century, if not ever.

Compounding the nation's tragedy was Kitty Kiernan's deeply personal loss. Kiernan was heartbroken by her fiance's death, and never recovered, though she later married Colonel Felix Cronin, of the Free State army, and had two sons with him. When she died, her husband had her buried as close as possible to Collins in Glasnevin Cemetery, to be finally united with the love of her life.

With additional research by Kieron C. Punch. Edited and produced by Gerry Regan.

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Tags: Freedom, Irish, Struggle


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