Tom Barry



General Thomas (Tom) Barry (1 July 1897 – 2 July 1980) was one of the most prominent guerrilla leaders in the Irish Republican Army during the Irish War of Independence.

Tom Barry was born in Killorglin, County Kerry. He was the son of a Royal Irish Constabulary policeman. Four years later, Thomas Barry Senior resigned and opened a business in his hometown of Rosscarbery, County Cork.

Barry was educated for a period at Mungret College, County Limerick from 25 August 1911 to 12 September 1912. The reason for his short stay is indicated by a reference from the school register of the Apostolic School, Mungret College; 'Went - Home (ran away) without knowledge of superiors - no vocation'.

In 1915, during World War 1, he enlisted in the Royal Field Artillery at Cork and became a soldier in the British Army.

In his own words he said:

In June, in my seventeenth year, I had decided to see what this Great War was like. I cannot plead I went on the advice of John Redmond or any other politician, that if we fought for the British we would secure Home Rule for Ireland, nor can I say I understood what Home Rule meant. I was not influenced by the lurid appeal to fight to save Belgium or small nations. I knew nothing about nations, large or small. 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.”

He fought in Mesopotamia (then part of the Ottoman Empire, present day Iraq). He rose to the rank of sergeant.  Tom Barry was then offered a commission in the Royal Munster Fusiliers but refused it.] While outside Kut-el-Amara Barry first heard of the Easter Rising. Barry called it a "rude awakening".

Following the Easter Rising of 1916, which ultimately became buried in mythology, events took their predictable course. Great roaring fires of patriotism banked up as the British executed the principle leaders, imprisoned others and imposed martial law.

The Easter Uprising began a process of reappraisal in Barry's mind. The victory of the Republicans in the elections of 1918 and the proclamation of Dail Eireann, establishing the de facto government of Ireland in January 1919, further enhanced and solidified Barry's national consciousness. 

On his return to Cork he was involved with ex-servicemen's organisations. Barry approached members of the Volunteers (the IRA guerillas) in his native West Cork to offer his services and subsequently in 1920 he joined the 3rd (West) Cork Brigade of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) which was then engaged in the Irish War of Independence (1919–1921).

He was involved in brigade council meetings, became brigade-training officer, flying column commander and was consulted by IRA General Headquarters Staff (GHQ), and also participated in the formation of the IRA First Southern Division.

Barry describes the influence of the British ascendancy in Bandon, a town in West Cork, beginning with the "Big House". The main residence of the Earl of Bandon. From this residence extended the local network of Irish collaborators, those farmers who received the crumbs from the Earl of Bandon's table. 

A smaller number of big farmers and merchants, says Barry, aspired to join the British loyalist network. However, it was no secret that the British authority rested primarily on coercion.

In Bandon alone, British police and military forces numbered 3000. One of the largest garrisons in West Cork was located in Bandon, and the Black and Tans (a terrorist force made up mainly of British ex-servicemen) commandeered a hotel in Bandon as well.

The forces of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) were omnipresent also. All these forces had battle experience, were well trained in the most modern weaponry and were habituated to bloodshed.

Barry was attached to the Third (West) Cork Brigade as a training officer in 1920, mainly because of his experience. The West Cork Volunteers had no military experience or training, were unfamiliar with modern armaments and had no tactical training.

They had little ammunition, no barracks and no media with which to publicise and explain their objectives. They faced an enemy with superior numbers and firepower.

The Volunteers decided to form a flying column. This formation was a guerilla unit, living off the land and relying on the sympathies of the local population, choosing the time and location of its attacks and avoiding suicidal losses. 

The flying column continually harassed the enemy forces and undermined the attempts to rebuild its battered civil administration. Barry became the commander of the West Cork flying column in 1920.

The Flying Column proved that the Irish population was far from subdued, and had the skill and military expertise to inflict substantial losses on British forces. The "invincible" Black and Tans, RIC units and British troops, hitherto terrorising and intimidating the population with impunity, now faced a disciplined and dedicated rebel force.

One of the main targets for IRA attacks was the network of spies and informers that the British ascendancy had carefully built up over the years of occupation. Barry says, "These were the bloodhounds who nosed out the victims for the British murder gangs". Wiping out this network of spies demoralised the RIC and removed a serious threat to the existence of the flying column.

The British press portrayed the Volunteers as a gang of ruthless and vicious killers. But as Barry explains, the IRA treated honourably those units of the British army that did not murder or maltreat Irish prisoners. 

For example, members of the King's Liverpool Regiment, which behaved reasonably towards Irish Volunteer prisoners, were left unmolested when unarmed or off duty, but no such mercy was shown to members of the Essex, which was ruthless towards Irish prisoners and murdered and tortured.

The West Cork Volunteers had to contend with a particularly vicious instrument of terrorism — what Barry calls the "fire terror".

From 1920, arson gangs accompanied the British forces on their raids into rebellious Irish territory. The arson gangs would burn down the houses of farmers, workers and labourers who had sheltered Irish Volunteers. All those suspected of sympathies with the IRA were the targets of arson attacks.

It was intended that arson would deprive the Volunteers of active support from the local population. The British military commander in West Cork received a message from the West Cork flying column that for every Republican home burned, two British Loyalists' homes would be burned in retaliation.

The British continued to burn the houses of IRA sympathisers. The West Cork Volunteers retaliated by burning loyalist residences. As Barry explains, this strategy was costly and the Irish people suffered. However, "If the Republicans of West Cork were to be homeless and without shelter, then so too, would be the British supporters".

As the West Cork Volunteers intended, howls of protest were heard from the loyalists; while farmers and labourers would lose houses worth only a few hundred pounds, the giant, stately residences of the British ascendancy, costing thousands of pounds, were being razed. The British policy of arson was never officially stopped, but it was muted after the IRA's counter-measures took effect.

The West Cork Brigade became famous for its discipline, efficiency and bravery, and Barry garnered a reputation as the most brilliant field commander of the war.

The Kilmichael Ambush on 28 November 1920 was, a turning point of the war as the Auxiliaries, previously thought "invincible", were defeated by an IRA column - a fact which had a very negative impact on British morale. 

The "Auxies" as they were called, became the modern version of Oliver Cromwell. They functioned independently from the RIC and the military. Their ranks were filled with ex-army officers from the Great war. The British government believed because of there previous experience as officers, they would be more tempered, thus making them good law enforcers. In contradiction, the documented atrocities they committed against the Irish people was most despicable.

On 28 November 1920, Barry's unit ambushed and killed almost a whole platoon of the British Auxiliaries at Kilmichael, County Cork.

Tom Barry and his Flying Column taught the "Auxies" a lesson in military tactics and sent a message to London, your Auxies are not the answer you are looking for, relative to "putting the Irish people in their place." The ambush on November 28 was a masterpiece of military planning.

In March 1921 The Commandant of the West Cork Brigade, again, achieved an extremely significant victory at Crossbarry, situated about twelve miles south-west of Cork city. 

The engagement began as a huge encircling operation by the British forces involving the Hampshire Regiment (Cork), the Essex Regiment (Bandon & Kinsale), and the infamous Auxiliaries from Macroom, one thousand, one hundred and twenty seasoned troops facing 104 civilian soldiers.

The British operation was based on intelligence they had received which suggested that the operational location of the West Cork Brigade headquarters was situated in the Ballymurphy area. When Tom Barry was made aware of the British military presence in the area he had to make a decision, stand and fight or retire and attempt to evade action.           

It wasn't an easy decision, because any section could be caught while retiring, possibly with heavy casualties as a consequence. The shortage of ammunition, each member of the Flying Column had only forty rounds when the battle commenced and that was a major concern, however, Barry had to plan and plan quickly, ultimately making the decision to stay and fight.

Speaking to the column he outlined his plan, stating he would smash one side of the encirclement on the Crossbarry road and then deal with the others. He stated, "no man or section was to retire from their position, and all were assured that they would be quickly reinforced if and when attacked." 

The one hundred and four IRA men were divided into six sections in the form of a triangle on one side of the road, with section seven at the other side of the road Communication between Barry as Column Commander and the other officers and the various sections was to be maintained by runners.

From the beginning of the fighting Flor Begley, the brigade piper, played martial airs on his war pipes in Harold's farmyard and continued to play while the firing lasted.

Volunteers who fought at Crossbarry, spoke later of the way the piper spurred them on to greater effort. Tom Kelleher often said over the years that followed, "that man's music was more effective than twenty rifles".

The piper also had an effect on the morale of the British troops. They would have associated a piper with a battalion in their army, and consequently would have thought that there were many more volunteers present than there really were.

Liam Deasy, writing some forty years later, says in his book "Towards Ireland Free" that "this was Begleys finest hour and will always be remembered as "The Piper Of Crossbarry".

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The end result at Crossbarry was a major victory for the West Cork Brigade. It has been documented as the largest and most important battle in West Cork, if not in Ireland, during the Anglo-Irish war.

It was a demoralizing defeat for British occupation forces. Needless to say, the British conducted widespread reprisals in the aftermath of their defeat at Crossbarry.

The official account of British casualties was thirty-nine soldiers killed, including five officers and forty-seven wounded although some subsequent reports stated that British losses were far greater.

In total, the British Army stationed over 12,500 troops in County Cork during the conflict, while Barry's men numbered no more than 310. Eventually, Barry's tactics made West Cork ungovernable for the British authorities.

The British, previously operating in the countryside with arrogant impunity, were now forced to shelter in their barracks. Performing only large-scale raiding operations, they would comb a particular area and quickly retire to their fortresses.

The British were isolated within the ocean of a hostile population. Farmers and workers would inform the West Cork Volunteers of enemy troop movements, railway workers monitored dispatches, doctors treated wounded and sick Volunteers, the flying column, marching across the countryside, would be housed and fed by poor farm labourers, the shopkeepers sheltered IRA Volunteers as the British searched for them.

"They said I was ruthless, daring, savage, blood thirsty, even heartless. The clergy called me and my comrades murderers; but the British were met with their own weapons. They had gone in the mire to destroy us and our nation and down after them we had to go." 

After the Battle of Crossbarry, Lloyd George realized that the "Irish question" required another approach other than force. A combination of the finding of an investigation into the Irish situation, and the IRA's success in the field prompted London to suggest a truce, July 11, 1921. After six months a document was prepared and referred to as, "The Articles of Agreement for a Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland" and was signed at 2:10 am, December 6th, 1921.

During the negotiations that preceded the Truce that ended the war, the British had demanded that Barry be handed over to them before progress could be made on other matters. Michael Collins refused, although he afterwards jokingly told his fellow Cork men that he had been sorely tempted.

Barry opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 6 December 1921, because, according to him, it betrayed the Irish Republic and partitioned Ireland. He fought on the Republican side in the Irish Civil War (1922–1923) and was imprisoned by the Irish Free State after the Battle of Dublin in July 1922.

Barry had voiced the opinion that, at the start of the Civil War, while the Republican side was stronger, they should have taken over Dublin and the major cities and forced a new confrontation with the British.

In September of that year, however, he escaped from an internment camp at Gormaston in County Meath and traveled south, to take command of the anti-Treaty IRA Second Southern Division. 

In November 1922, he led his men in the capture of a string of towns across the province of Munster, including Carrick on Suir, Thomastown and Mullinavat, taking the Free State garrison there prisoner. However, due to a shortage of men and equipment, he was unable to hold these places, evacuating them before National Army reinforcements arrived.

After this point, Barry increasingly argued with Liam Lynch, the Republican commander in chief, that the Civil War should be brought to an end, as there was no hope of victory.

In March, Barry proposed to the IRA Army executive that a ceasefire should be called, but he was defeated by 6 votes to 5. The anti-treaty campaign was belatedly called off by Frank Aiken in May, after Lynch had been killed in a skirmish with Free State troops. Barry was arrested shortly before Aiken's order to "dump arms", on 24 May 1923.

Throughout the 1920s he was regarded as a potential rival by the IRA and was thought to be involved in IRB-linked efforts to form independent republican groups based in Cork.

Barry did not actually rejoin the IRA until late 1932, after Fianna Fáil had come to power in that year’s general election. Initially he engaged in talks between de Valera and the IRA in order to secure IRA support for the government; when this effort failed he reapplied to join the IRA.

After some discussion the IRA leadership felt that Barry’s reputation would be an asset to them and accepted his application. However, he made it clear that he was both sympathetic to Fianna Fáil and opposed to the IRA’s adoption of left-wing social policies.

While he later became more critical of the government and was jailed by it during 1935, he told his colleagues that if de Valera declared a republic in the 26 counties the IRA would have no right to oppose it militarily.

Ironically, during this period Frank Aiken of Fianna Fáil publicly revealed that Barry had wanted the IRA to disarm in 1923 and accused him of ‘running around trying to make peace’ while his comrades had been fighting the Free State government.

In 1937, he succeeded Sean MacBride as chief of staff. Barry claimed that they had sabotaged a planned IRA offensive in Northern Ireland. Barry would assert in later life that he opposed both the 1930s bombing campaign in England and IRA contacts with Nazi Germany.

In fact, in January 1937 he had taken a trip to Germany seeking German support, which was assured to him subject to the condition that the IRA limit its actions to British military installations once war was declared.

Financing was to be arranged through the Clann Na Gael in the USA. The Army Convention in April 1938 adopted Sean Russell`s Plan instead. Barry resigned as chief of staff as a result, but remained in contact with German agents at least to February 1939.

In 1940, Barry was made responsible for Intelligence in the Irish Army's Southern Command, a position he held, with the rank of Commandant, for the duration of World War 11. In 1941 he was denounced by the IRA for writing for the Irish Army's journal, "An Cosantóir".

He was an unsuccessful candidate at the 1946 Cork Borough by-election. Barry was supportive of the Provisional IRA campaign but expressed reservations about some of their tactics.

In 1949, Barry published his memoirs of the Irish War of Independence, Guerilla Days in Ireland. It describes his Brigade's exploits such as the ambushes at Kilmichael and Crossbarry, as well as numerous other less known actions which were directed against the British Army, Black and Tans, the Auxiliary Division and the Royal Irish Constabulary. 

It became a classic account of the war and an influential guide on guerrilla warfare. Barry took part in a fiftieth anniversary commemoration of Kilmichael on 9 August 1970.

In 1976 he refused to sign a letter of support for republican prisoners, arguing that the Provisional IRA had lost support because of its own recent activities, activities that he as an old IRA man could not countenance. The correspondence is undated but it is  suspect it was written in the aftermath of the Kingsmills killings of January that year.

Barry berated those IRA commanders that were lax in taking the fight to the enemy. Many areas of Ireland were passive, and bad leadership certainly played its role. Barry admits that "some Battalions never caused a single casualty to the British during the whole Anglo-Irish conflict".

Barry could perhaps have elaborated more on the cliques that took shape within the Irish revolutionary movement, something he calls "the great curse of every National and Revolutionary movement". He does not explain the political problems these cliques created within the revolutionary movement.

Finally, Barry certainly remained strongly republican all his life but he was both openly and privately critical of the Provisional IRA. He felt that an Ireland ‘free and overflowing with milk and honey’ would not have been worth the cost of the Birmingham bombing of 1974.

He died in a Cork hospital in 1980 and was survived by his wife, Leslie de Barra (née Price), whom he married in 1921 and who was the director of organization for Cumann na Ban and later President of the Irish Red Cross. She died in 1984.