October 31st did not have the significance in 1920 that it does today, and few in Ireland that year would have been too worried about the dangers of ghouls, ghosts and goblins. They had more tangible things to be concerned about. For the nationalist community, the growing intensification of the conflict meant that reprisals on people and property were never too far away, while for the Crown Forces catching a bullet through an ambush or assassination was a constant fear. The news of the day was dominated by two things inflaming the situation to greater peaks: the imminent death of Terence McSwiney on hunger strike in Britain, and the imminent execution of Kevin Barry, who would be hanged on the 1st November.
GHQ was of a mind to mark the dates, and issued orders to IRA units throughout the country to make attacks, whether it was on people or on buildings, as a response to McSwiney’s death (when it happened) and Barry’s seemingly destined hanging. I suppose this was to be something along the lines of the Easter operation of the same year, which had seen so many barracks’ destroyed all at once. But those barracks’ had been mostly unoccupied: what the GHQ was proposing now was something more akin to a grand offensive, but one without adequate planning or forethought. According to one Volunteer’s account, the order amounted to being told that “if McSwiney died every Tan and every R.I.C with a bad record was to be shot on sight”, and little else besides.
For that reason, among many others – plenty of IRA units in the country would have been in no position to do anything, or simply wouldn’t have had the inclination – GHQ rescinded the order fairly quickly. But that countermand did not reach everyone. There would be a few strikes at RIC and Crown Forces targets throughout the country on October 31st, from people who either did not get the message or disregarded it. A prominent area that did not get the message, was County Kerry.
While the war being fought there was not as noticeable as the one being fought in Cork or Dublin, Kerry had been a hotbed of republican activity nonetheless, albeit without a major shedding of blood. Huge portions of the county were under IRA/Dail control, with RIC barracks’ abandoned, magistrates resigning left and right, and Crown Forces subject to constant harassment. The police there were in a sorry state, with Kerry the site of the Listowel Mutiny. Black and Tans and Auxiliaries had conducted a fairly ruthless campaign of reprisals and general harassment of the local population, which included random acts of violence and the burning of many cooperative creameries, something that was devastating agrarian communities. But Kerry had still not seen a great deal of death. That changed on October 31st. In a series of operations throughout the county that day and that night, numerous policemen, Black and Tans and military personnel were targetted.
In Abbeydorney, a group of IRA led by a George O’Shea – later to be killed at the Ballyseedy Massacre – shot dead two RIC personnel, identified as either full RIC or Black and Tans, depending. One member of the RIC was killed and two more wounded fatally at Ballyduff, in attacks on the local barracks and a police patrol in the village. In Killorgan, two members of the RIC were killed in somewhat shadowy circumstances, the most we know coming from the account of the Constable who discovered their bodies outside the village. In Dingle, two Black and Tans were wounded but not killed in an attack. In Tralee it was a similar situation, along with two RIC men, one a Black and Tan, who simply vanished that night, their fate, and bodies, undiscovered. A popular story is that the two were thrown alive into a local gas furnace, but there is no evidence to back this up. Other attacks would take place in the following days, most notably the shooting dead of two Black and Tans in a train carriage at Ballybrack: after they were killed their attackers put their bodies on the station platform and used the same train for a getaway.
Nearly all of these attacks prompted reprisals of a vicious sort. Buildings and a creamery were burned in Abbeydorney. A member of the local IRA company was bayoneted to death and numerous buildings looted and burned in Ballyduff. The Killorgin killings prompted the burning of the local Sinn Fein hall and the killing of an uninvolved civilian in reprisal, and two members of the IRA would also be killed later in the week nearby. In Ballylongford, two members of the RIC were abducted and beaten, but were released after Crown Forces insisted they would destroy the village otherwise. One, traumatised by the experience, took his own life within a month. But it was in Tralee that the worst of the reprisals would take place.
There, the RIC hoped that threats similar to those leveled at Ballylongford might be fruitful, but they were to be dissapointed: there were more than likely no captured RIC to return alive, because they had probably already been killed and their bodies disposed of. What occurred after RIC patience expired has subsequently become known as “the Siege of Tralee” and if similar sobriquets had been hyperbole earlier in the war, this one fit a lot better.
It is said to have begun with the harassment of parishioners leaving a Sunday service on the 1st November, who were the subject of random volleys being fired over their heads. From there the RIC – many of them Black and Tans of course – took systematic control of the town. A curfew was imposed, and all businesses were ordered to close. The roads leading in and out were guarded and shut. Those attempting to flout either of these measures were liable to be shot where they stood, and several civilians were killed over the course of the next few days.
This was a reprisal of a different sort. Usually such attacks lasted a night or a day, and involved rapid, and often indiscriminate, violence. Buildings would be burned, businesses looted and sometimes people were killed, but by the following morning the attackers would generally be gone. Such things were often used as evidence of alcohol playing a part, and perhaps this was true in some, or many, cases. In Tralee the goal was a more drawn out attack on the civilian population: this was collective punishment, a humiliation, taken to a new extreme.
With businesses closed and all import/export stopped, Tralee and its population – as a good-sized town, this would have been over 10’000 people – had no means of feeding itself. It’s unclear how bad things got in Tralee during this week of terror, and some have claimed that the “starvation” of the town’s inhabitants was exaggerated for effect. However, with nothing allowed in and shops closed, tighter belts would have been a requirements for the citizenry, especially as the conditions seem to have lasted over eight days. And the typical behavior of reprisal’s also occurred, with buildings that could be connected to “Sinn Feiners” burned down.
A commonly retold element of the “Siege” is that it was, somewhat ironically, only the intervention of British Army personnel that spared Tralee even greater destruction, though I’m unable to find much in the way of concrete details. It is my understanding that a depot for the Royal Munster Fusiliers was based in Tralee, at Ballymullen Barracks, so they may have been the soldiers described, but it could also just be a bit of myth-making or exaggeration, an effort to make the RIC/Black and Tans look even worse by having them be reeled in by their martial counter-parts.
The situation lasted for over a week, and proved to be yet another nightmare for the British administration on a publicity level. The length of the reprisal meant that numerous national and international journalists had the opportunity to travel to the vicinity to report on what was happening, and what most of them reported did not paint a good picture for Dublin Castle. Some called it “a War on Women and Children”, in dispatches that went worldwide claiming that Tralee’s population was being starved to death. Some journalists further claimed they had been threatened with death by RIC personnel. Tralee and the situation there was front-page news throughout the British Empire, Europe and the United States, and even made copy as far away as Japan.
The authorities stood frozen, perhaps by indecision, perhaps out of sympathy for the Crown Forces that had been so fatally assaulted on October 31st. It was not until the 9th November that Hamar Greenwood dictated an order that the “siege” was to be lifted, even while he was dodging questions about the situation in the House of Commons, but, of course, by that time, all of the damage had been done. In the same moments that the British were being castigated for the death of Terence McSwiney in captivity and the execution of Kevin Barry, here was yet another situation where they blundered into being easily portrayed as vicious, cruel and uncivilised to what were supposed to be their own citizens.
A ridiculous attempt to release a filmed account of an ambush that supposedly took place near enough to Tralee around this time, dubbed the “Battle of Tralee” was another own-goal for the British often remembered in line with the larger reprisals. The actual event was a brief encounter near Tralee a few days after the siege was lifted, where Crown Forces were able to shoot two IRA Volunteers dead when they attempted to prevent the burning of a creamery: a not inconsiderable success in terms of enemy combatants killed, given the nature of the war. The film was a complete fabrication, and exaggeration, very obviously created in Dalkey, Dublin. It included a “dead” rebel picking himself off the ground and dusting himself off after the ambush, and was easily exposed by republicans as a fake, another propaganda coup.
The war in Kerry had taken a bloody turn. Where deaths and casualties had been limited before, in ten days upwards of 15 people had been killed or wounded, many of them civilians. The genie was out of the bottle too, and many more would be killed in Kerry between early-November and the truce of the following year. Such was the nature of an insurgency war, where escalation by both sides was hard to reverse.
We are on the verge of entering into perhaps the most critical and best-remembered month of the conflict, where two major events, among others, would go a long way to determining the final outcome of the conflict. Before we get there though, the focus of the next entry will be on the evolution of the British war effort, from political direction to military execution, as they walked, heedless in many respects, into that maelstrom.
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