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Ballyseedy was a war crime. The record must be corrected. 

In Kerry, it became known as the Terror Month – an appalling period of atrocity during the Civil War in 1923 in which acts of extraordinary, unparalleled violence were carried out.  

100 years ago this week, the most infamous of those atrocities took place at Ballyseedy Cross outside Tralee, where nine members of the anti-Treaty IRA were tied together around a land mine by the Free State Army and blown to pieces.

To ensure no-one was left alive, the Army also machine-gunned the bodies of the Republicans.

These were extrajudicial killings – the men were prisoners of war, they had not been tried, even by a court martial, and they were selected for execution while held as prisoners, having first been tortured, beaten with hammers, and told to ‘choose your coffin’.

Free State Army Major General, Paddy O’Daly, ordered the Ballyseedy executions in a furious retaliation to the killing of five Free State soldiers just 24-hours previously at Knocknagoshel. Lured to Barrinarig Wood by false information that Kerry IRA had dumped arms there, five soldiers were killed when a mine was detonated, and one more seriously wounded.

It must have been a horrifying scene. A schoolgirl found the head of one of the soldiers, Lt  Paddy O’Connor, in a stream near the woods the following morning. A survivor, Joseph O’Brien, lost both legs and suffered severe injuries to both eyes.

Republicans said that the trap had been set because Free State soldiers were beating and torturing prisoners across Kerry. It was a terrible time.

But O’Daly seemed determined to up the ante, to crush the anti-Treaty IRA in Kerry – one of the strongest centres of resistance both in the War of Independence and the Civil War – by any means possible.

What was carried out in the name of the state, and covered up at the highest level for decades, amounted to a series of war crimes.

At Ballyseedy, the remains of the men who were tied around the mine were so mangled and torn that the Army simply dumped pieces of the dismembered corpses indiscriminately into the nine coffins prepared for the massacre.

But they were unaware that one man, Stephen Fuller, had miraculously been blown clear by the violence of the blast and had managed to escape despite being badly burned.

News of Fuller’s escape and of the atrocity spread amongst Republicans, so when Free State soldiers – including the infamous Dublin Guard of the National Army – brought nine coffins instead of eight to Tralee, relatives realised what had happened.

In a vindictive act of what historian Owen O’Shea described as psychopathy, O’Daly ordered that the National Army band played “jazzy, ragtime music” to mock those coming to collect the bodies of their loved one’s at the gates of Ballymullen barracks in the town.

In Kerry, as elsewhere at the time in Ireland, the ritual of wake, funeral and burial and respect for the dead were of utmost importance. The treatment of the bodies of the dead in such a callous and depraved manner sparked a riot in the town.

It’s been argued that some of the brutality had context – O’Daly was tasked with crushing the Kerry IRA and ending the Civil War – but an additional factor undoubtedly led to outright sadism and unfathomable cruelty from the Free State against their fellow Irishmen who had been taken prisoner and were completely at their mercy.

O’Daly knew that he had the backing of the Free State government at the highest level possible for the savagery that occurred in Kerry. He arrived in the county with Col David Neligan, a Free State officer who, with O’Daly carried out “extensive abuse and torture” of Republican prisoners.

W.T. Cosgrave, then President of the Executive Council, had complained that the Free State were not carrying out enough executions and backed a harsh suppression of anti-Treaty forces – men who had already fought, suffered and sacrificed in the War of Independence.

In fact, the government went as far as to have the Minister for Defence, Richard Mulcahy, read into the record of Dáil Éireann that the prisoners at Ballyseedy were simply tasked with removing obstructions from the road and had been killed when one of their own bombs exploded.

That was a lie. And the lie has remained on the record ever since. Mulcahy also read the results of the military court of inquiry subsequently held into the Kerry killings into the Dáil record.

That inquiry had been presided over by Paddy O’Daly. A cover-up doesn’t get more cynical than that.

As we have seen elsewhere throughout history, the knowledge that political cover exists at the highest level, even for acts of the most appalling violence, will foster the worst sadism.

Ballyseedy wasn’t an isolated incident, it was just the first of a series of actions designed to strike terror into the Kerry IRA and the local people who supported them.

On the same day, March 7th, another five anti-Treaty prisoners were tied around a mine at Countess Bridge by O’Daly’s men and blown up. Again, one of them, Tadgh Coffey, also miraculously survived. He later said that the Army had also opened fire on the dying men with machine guns.

Five days later, five Republican prisoners were blown up near Bahaghs workhouse in Cahersiveen. This time the men were first shot in the legs before the bomb was detonated. No-one escaped to tell what had happened.

It was almost 60 years before Stephen Fuller spoke publicly on his miraculous escape that night in Ballyseedy in an interview with historian Robert Kee. His memories of that night are still deeply harrowing a century later.

“They tied us then, our hands behind our back and left about a foot between the next fella. And they tied us then in a circle around the mine and they tied our legs then and the knees as well with a rope and they took off our caps then and said we could be praying away as long as liked. And the next fella to me said his prayers and I said mine too.

But I still kept watching where they went, like. It was that that saved me afterwards. But he said goodbye then and I said goodbye and the next fella picked it up and said, goodbye, goodbye lads and up it went. And I went up with it, of course.”


Acclaimed journalist and broadcaster Pat Butler, in his searing, ground-breaking, documentary on Ballyseedy, also revealed that Fuller’s testimony was corroborated by a National Army officer, Lieut-Colonel Niall C. Harrington.

In his written testimony contradicting the official record, Harrington explained that the mine used in Ballyseedy which killed the eight republican prisoners was not constructed, as had been claimed, by anti-Treaty rebels but by two officers in Tralee barracks.

“This was carried out with the complete knowledge and encouragement of Major General Paddy O’Daly, shown here as president of the court of inquiry. Ballyseedy was a reprisal for Knocknagoshel. It was planned and carried out by a group of Dublin Guard officers. The prisoners were tied together and blown to pieces. Those not immediately killed were bombed and shot to death,” Harrington wrote.

Pat Butler is calling for the official record of the Dáil to be corrected so that the lies are revealed and the truth recorded in the state’s official transcript.

He says that Fuller’s and Harrington’s testimonies should both be read into the record.

He told the Irish Times that both testimonies could “be read alternatively by Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin.”

“It would be an ‘act of calm, understated and blame-free restitution by standing together to read into the Dáil records the correct account and that of Lt-Col Harrington.”

“Harrington’s testimony validates Fuller’s. And Fuller’s testimony validates Harrington’s. Taken together they correct the misleading untruths in the version of the events at Ballyseedy.”

Stephen Fuller’s son, Páidí, has described what happened in Ballyseedy as a ‘war crime’. Pat Butler told Raidió na Gaeltachta last week that if the atrocity had happened now during the war in Ukraine, the world would be appalled.

It’s all too easy to write off what happened in Kerry as examples of ‘great hatred, little room’. That seems to be what Leo Varadkar relied on when he said that no apology would be forthcoming, although what had happened was “wrong” and “should never have happened”.

But while terrible things happen in a civil war, the Ballyseedy atrocity left deep and lasting scars because the truth was denied for more than three-quarters of a century – hidden away by some of the most senior and powerful people in the state.

Those who ordered the atrocities, such as Paddy O’Daly, went on to have protected and successful careers in the new state, while the families of the men blown apart by a land mine had to suffer not just the appalling murder of their loved ones, but the injustice that a deliberately false version of events had been recorded for posterity.

It is said that a wall of silence was built around the barbaric events of the Civil War in Kerry, but that’s not entirely true. Dorothy McArdle’s book, Tragedies of Kerry, revealed the truth about what had happened more than ninety years ago. The horror of what had happened was widely talked about in Kerry and amongst Republicans throughout the country.

Local people, with no help from the State, worked and saved to erect monuments to the dead where men had been blown to pieces. In the case of the Bahaghs memorial, that’s still the case.

The truth was known. But the same powerful people who authorised the executions ensured that the truth was not told.

Journalist Ronan McCreevy, speaking on an insightful podcast about the controversy, observed that people expect the State to uphold the laws they brought into being and acknowledge the wrongs that were committed. He also noted that, at this remove, there would be no political cost for making that acknowledgment – for bringing the truth into the light.

He is correct. An apology for Ballyseedy, Countess Bridge and Bahaghs, and a correction to the Dáil record to acknowledge the actual facts of the worst atrocity of the Civil War, would simply be the decent thing to do.

It remains to be seen whether that will happen.



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