Civil wars tend to have a particularly brutal edge to them. That’s something I believe that I have talked about before in the context of conflicts fought in other places, but it was true in Ireland as well. The somewhat trite description of “brother-against-brother” is suitable in terms of getting into the emotional aspect of the conflict, where former comrades were set against the other, and often came to think about the other in terms that could only provoke increasingly violent responses. Add in other things that often come with civil strife – a government so desperate for men that they enlist whomever they can get and then barely train them, the outrage naturally provoked by guerrilla tactics, the pressure to deal with an intangible enemy quickly and brutally – and you have a mix that has produced atrocity after atrocity for thousands of years.
The Irish Civil War had plenty of atrocity: moments where what laws of war there were, or what standard moral and ethical guidelines for how armed camps should deport themselves in the field, went ignored. Civilians were abused or killed, prisoners were tortured, non-military targets were shot. But one particular incident in the Irish Civil War has always stood out from others, to the point of becoming one of the defining events of the entire conflict, and a stain on the pro-Treaty side it was never able to adequately cleanse itself of. Even though it exists alongside other similar incidents within a short space of time, that I will also discuss, it remains a standout in the memory. That event was the Ballyseedy massacre.
March of 1923 was a bloody one in Kerry, where numerous republicans were captured or killed, as previously discussed. Plenty of National Army soldiers were killed too: on the 6th day of that month five Free State soldiers perished and several more were wounded when a hidden mine exploded as they attempted to clear an IRA dugout in the village of Knocknagoshel, to the east of Tralee. The mine was seemingly laid in an effort to specifically kill the officer leading the National Army group, Lt Paddy O’Connor. O’Connor was a Kerryman who had joined up after his family home had been raided by republicans, and his knowledge of the local area had been an irritation to republican operations. His death, and the others, enraged local pro-Treaty commanders enough that a new edict was made: in situations where such explosive devices had been identified, or were suspected to be present, anti-Treaty prisoners would be used as forced labour to clear them. Paddy Daly was unequivocal: he described the policy as the only way “to prevent the wholesale slaughter of our men”. If one considers the Irish Civil War a conflict fought between recognisable combatants, then the policy was a flagrant war crime, but of course the Free State did not recognise the IRA as lawful combatants.
On the 7th, if we are to follow the official National Army account of what happened, a mobile patrol of soldiers discovered a suspicious looking pile of rubble partly blocking the road between Tralee and Kilorglin, near Ballyseedy Wood. In line with Daly’s edict, nine IRA prisoners were fetched from Ballymullen Barracks in Tralee, and set to work on clearing the obstruction. In the process, an explosive device detonated, killing eight of the prisoners and wounding three soldiers. An unfortunate outcome seemed to be the idea, but one that justified the policy of using enemy prisoners to clear their own mines: the IED could have killed National Army personnel after all.
The official National Army account was a lie. The IRA mine was actually constructed by National Army engineers and placed at what was a popular enough stretch of road for IRA attacks. The nine republican prisoners, who had already been badly mistreated while in captivity after the Knocknagoshel explosion, were then brought to the site where they were tied together around the mine by the wrists and their feet to prevent escape. The explosive was then detonated. Eight of the nine were killed in the blast: the ninth, Stephen Fuller, had the fortune of being tied so his back was to the mine and, however it happened, was blown clear without suffering life-threatening injuries. Because of this he also avoided a spate of gun fire, seemingly carried out to insure the victims were fully dead. In the confusion of the aftermath, as National Army soldiers carried out the grim task of collecting what remained of the bodies, Fuller was missed, presumed disintegrated by the power of the blast. He later stumbled into a nearby home where he was cared for by a sympathetic family.
The bodies were returned to Ballymullen Barracks, where Free State soldiers had to deal with what has been described as a near-riot of grieving families, appalled by the conditions of the corpses they came to collect. The official story was widely disbelieved as soon as it was issued, not least because of two other incidents that were rapidly reported in Kerry. On the same day a similar incident occurred on Countess Bridge near Killarney: there, five republican prisoners brought to clear an obstruction were attacked with submachine guns and grenades. Just as at Ballyseedy, one of the anti-Treaty men miraculously survived the tell the tale, escaping in the chaos. Five more prisoners were killed in Cahirsiveen five days later, shot in the legs before being blown up by a mine. The men rapidly became republican martyrs, with the testimony of the two survivors of the twin atrocities one of the last critical propaganda triumphs the anti-Treaty side would experience during the dying days of the war.
The official investigation of what occurred was a farce. A tribunal presided over by Paddy Daly on the 7th April found no fault in the National Army’s actions and followed the official line that the republicans were victims of their own devices. Shortly afterwards, Richard Mulchay upheld the official story when questioned in the Dail. Despite widespread misgivings over what had happened – at least two Free State officers would resign over the incidents and their cover-ups, with at least one of those fearing for his life afterwards – it would be the better part of 80 years before documents would be released indicating that civil authorities were aware of the cover-up by the military, and that the killings had been carried out at the direction of a so-called “Visiting Committee” of Dublin Guardsmen. The civil authorities, despite having knowledge of what has to be considered a pre-meditated atrocity, did nothing to stop it.
Why were all these men killed in the manner that they were? It would be one thing if they were just simply shot, perhaps while “trying to escape”, but the National Army men responsible went out of their way to design an excessively cruel and unusual manner of execution. It seems likely that the Knocknagoshel deaths, along with the continuing intensity of the war in Kerry, were a decisive motivation. Members of the National Army were angry, and wanted both revenge and to send an unmistakable message to their republican enemies: essentially that if five National Army soldiers would be killed by a mine, then the same could be arranged for three times that number of the IRA. Not only that, but the National Army could do so without any fear of justice: their own leaders would happy repeat the fabricated justification, and this would be publicly accepted by the civilian government.
If one was to be exceedingly generous to the motivations of those behind this series of killings, we might posit they were also undertaken as a means of ending the war in Kerry quicker, a sort of bloody sidebar to the official execution policy meant to terrify the republicans into laying down their arms. But the truth is that by then the war was petering out all over the country, and even if it was still at its hottest in Kerry, it was going to be coming to an end in that region of Ireland soon enough anyway. No, Ballyseedy, Countess Bridge and Cahirsiveen were not about military strategy: it is more likely they were horrendous means for members of the National Army to get even with their Civil War opponents, and to indulge the kind of sadistic impulses that civil wars have generated in their combatants for as long as they have been fought.
What happened in Ballyseedy would remain a touchstone of local Kerry politics for decades, and remains an evocative aspect of the Irish Civil War to this day. The memorial erected on the spot, designed by a naturalised Breton sculptor named Yann-Renard Goulart, engenders different interpretations: it depicts a mother showing her infant son his father dying, perhaps during the Great Famine, before the grown son later walks, fists clenched, away from the scene. Taking the interpretation that the young man is setting off to avenge his father, the Ballyseedy monument seems to indicate that events such as the massacre will only engender more violence to come: a cynical, but not unwise, observation.
But it is worth noting that this was not a view shared by Fuller, the most famous survivor. He was remarkably magnanimous according to the accounts of his son, who insisted that his father was forgiving of the men who had tried to kill him, and wanted the Civil War divide to be buried with the men who had lived through it. Fuller, would serve as a Fianna Fail TD in later years, and live to the age of 84, but would suffer from wounds he had sustained to the end of his life.
We are now approaching the final end of the Civil War, indeed in some respects we have already reached the end. But before we discuss how this most bitter of Ireland’s wars finally come to its final conclusion, I wish to take a few entries to discuss some different perspective on the Irish Civil War. The first will see me offer thoughts on another unique theatre of the conflict I have, as of yet, mostly ignored: it is time we returned, albeit briefly, to Northern Ireland.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.