Irish Civil War | What Really Happened at Ballyseedy?

You can still find bullet-marked walls in Ballymullen Barracks, Tralee. There, young Kerrymen faced squads after “interrogation” carried out by officers beating them with a hammer. Worse than these “authorised killings” were the atrocities carried out “unofficially”. Of these, one-act will always stand out in infamy the blowing up of nine prisoners at Ballyseedy Cross on the Tralee-Castleisland road. How the bomb-blast that blew eight men to bits actually threw one of the intended victims to safety is a miracle story in itself.

Following the Anglo-Irish Treaty and creation of the Irish Free State, the Free State government began to impose its terms. They began the Civil War by opening fire on their former comrades in the Four Courts. In August 1922, Free State troops invaded Kerry by sea, landing the Dublin Guards with big guns and armoured cars at Fenit pier. The Republicans, after a brave stand at Sammy’s Rock on the Fenit-Tralee road, realised they had but one answer to such overwhelming firepower; they abandoned the towns, avoided open conflicts when vastly outgunned and outnumbered, and resumed the guerilla-type campaign so successful against the Black and Tans.

The countryside remained largely in Republicans hands. In a matter of weeks the Free State drive bogged down. On 30th of September the Free State press admitted the IRA could not be beaten, unless extraordinary measures were adopted. The Free State government now “under contract with the enemy to maintain his overlordship” recruited large numbers of ex-British soldiers and anybody else prepared to wear khaki uniforms dyed green and to hound Republicans for thirty shillings a week. Then they began a reign of terror. In a gruesome celebration of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, they took Rory O’ Connor, Liam Mellows, Dick Barrett and Joe McKelvey from their cells in Mountjoy and shot them dead, without trial, on the 8th of December. They rounded up, jailed and interned over 12,000 prisoners in the Curragh. Staters bombed the homes of Republican families, raided houses, arrested suspects and shot prisoners out of hand. Propaganda smeared the IRA as “irregulars”, and hate language issued through the press used Lloyd George’s term “reprisals” to cover every outrage committed by government agents.

The Free State army claimed they would “finish Kerry” by the end of the year. They failed. Dorothy Macardle in ‘Tragedies of Kerry’ shows how Kerry resisted and suffered during the free state reign of terror. This terror reached its climax in March 1923, in triple atrocities at Ballyseedy, Tralee; Countess Bridge, Killarney, and Bahaghs, Caherciveen. As Kerry was divided into three Brigade areas, centers on Tralee, Killarney and Caherciveen, the Staters decided to stage a massacre in each area in order to strike terror into the whole county. The murders were to be staged carefully to convince the outside world that no such killings had taken place. Dead men tell no tales. But in each case, every detail came to light and the horrible truth was revealed.

Tralee as the capital of the county, came first. Republican prisoners were held in the old Workhouse (later St. Catherine’s Hospital) and in the jail near the barracks. After midnight on 6th March 1923, soldiers went to these prisoners and brought into the guardroom in the barracks a group of nine prisoners: Pat Buckley, Scartaglin, John Daly, Castleisland, Pat Hartnett, Listowel, Michael O’Connell, Castleisland, John O’Connor, Liverpool, George O’Shea, Kilflynn, Tim Tuomey, Kilflynn, James Walsh, Tralee and Stephen Fuller, Kilflynn. As they had been “interrogated” previously, most of them had serious injuries. At least two of them had broken arms. Tom Walsh, for instance, had been listed for transfer to the Curragh concentration camps the previous day, but had to be left in Tralee because he was too badly injured to move. Some had already faced “mock executions” where firing squads fired near but not actually at them, so they may have suspected similar treatment that night. But this time, it was real.

The atmosphere in the guardroom was menacing; the soldiers were in an ugly mood. First the prisoners were told they were to go out the road “to remove a mine”, although they were in no physical condition to do that, or do any kind of work. The real intention became clear when soldiers took their cigarettes away from them, leaving them one each: “That’s the last smoke you’ll ever have”, a Free State captain said.

Outside, lorries waited to take the prisoners the three miles to Ballyseedy where a by-road branches off to the right towards Farmer’s Bridge. The night was clear, moonlit, and bitterly cold. The convoy halted about 200 metres on the Tralee side of the cross and the prisoners were marched that distance up to a gateway on the roadside. There in the moonlight they could see a log lying on some recently disturbed earth and loose stones. Soldiers tied each prisoner’s hands behind his back, bound each man’s ankles and knees and they roped all nine together in a ring formation around a log. They worked methodically until Tim Tuomey asked for a minute to pray. Instead he got a blow on the head from a rope-end. One of the captors jeered in an Irish accent; “Ye Irish Bastards!” Then, the soldiers began to move away, some up the hill through Brick’s field overlooking the road, others back towards their lorries. the last officer to leave threw off the prisoners’ caps, saying “Ye can be praying away as long as ye like”. Then he backed off too.

The nine sensing their last moments had come, tried to hold their comrades’ through their bonds. They called out: “good-bye, good-bye, lads”. Then the mine exploded. The horror of the massacre still remains imprinted in the minds of local people who saw the frightful remains next morning and witnessed the crows eating human flesh from the branches of trees for days afterwards. On the night, however, nobody from the neighbouring houses dared venture out. They knew that to do so meant certain death They listened, and some prayed.

Later the soldiers returned to “mop up”. Then they heaped some unrecognisable human remains into nine coffins. A statement from the barracks said that all nine prisoners had died while working to remove a booby-trap mine laid by their own comrades in the IRA Neither then or for a long time afterwards did they learn that someone could contradict their lie. They did not know that one intended victim, as if a miracle, had survived the holocaust. Eight men, not nine men, died at Ballyseedy.

The force of the explosion hurled Stephen Fuller right across the road. Falling, dazed, but conscious that he was alive and unhurt he quickly realised that the blast had even burst apart the cords used to tie him. As the soldiers came out from their cover after the detonation he crawled along the shelter of the ditch into the river at the roadside. He could hear the moans of his dying comrades – then, at least five explosions as grenades were thrown among them amid heavy gunfire from the soldiers. The intense cold of the water forced him to crawl out of the water, on through Pender’s field, every second expecting to be seen and fired on. But no, the soldiers never imagined that anybody could have got away. They had so over killed there victims that they could not make a correct body-count among the mutilated remains. They returned to barracks and listed nine men “killed accidentally” while removing a mine planted by “irregulars”. Later, as we shall see, they had to concoct a different press-release when it became known that one man lived to tell what really happened that fateful morning.

Fuller crawled on, not knowing that the soldiers still did not realise that he was not among the victims. Eventually, he reached a friendly house, Currans at Honlon’s Cross, a mile away where he stayed until the next day when Johnny Connor and Johnny Duggan took him to Daly’s at Knockane. He hid successively in Burkes, Boyles and in a dug-out on the farm owned by Herlihy’s at Meenathee, Rathanny, where he remained for seven months. Even though the ceasefire ended the Civil war hostilities in April, it was unsafe for him to move out. The State wanted no witness alive to relate the truth. He still had to avoid his own home in Kilflynn for fear of raids, for several months more. By then the state came up with a different attempt to excuse the inexcusable: a reprisal.

The Free State’s first “excuse”, that the deaths occurred accidentally during the removal of the IRA mine, depended on leaving no witnesses, Stephen Fuller’s miraculous escape ended their best hopes of propagating that lie successfully. Then, (and only then) they fell back on there second best excuse, the Lloyd George leithscéal: reprisal.

Months before, in December 1922 the Free State O.C. in Kerry General W.R.E. Murphy issued a proclamation that if the IRA continued to attack his men he would as a reprisal shoot Republican prisoners: Con Casey, Matt Moroney, Jerry ‘Nunkey’ O’Connor, (natives of Tralee) and Tom Devane (Dingle); later Peter O’Connell’s Name was added. Humphrey Murphy, O.C. Kerry No. 1 Brigade IRA dealt quickly with his Free State namesake’s hostage threat by replying that, if carried out, he would counter by shooting seven prominent Free Staters. This finished the “reprisal” – until in the aftermath of Ballyseedy the apologies of state terror resurrected it. In fact, until then, it was noteworthy that the Staters wanted to forget that their threat had ever been issued. No “threat of reprisals” was issued before Ballyseedy. Different prisoners were involved, none of them, so far as they knew, was under sentence of death. Nor did republicans carry out any counter measures in the way of reprisals after Ballyseedy.

Early in March, 1923, however, a raiding party of Free State soldiers found a republican dump at Knocknagoshel. The dump was mined and the explosion killed two privates and three officers, one of whom had notoriously tortured Republican prisoners. This was to become the pretext for the Ballyseedy “reprisal”. Efforts to link the Knocknagoshel explosion to Ballyseedy must be exposed as lying propaganda. All armies lay mines against their enemies in time of war; taking prisoners out from jail and tying them over mines is not warfare. Nor does another excuse stand up, one half-heartedly advanced sometimes that “some officers” in Tralee acted savagely, without orders, and carried out the massacre, unauthorised. Article 4, of the Hague Convention (1899) laid down: “prisoners of war are in the power of the hostile government, but not of the individuals of corps who capture them. They must be humanely treated”. Some Free State officers disassociated themselves from and expressed horror at the Ballyseedy atrocity. One related that he went to Dublin to complain about such “excesses” and was dismissed for his efforts.

The most damning evidence comes from free state sources. The Free State Defence Minister lied in the Dáil about what happened. “Prisoners held locally were to remove obstacles. At Ballyseedy, Killarney and Caherciveen prisoners were killed by trapmines laid by their own comrades against Free State soldiers…” The following month (7th April 1923) a military Enquiry in Tralee was still saying that the “accident” happened over an IRA mine – and even added that two Free Staters officers and a sergeant had been injured in the same blast! This peace of window-dressing was so far-fetched that they never produced the men supposedly injured.

Nor was Ballyseedy the only outrage. Next morning Kerry 2nd Brigade got their turn when five more prisoners were taken out for similar treatment at Ccountess Bridge, Killarney. Again the miracle: four – Stephen Buckley, Jerry O’Donoghue, Dan O’Donoghue and Tim Murphy – died amid bombs and a hail of bullets, but Tadhg Coffey lived to tell of their deliberate, pre-planned murder. Five days later, on 12th March five prisoners of Kerry 3rd Brigade were blown to pieces on the road outside Baghaghs Workhouse, Caherciveen. On this occasion nobody survived but a Free State officer became so disgusted at the action that he insisted on letting the truth be known. Truth came out in regard to each atrocity.

Kerry had more to suffer, however. On 14th March, far away in Donegal, three Kerry Republican soldiers, Charlie Daly, Dan Enright and Tim O’ Sullivan were taken out of their cells and shot, along with their Derry comrade, Sean Larkin. On 18th April, Aero Lyons had to come out of Clashmealcon Caves and was riddled as he fell from the cliff top; already Tom McGrath and Pat O’Shea had drowned as they tried to swim from the caves; on 25th April, Richard (Rudge) Hathaway, James Greaney and James McEnery were shot against the wall in Ballymullen Barracks.

Many people who should have protested at these atrocities remained silent, either through fear during those terrible days, or from some even less worthy motives. Hypocrites in high places held sway.

There is a lonely crossroads in Kerry, south-west Ireland.

“Around Kerry in the autumn and winter of 1922 and the spring of 1923, an ominous wall of silence was drawn. The rumours that came through were so terrible that they were scarcely believed. Those rumours were less terrible than the truth.”

The events of those dark days in Kerry can be summed up by the statement of the commander of the Free Staters in January 1923, Paddy Daly: “Nobody asked me to take any kid gloves to Kerry and I didn’t take them”.

(Dorothy McCardle, ‘Tragedies of Kerry’)

On 6 March 1923, five Free State soldiers, among them a well-known torturer of prisoners of war, were killed when they were lured into a booby trap bomb near Knocknagoshel.

Late that night, other Free State soldiers chained a number of prisoners of war around a bomb at Ballyseedy Cross and detonated it under them.

For days afterwards the birds were eating human flesh off the trees at Ballyseedy Cross.
They sent back the wrong number of coffins to Tralee the next day.
There was no way of knowing how many men had been killed.
Eight prisoners of war were murdered that night at Ballyseedy Cross.
Nine coffins were sent back to Tralee the next day.
What were the people of Tralee to do with that ninth coffin?
A mother wailed: ‘But my son was six feet tall. How can he come home to me in such a small coffin?
They would not let the mother open that coffin.

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