The political significance of the Crossbarry Ambush

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28/07/2021 by socialistfight

By Gerry Downing

Tom Barry, IRA leader at Crossbarry

They sought to wipe the column out,
From east to west, from north to south,
“Till at Crossbarry’s bloody rout
They woke from their day dreaming
Though ten to one they were that day
Our boys were victors in the fray,
And over the hills we marched away
With bagpipes merrily screaming.
* From: The Men of Barry’s Column

 

Crossbarry, a hundred years ago (19 March 1921), was the decisive battle that caused the British to sue for peace in the Truce (11 July 1921). Far from being near defeat as the Treatyites later claimed (which has become the official history) the IRA was growing in strength and confidence not only here but in all Ireland, notably in the west, in Tipperary, Wexford, Kilkenny and elsewhere in Leinster.

What was so worrying for the British military about Crossbarry was the engagement was not just an ambush but it had the features of a real war engagement. And other areas of Ireland were also developing this capacity. Just two days later, on March 21, the Kerry IRA attacked a train at Headford junction near Killarney. Twenty British soldiers were killed or injured (9 killed, 11 injured), as well as two IRA men and three civilians. And Liam Mellows was doing likewise in the midlands.

The autumn and winter of 1920 saw escalating conflicts. On November 21, IRA units in Dublin launched a mass assassination attack on British Intelligence officers, killing 14 men, of whom at least 8 were Intelligence Officers. In revenge, a force of RIC Black and Tans and Auxiliaries shot dead 15 civilians at a football match in Dublin’s Croke Park, on Bloody Sunday. A week later, November 28, a patrol of 17 Auxiliaries was wiped out by the IRA in Kilmichael in west Cork. Shortly after that the centre of Cork city centre was burned by the British army.

The British only went for the Truce because they feared outright defeat. And not only in Ireland was the struggle fought. The huge London turn out for Terence MacSwiney’s funeral was a result of great class conflicts in Britain itself the outcome of which was uncertain.

Black Friday, in British labour history, refers to 15 April 1921, when the leaders of transport and rail unions announced a decision not to call for strike action in support of the miners. The epithet ‘black’ derives from a widespread feeling amongst labour radicals that the decision amounted to a breach of solidarity and a betrayal of the miners.

But there was great support for the IRA amongst ordinary workers there and big opposition to the Black and Tans. Fighting on two fronts was a dangerous tactic, hence the truce. And the confusion at Crossbarry was because many of those British soldiers did not see the IRA as their main enemy and so did not fight like the IRA did.

Unfortunately treacherous Labour and trade union leaders like Thomas sold out the Triple Alliance offensive on Black Friday and the Treatites sold out the Republic. Divide and conquer triumphed but it was a close run thing.

These are the lessons of Crossbarry as I understand them.

On 21 July 1920 posters summoned ‘Unionist and Protestant’ workers to a mass meeting in Belfast. The notices came from the Belfast Protestant Association and some 5,000 people assembled outside Workman Clark’s yard. The expulsion of ‘non-loyal’ workers from the shipyards and engineering works was demanded. Enflamed by loyalist rhetoric the crowd became an angry mob armed with revolvers, clubs and sledgehammers which they used to force their way into Harland and Wolff shipyard. They sought out Catholic workers and drove them from the yard; a small number of socialists and Protestant trade unionists were also expelled (the ‘Rotten Prods’ of Loyalist propaganda). Some workers had to jump into the River Lagan to escape. They were pelted with ‘Belfast confetti’ consisting of rivets and sharp metal shards. Workers were severely beaten and many were hospitalised.

In May 1921, Ireland was partitioned under British law by the Government of Ireland Act, which created Northern Ireland. A ceasefire (or ‘truce’) began on 11 July 1921. The post-ceasefire talks led to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on 6 December 1921.

The failure of the British efforts to put down the guerrillas was illustrated by the events of “Black Whitsun” on 13–15 May 1921. A general election for the Parliament of Southern Ireland was held on 13 May. Sinn Féin won 124 of the new parliament’s 128 seats unopposed, but its elected members refused to take their seats.

Under the terms of the Government of Ireland Act 1920, the Parliament of Southern Ireland was therefore dissolved, and executive and legislative authority over Southern Ireland was effectively transferred to the Lord Lieutenant (assisted by Crown appointees). Over the next two days (14–15 May), the IRA killed fifteen policemen. These events marked the complete failure of the British Coalition Government’s Irish policy—both the failure to enforce a settlement without negotiating with Sinn Féin and a failure to defeat the IRA.

Of course with the Truce in July and the Treaty in December 1921 it was clear that the Sinn Féin leaders themselves were willing to compromise on Britain’s terms. They had no political desire for an outright victory over imperialism nor was the political alternative offered by Éamonn de Valera’s in Document No 2 during the Treaty debates substantially different from that compromise.


James McVeigh’s book on Joe McKelvey, Goodbye, Dearest Heart.
 

And the majority of those who really sought victory over British imperialism and fought on for it in the Civil War after the Treaty had no vision to what it would need politically. Those few who did, left republicans like Liam Mellows and Joe McKelvie, became increasing sympathetic towards the revolutionary message of the tiny Communist Party of Ireland, led by James Connolly’s son Roddy and Sean McLaughlin. But Mellows and McKelvie were shot with Rory O’Connor and Richard Barrett on December 8 1922, prisoners of war summarily executed without trial in a reprisal shooting, of course a war crime.

They surely picked the most politically advanced and therefore dangerous prisoners to execute to secure their relationship with the Empire. They was no longer an inspiring fight against British imperialism to inspire the British working class to fight themselves against that same enemy. There was no ‘new and more powerful leadership’ for them to rally to; the new CPGB was too small and too politically confused to provide that. ▲

Appendix:

A major victory for the IRA: The Crossbarry Ambush

Gerry White, Irish Examiner 16-3-21

Conclusion

While accounts of the Crossbarry ambush may differ, there can be no doubt that it was a major victory for the IRA. It was also a victory that can be attributed to the incompetence of the crown forces and the performance of the flying column.

A successful cordon and search operation requires proper planning and careful co-ordination. This was clearly lacking at Crossbarry. In recalling the battle, Tom Barry described it as: “A composite victory of one hundred and four officers and men banded together as disciplined comrades. No genius of leadership or no prowess of any officer or man was responsible, for all shared in the effort that shocked the confidence of the British authorities in the power of their armed forces.”

However, much of the credit for the victory must also go to Tom Barry. With command comes responsibility and as commander of the column he was ultimately responsible for all of its operations, successful or otherwise. This was a responsibility he never shirked.

Liam Deasy later described Barry as a “strict disciplinarian and a good strategist” and “a leader of unsurpassed bravery, who was in the thick of every fight, and as oblivious of personal risk that his men felt it an honour to follow him”.

In his weekly report to the British cabinet, General Macready, commander of British Forces in Ireland, described the action at Crossbarry as “the nearest approach to actual warfare, as contrasted with ambushes, that has yet occurred”.

The ‘History of the 6th Division’ was correct when it stated that, if the result had been different, “the action might quite easily have had decisive results as regards rebel activity in West Cork”.

By fighting its way out of Crossbarry, the flying column lived to fight another day and in doing so, it would continue to pose a serious threat to British rule in West Cork. ▲

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