Tom Barry: 'We May Have Great Men, But We’ll Never Have Better'

When it came to the grand plan of how the Irish, with their meager resources, could defeat the forces of the greatest empire on earth in the Irish War of Independence, Michael Collins was the great architect who drew up the “flying column” blue print. But no matter how great the architect, other men have to take that plan and make it reality. No “builder” took the flying column concept and did that with more efficiency, some say ruthless efficiency, than West Cork Brigade Flying Column commander, Tom Barry.

(Above: Men of the South by Seán Keating.)

Tom Barry (left) was born in Killorglin, Co. Kerry on July 1, 1897. Ironically, given Tom’s later history, at the time of his birth his father, also Thomas, was a constable in the Royal Irish Constabulary. When Tom was just ten his father left the RIC and returned to his native Rosscarbery, Co. Cork to open a business with his relatives there. It’s interesting to speculate how it might have effected young Tom’s life if his father had remained in the RIC.

Unlike so many other leaders of the War of Independence, Barry had no connection to any Republican groups prior to the war. In fact, in 1915, with WWI raging across Europe, the slim 5’10” Tom enlisted in the British army. It was not done out of any great zeal to help “small nations” or from being swayed by the ubiquitous British inducements for Irishmen to join the noble fight against “the Hun.” He would later say, “I went to the war for no other reason than that I wanted to see what war was like, to get a gun, to see new countries and to feel a grown man. Above all I went because I knew no Irish history and had no national consciousness.” But he would begin to acquire one soon enough. He was shipped off to the Middle East, serving in Mesopotamia (now Iraq), where he saw combat against the Turks. One day in the spring of 1916 he happened upon a communique about the Easter Rising, including its culmination with the execution of the leaders. For the first time he asked himself, as many thousands of Irishmen must have through several centuries, “what the hell am I doing in the British Army?”

(Below: British troops in Mesopotamia during WWI.)

In February 1919 Tom was out of the army and back in Bandon, Co. Cork. By then all of his family had moved to England to find work. Tom enrolled in Skerry College, Cork City, where he met Bill Hales. It was a fateful meeting that had a profound effect on his life, and on Irish history. Hales’ family was strongly Republican. Bill’s brother, Tom, was the commander of the West Cork Brigade of the Irish Volunteers. The “orphan” Barry spent many evenings with the Hale family and got an education in the Republican version of Irish history around their hearth from Bill’s father.

This was a version of Irish history that the British controlled school system in Ireland had left out. As he would later say, “I had never heard of the victory over the Sassanach at Benburb, but I could tell the dates of Waterloo and Trafalgar.” He also began to avidly read all he could find about Irish history on his own. The national pride inculcated in him by that history began to edge him toward joining the fight.

(Below: Owen Roe O'Neill at the battle of Benburb.)

The war had been going on for about a year now and the eyes of the Crown forces were everywhere, watching everyone. One day Tom Barry was taken in for questioning, no doubt due to his connection to the Hales, and roughed up. In addition to that, Tom Hales had been captured and tortured in Bandon by the soon to be despised Essex Regiment. This pushed him over edge; he was ready to join the fight against the Sassanach. Many found this national pride earlier in life, but few ever embraced it more completely, or certainly more fiercely. Tom Barry would be a mortal enemy of British rule anywhere in Ireland until his last breath.

Being the son of a former RIC constable, and a veteran of the British army, his efforts to join the Volunteers were looked on with suspicion at first. The informer had been the bane of every previous Irish revolutionary movement through the centuries. In July 1919 Sean Buckley, the brigade intelligence officer, first enlisted him to provide intelligence; a job that would give him no access to information about the rest of the brigade. Brigade leaders later admitted they “tested” him many times during that period, but he proved himself to them over the coming months.

When Michael Collins sent word from GHQ in Dublin in the summer of 1920 for all brigades to train and organize flying columns, Barry’s prior military experience made him the choice as training officer for the men of the West Cork brigade. The struggle would be different now, with larger formations of Volunteers attempting to attack larger formations of the Crown forces. The West Cork Brigade would eventually put a flying column of slightly over one hundred men in the field, the largest flying column in Ireland.

(Right: These Volunteers were from the 1st Cork Brigade, but are typical of the sort of young men Barry had to mould into soldiers.)

In August he took his first group of men into the hills for training. Now that he had been given a position of authority, he was not afraid to wield that power. Having been in the British army, Barry knew full well how badly the odds were stacked against them, and he drove them hard to get ready for the extreme danger and hardships he knew were coming.

Not long after this training began, Charlie Hurley, commander of the West Cork Brigade, recognizing the qualities Barry would later demonstrate in the field, named him commander of the flying column. The column would often include brigade officers who technically out ranked Barry, but while the flying column was in the field, he would command everyone in it. “The men had the courage, they had the idealism in their souls, all they needed was the spark to ignite, and Barry provided that spark,” said one of the men in the column.

Barry would operate his column with one goal above all others. The major goal was not to inflict major casualties on the enemy, though he certainly wanted to do that. His main goal was to insure the column continued to exist in the field. It was the “Army of the People” he said, and as long as it continued to exist, the British were losing. He was a naturally aggressive person, and was ready to attack when he believed he could do so with the greatest odds of success, but he was determined to avoid a disastrous defeat at all costs.

(Left: The Essex Regiment's barracks in Bandon.)

As summer waned and autumn approached, Barry was ready to put the West Cork flying column into action for the first time. But he first attempted one objective that was personal. The portion of the Essex Regiment  that was stationed in Bandon was commanded by Major Arthur Percival. They were getting a reputation for ruthlessly torturing prisoners, and burning Irish homes and businesses, and had recently murdered a prisoner. Barry went into Bandon with one other Volunteer intent on shooting Percival, but he didn’t come down the street at the spot and time expected. Percival is famous today as the general who surrendered Singapore to the Japanese in 1941, the largest surrender of British troops in history. For the rest of his life Barry actively despised Percival and whenever the subject of Percival came up he enjoyed bringing up that surrender, and mentioning that the Japanese force he surrendered to was much smaller than his own.

On October 22 Barry and the flying column made their first successful ambush on Crown forces at Toureen. Though a failed mine allowed one truck load of Essex Regiment troops to pass, the second was stopped and attacked. Failed explosives would plague the column for many months The British suffered five killed, four wounded and six soldiers surrendered. Significantly, given later accusations about the Kilmichael ambush, the six were released. They were told to inform Percival that if the torture and murder of prisoners by the Essex Regiment continued, the men of his regiment might not be treated as humanely in the future.

(Below: A burned Crosley Tender at Kilmichael.)

About a month later, on November 28, Barry would command what is arguably the most famous IRA attack of the War of Independence at Kilmichael (click to see map of location). A force of the hated Auxiliaries, mostly former British army officers serving as a part of the RIC, was stationed in Macroom. Nearly every day a group of them traveled down the same road from there south to Dunmanway. Being that predictable while fighting a guerilla war is foolish, but the Auxiliaries, who had been destroying property, harassing civilians, and murdering Volunteers “trying to escape” with impunity since arriving in Ireland, and who had recently helped defeat the highly trained Imperial German army, were probably contemptuous of the military prowess of the Volunteers. Some of them would not live to regret that mistake.

At a lonely spot on the winding road through Kilmichael the Auxiliaries arrogant disregard for their enemy led them to disaster. Seventeen Auxiliaries were killed in the ambush and one was seriously wounded and survived. In the press the British disingenuously referred to these dead Auxiliaries as “cadets,” to attempt to make it appear the Irish Volunteers had “murdered” a group of young, innocent lads in uniform. Of course, they were actually well-trained and heavily armed WWI veterans who had been sent to Ireland to coerce the population in to "loyalty."

(Below: The site of the Kilmichael ambush.)

The IRA had three men killed. One Auxiliary named Cecil Guthrie escaped but was captured and killed shortly afterwards near Annahala. He is believed to be the man who murdered civilian James Lehane in Ballymakeera on October 17th and later bragged about it in a pub. The debate about whether a false surrender by the Auxiliaries caused their near total annihilation or not has swirled for years since then. Given their own conduct in Ireland, which included torture and numerous cold blooded murders of prisoners, it would certainly be understandable if the Volunteers were not inclined to treat them with mercy. Barry, however, had captured and released prisoners already before this at Toureen, and would do so again in the future, so he clearly did not have a policy of taking no prisoners.

As happened after many ambushes of Crown forces all over the island during the war, local residents suffered greatly in the aftermath. The Auxiliaries burned down all the homes in the immediate area of the ambush along with several others nearby, though they had no knowledge that any of those people took any part in the attack. They notoriously burned down a large portion of Cork two weeks later, motivated by Kilmichael and other IRA attacks. Those criminal actions by the “police” were not officially sanctioned by the British government at that time, but in January 1921 such reprisals actually were authorized by the government. They also began to sometimes force Irish hostages to ride as human shields in their convoys. There is no evidence that any of this ever had any effect other than intensifying support for the war among the Irish public. On December 9th the British implemented martial law in the counties of Cork, Kerry, Limerick and Tipperary.

Barry suffered some temporary heart problems shortly after Kilmichael, perhaps from the tension of that ambush and escape, and spent nearly a month in the hospital. He was back in January 1921 but the column was frustrated by failed explosives on several attempted barracks attacks and ambushes on roads where expected Crown forces didn’t arrive. As the weather warmed up later in the year, however, so would the fighting, and Barry and his flying column would be in the middle of a lot of it.

(Right: A group of West Cork Brigade prisoners with a British soldier on the left and an RIC constable on the right in Bandon.)

The first half of February was devastating for the West Cork Brigade. They lost eleven Volunteers in a twelve day period, most famously three at an ambush at Upton. They lost four more when a
group that was cutting a trench to close a road in Crois na Leanbh got surprised by members of the reviled Essex Regiment, who seemed to seldom take any prisoners. At this point Barry had issued an order to his men to show no quarter to any member of that regiment. Several soldiers of King’s Liverpool Regiment had recently been captured and released by him in Skibbereen. Their commanding officer, Co. Hudson, was considered an honorable opponent by Barry, unlike Percival, so this was once again not a blanket policy toward all Crown forces.

(Left: Major Arthur Percival, the CO of the 1st Battalion, Essex Regiment, Bandon.)

Other members of the Brigade were lost in small incidents or caught up in raids in early February, which Barry and others came to believe was the work of informers in the area. It would not be a tremendous loss for a large national army, but for the West Cork Brigade, continuing losses like this would be ruinous. None of these actions had involved the flying column, so Barry had only been present for one of the deaths (an accidental shooting), but he realized these losses couldn’t continue. Still, he decided that he needed to make a defiant show of force in Bandon, the HQ’s of the Essex Regiment and thus the heart of British rule in west Cork.

He led a small patrol into the town and killed four Black & Tans of the curfew patrol on the night of February 23rd, personally running down and shooting the last one. They had captured two naval officers during this action and Barry released them with a message for Major Percival: from this point, unless the torture and murder of Volunteers by his regiment ceased, the West Cork Brigade would no longer treat men of his regiment as soldiers. He wanted Percival to know it was an official policy that his men would be given no quarter.

It was also during this period of late January through February that Barry and the other leaders of the West Cork Brigade put into action a plan to retaliate against known informers in the area. Twelve were killed through the end of February and four more before the truce was signed in July. Barry believed these informers had caused nine deaths of Volunteers between mid-January and mid-February. After the Volunteers removal of many of these informers, and no doubt scaring others into inaction, only seven members of the West Cork Brigade died under similar circumstances in the last three months of the war.

(Right: A postcard labeled "Dunboy Castle. It is actually Puxley Manor near Clonmere, which was burned by the West Cork Brigade in June 1921.)

Another change in the war came in January. After the British officially authorized reprisal burning of Irish homes, something that had been going on “unofficially” for months, Barry and the West Cork Brigade began burning down many large estates owned by Unionists in retaliation. And this policy had the desired effect, as the huge homes of rich, politically influential Loyalists were worth far more than an Irish cottage. On June 6th the British rescinded their reprisal order. As Barry famously said after the war, “they had gone down in the mire to destroy us and down after them we had to go.”

In March, Barry put the largest flying column of the war into the field in West Cork, 104 men. The Crown forces were traveling in ever larger groups, and he believed he had to increase the size of the flying column if he was going to effectively attack them. But the larger the force, the harder it is to supply it and to hide from a superior foe. The British did get wind of their approximate location and prepared to surround and destroy them, but it was from information obtained from a Volunteer prisoner. As they closed in on him, on March 19th, Barry and his column would fight the largest ambush battle of the war at Crossbarry, which is just north of the main Bandon - Cork City road.

Around 2:30 AM Barry got word that scouts could see the lights of British lorries moving in from the east, west and south with forces that would surely outnumber his by many hundreds. He anticipated, correctly, that others not yet seen were probably moving in from the north as well. In fact there were possibly as many as twelve hundred soldiers and Auxiliaries closing in on his hundred man force.

(Right: A map of the Crossbarry Ambush. Click on it for a larger view.)

A lesser man might have thought only of retreat. Barry knew they were in grave danger of the thing he most feared, total destruction of the column, but he realized he had the “interior lines” between these encircling forces. He knew if he tried to run they might be caught in the open and be in danger of suffering severe casualties or even being annihilated as the circle drew tighter. But he saw their best chance of avoiding that to be his opportunity to attack several units of the advancing and separated forces individually from good defensive positions while they could not yet support each other. Doing that, he might not only escape, but also defeat the British on the battlefield. If he could do that it would demoralize them and invigorate the Irish cause all over the island. Still, with only about 40 round of ammo per man, there was great risk.

Barry’s victory at Kilmichael was a well planned and executed ambush, but his performance in command of the victory at Crossbarry, a battle forced on him by surprise, where he had to improvise quickly against a far larger force, was truly brilliant. He spread out his group with five sections along the main road and two guarding his flanks and rear. Barry told the commanders of each of his seven fourteen man sections to hold at all costs, and he would have help headed to the sound of the guns. This could only work if they were not attacked on all fronts at once, but he was confident they wouldn’t be.

Expecting the force coming from the west, who would be the hated Essex, would arrive first, he set up his men to attack that prong first, while also guarding his flanks. They did arrive first, around 8 AM, and the flying column routed them with a little help from bagpiper Flor Begley, who played throughout this first part of the battle. It was, and will likely remain, the last use of the “war pipes” in a battle in Ireland. The men who fought there felt it inspired them and never forgot it. Tom Kelleher, who commanded one of the sections of the ambush said, "that man's music was more effective than twenty rifles". For the rest of his days Begley would be known as “The Piper of Crossbarry.”

(Left: Barry, front and center, with several of his old comrades at the Crossbarry Monument, which was dedicated in 1966. Flor Begley, "The Piper of Crossbarry," is at the top, right.)

No sooner had the fighting in the west ended than firing was heard in the east, where troops were attacking coming from Cork on the road from the east and Kinsale on the road to the south. Collecting their haul of weapons from first action, including a Lewis machine gun, Barry moved east quickly to their support as he had promised and beat back both those assaults. Then he rushed the entire column north to reinforce Kelleher’s section in the northeast, routing the last attackers coming from Ballincollig in the north with several volleys from his entire hundred man force. He then made his escape to the northwest, where a force of Auxiliaries had gone to the wrong location and left a route open. Using his interior line position and well selected defensive positions he had beaten back several hundred troops over the course of about two hours by constantly massing his smaller forces against the separate British units. Barry had lost three dead and four wounded. The British army attempted to downplay their losses, but British papers reported it to be anywhere from thirty-five to thirty-nine dead and over forty wounded. Many think it was the Volunteers most impressive victory of war.

Barry was not done in the month of March. In the early morning hours of the 31st he attacked the RIC barracks in Rosscarbery. He had a new explosives expert, a former soldier in the British army, and this time their mine and explosives worked and the barracks was captured and destroyed. One of the British reprisals for that attack was the burning of the home of Michael Collins family. In Dublin Collins had decided he needed to meet this man who was driving the British to distraction in his own home area of west Cork.

(Right: A photo of Barry after the burning of the Rosscarbery RIC barracks.)

In May Barry traveled to Dublin to confer with the Sinn Fein leaders, including De Valera and Collins. He was now one of the most wanted men in Ireland, so he traveled undercover pretending to be a medical student. He found he liked and respected both men, and he would not lose that respect for Collins even when they ended up on opposite sides in the Civil War. On his return to Co. Cork he ran into an Essex Regiment road block and literally came face to face with Major Percival who bought his cover story and released him. Barry must have relished telling that anecdote for the rest of his life.

In late May the British, in what was clearly an indication of how much they feared Barry and his flying column, ran what was probably their biggest operation of the war, using thousands of troops sweeping across west Cork trying to pin them against the sea. Decades later in Vietnam the US army would call similar operations a “search and destroy” mission. They very nearly succeeded in doing just that north of Bantry, but the local officer’s knowledge of the mountainous region on the Cork-Kerry border allowed them to escape this massive British dragnet. Though no battle was fought, it was a victory for the West Cork Brigade, for they had achieved Barry’s #1 goal and remained intact and in the field.

Barry and his flying column did not engage in another major battle before the truce was declared on July 11th. The West Cork Flying Column and their audacious leader had certainly been one of the most active and effective IRA units of the war. It’s an indication of how much respect Collins had for Barry, that he had him travel to London during the negotiations. He told the other members of the committee that they wouldn’t be there if it were not for Barry. But Collins did not follow Barry’s advice, which was to reject partition and free state status.

(Left: Barry, front and center, and Kilmichael veterans at the ambush site in 1966.)

Not surprisingly, Barry took the Republican side in the Civil War and was arrested early on. He was in prison when Collins, whose memory Barry would continue to honor the rest of his life, was killed. He recalled that many of the Republican prisoners knelt and prayed for the soul of their former comrade in arms. Barry was lucky that he escaped shorty after that because many imprisoned Republican leaders were executed later.

The Irish War of Independence was fought on a far smaller scale than some other such wars, like the American Revolution. So Barry never commanded what would amount to more than a company in modern military terms. But he did that against a far superior force in training, size, and armaments which also had far greater mobility with motorized vehicles and he totally frustrated that enemy with their inability to pin him down and defeat him. The problems the British had attempting to beat him in west Cork, in spite of the huge number of military and police put into the fight there, surely must have been one of the factors that finally convinced them to give up the fight.

In 1949 Barry publish one of the classic books of the Irish War of Independence, "Guerilla Days in Ireland." He attended many commemorations and monument dedications around Ireland in the later years of his life (photo below), before he passed away in 1980. When the old veterans would get together in pubs afterwards and get to singing rebel songs after “a few jars,” Barry’s “party piece” was often "Down by the Glenside (The Bold Fenian Men)." He liked it, perhaps, because he felt it honored his old comrades with the line “We may have great men … but we’ll never have better.” It’s a line that certainly could be applied to Barry himself. His name should live forever in the hearts of the Irish people in the nation he fought so hard to free. 


Boys of Kilmichael - song

The Third West Cork Brigade - song

Guerilla Days in Ireland - Tom Barry - video

Essex Regiment Suffer Defeat at Toureen Ambush

Guerilla Days in Ireland - Review

(Left: Ned Young, one of West Cork Volunteers. He was the last living Kilmichael veteran, dying on Nov 13 1989)

More on the Irish War of Independence

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The Tourmakeady Ambush: Shrouded By the “Fog of War” in Mayo

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Cataclysm in Cork: The Battle of Clonmult

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Tom Barry: 'We May Have Great Men, But We’ll Never Have Better'

The Battle of Crossbarry: ... 'Who Piped Old Ireland Free'

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The Forgotten Ten:


Barry, Thomas: Guerilla Days in Ireland

Ryan, Meda: Tom Barry IRA Freedom Fighter

Butler, Ewan: Barry's Flying Column

Begley, Diarmuid: The Road to Crossbarry

O' Conchubhair, Brian: Rebel Cork's Fighting Story, 1916 - 1921

Coogan, Tim Pat: Michael Collins: The Man Who Made Ireland

Bennett, Richard: The Black and Tans

(Right: A Black & Tan on the street with a Lewis machine gun.)

Views: 7486

Tags: Crossbarry, Irish Freedom Struggle, Irish War of Independence, Kilmichael, Tom Barry

Comment by Joe Gannon on June 27, 2016 at 11:33am

Frank, many, many IRA veterans who took the anti-treaty side during the Civil War emigrated to the US after they lost that war. A number of them returned after de Valera and Fianna Fáil took over the government in 1932. But many of them were very disappointed with that government when they returned as well. That period in the 30's, and return of one of those IRA veterans, was the focus of the Ken Loach film "Jimmy's Hall." If you haven't seen it yet, it's probably available on DVD now, or from one of the online services if you have one. Here's a review of it: 

Comment by Joe Gannon on June 27, 2016 at 11:58am

When I was reading Meda Ryan's book regarding the time when Barry's Flying Column was fleeing the massive dragnet the British had searching for him late May of 1921, she describe how that last night before they escaped the British trap through the mountains was spent hiding out in the Coomhola area, just south of the Cork - Kerry border. That night, as was often the case when the Flying Column was on the move, various residents in the area took in members for night. When my wife and I went to west Cork on vacation a few years ago, we had rented a very old cottage in that area. So as I read this I realized that it's possible that some of the members of that column might have slept in the same cottage in 1921. We've stay in many very old cottages around from Donegal, down the west coast and all the way around to Co. Wicklow over the last decade now, and I always wonder about the stories those cottage might be able to tell if they could speak. This was definitely one of the ones I'd love to "hear" from. 

Comment by Joe Gannon on June 12, 2017 at 11:14am

3rd West Cork Brigade - Declan Hunt

Comment by Joe Gannon on March 3, 2018 at 3:56pm


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