Free State account of controversial Kerry IRA deaths in 1923 contradicted by Garda report

Wed, Dec 31, 2008, 00:00

CIVIL WAR PAPERS:DOCUMENTS MADE available by the Department of Justice through the National Archives give a fresh perspective on a controversial episode in Kerry during the Civil War in which five anti-Treaty republicans died and which involved a hitherto unknown National Army squad called "The Visiting Committee".

Evidence is available, in a file opened to the public more than eight decades later, that the account of the incident given by the soldiers involved was flatly contradicted by the Garda Síochána at the time.

A top official in the Department of Justice (then known as the ministry of home affairs) dismissed the findings of a military inquiry into the killings but the cabinet of the day - the executive council - rejected a claim for compensation by relatives.

Documents in Department of Justice file H197/52 strongly support the stance taken by a junior officer in the National Army who resigned his commission at the time in protest over the killings.

He was in charge of up to 20 republican prisoners from whose ranks the five victims were selected.

The incident took place at Bahaghs, near Cahirciveen on March 12th, 1923. The victims, who were the members of a unit in the Kerry No 3 Brigade of the IRA, were Michael Courtney jnr, Eugene Dwyer, Daniel Shea, John Sugrue and William Riordan, all from the Waterville area.

The killings were part of a series that began with a horrific incident perpetrated by the anti-Treaty forces in which five soldiers were killed on March 6th by a booby-trap bomb at the village of Knocknagashel which was aimed at an officer who had allegedly tortured republicans.

The Free State commander for Kerry, Maj Gen Paddy O'Daly (also known as Daly, and previously head of Michael Collins's assassination squad) then authorised the use of republican prisoners to clear mined roads, as "the only alternative left us to prevent the wholesale slaughter of our men".

The following day, March 7th, nine republican prisoners were taken from Ballymullen barracks in Tralee to Ballyseedy crossroads outside the town and allegedly tied to a landmine which was then detonated, after which the survivors were machine-gunned.

One of the prisoners, Stephen Fuller, was blown to safety by the blast of the explosion. Fuller later became a Fianna Fáil TD, serving from 1937 to 1943. He died in 1984.

Four republican prisoners were blown up with another landmine on the same day at Countess Bridge near Killarney.

A fifth prisoner survived and it is alleged that a decision was taken that in future prisoners would be shot in the legs so that they could not escape.

The Cahirciveen incident took place five days later. On each occasion the soldiers claimed the prisoners were killed while clearing roads of landmines laid by republicans.

When questioned in the Dáil by Labour Party leader Thomas Johnson, the National Army's commander-in-chief, Gen Richard Mulcahy, said he accepted the findings of a military court of inquiry chaired by Maj Gen O'Daly in April 1923 which cleared the troops of wrongdoing in any of the three incidents.

The file now released contains a confidential letter dated December 29th, 1923, from WP O'Connor, secretary of the ministry (now Department) of Defence to the ministry of home affairs (then in the process of becoming the Department of Justice) relating to a compensation case taken in respect of Cahirciveen victim, 18-year-old William Riordan, by his father, Maurice.

Enclosed with the letter is a copy of the proceedings of the military court of inquiry at Tralee on April 7th.

The court took evidence from Comdt J J Delaney that he took five prisoners from the workhouse at Bahaghs in the early morning of March 12th, to remove a barricade on the road between Cahirciveen and Valentia.

"I told them that mines were being laid and that some of our officers and men had been killed in this way, and that they would have to remove this barricade and take the chance of its containing a mine," Comdt Delaney said.

It was a mile from the Bahaghs Workhouse, where the prisoners were being kept, to the site of the barricade: "I examined the barricade and did not see the mine."

He continued: "The prisoners made no objection to removing the barricade.

"They appeared nervous. This was the only obstruction on the road. The prisoners were not maltreated."

He said it was "a lie to say that the prisoners were shot". All five were killed instantly in the explosion: "No prisoners escaped."

There were "about eight troops" accompanying Comdt Delaney, and "five or six" were slightly injured by flying gravel or metal from the explosives. "I got a scratch on the hand and one on the head from flying stones."

Denying claims that the Free State contingent boasted in a local hotel bar about the killings, Comdt Delaney says: "Neither I nor any of my party entered a hotel bar in Cahirciveen after the mine explosion."

The finding of the court was that "no blame is attached to any officer or soldier engaged in the operations in which these prisoners lost their lives".

The statement concludes that, "In fine, the court is of opinion that, in view of the abnormal conditions which have prevailed in this area, and of the inordinate and malignant nature of the fight carried out against the Army in their effort to restore peace, the discipline maintained by the troops is worthy of the highest consideration".

Exactly similar findings were issued on the Ballyseedy and Countess Bridge incidents.

The letter from the Ministry of Defence to the ministry of home affairs also draws attention to a statement in the Dáil by minister for defence Gen Mulcahy where he said it was "inconceivable that they would be guilty of anything like the charges that are made against them".

In his compensation claim, Maurice Riordan blames his son's death on "members of the National Army known as 'Visiting Committee'."

He said William was "removed from the workhouse and it is alleged was done to death by being dragged over a mine on the public road".

This extract from the claim was sent to the secretary of the ministry of home affairs with an accompanying letter by Garda Síochána deputy commissioner Eamonn Coogan (father of the prominent journalist and historian Tim Pat Coogan) who writes that he has been "directed by the commissioner [Eoin O'Duffy] to inform you that the facts stated are true and are as follow:"

The letter, dated December 10th 1923 goes on to state that William Riordan was an "irregular and one of a column captured with arms". Temporarily imprisoned at the workhouse, Cahirciveen, he was taken from there and "done to death" with four other prisoners.

The body known as the Visiting Committee under Comdt Delaney arrived at Cahirciveen "to carry out an inspection", with Lieut P Kavanagh as second in command.

"In the small hours of the morning of March 12th, Kavanagh took five prisoners (of whom Riordan was one) from the guard at the workhouse, remarking 'Would you like to come for a drive?'

"The guard, believing the prisoners were being transferred to Tralee, handed them over. It transpired that the five prisoners were subsequently shot and their bodies blown up by a mine at Bahaghs, Cahirciveen. Evidence of these facts can be procured.

"The applicant in the claim, who is the father of William Riordan, is in needy circumstances."

In a memorandum to minister for justice/home affairs Kevin O'Higgins, the secretary of the department Henry Friel writes: "It is to be observed that the evidence taken by the court of inquiry was taken only from the troops involved. No evidence appears to have been taken from the garrison at the workhouse and the examination of the witnesses called is lacking in strength. There are discrepancies in the statements of time by the witnesses."

Friel notes other discrepancies regarding the force of the blast and comments: "One would have thought . . . there would have been a more vigorous examination on these points. Again the witnesses deny that the prisoners were shot and blown up afterwards. The police say that evidence of this fact is procurable."

In summary, Friel continues, "The police report conflicts with the evidence taken at the court of inquiry and the latter, for the reasons stated above, can scarcely be regarded as having in all the circumstances much value."

The options as he saw them were (1) the Garda Síochána to be instructed to obtain the evidence they said was procurable: this would probably involve laying a charge against the soldiers involved; or (2) The Ministry of Defence to hold a full investigation "at which all available witnesses would be present and properly examined".

Friel suggests that O'Higgins should "discuss the matter personally" with Gen Mulcahy, "or you may consider it necessary to lay the matter before the executive council .

"I find it difficult to impeach the value of a court of inquiry apparently accepted by the military authorities as satisfactory and yet on the facts of the case as presented to this ministry to date such a course appears to be a proper one."

Reports on the incident were circulated on January 10th, 1924, to the members of the executive council of the Free State, which was presided over by W T Cosgrave.

A subsequent handwritten note of the cabinet discussion stated: "It was decided that prima-facia (sic) evidence of complicity in an attack against the State on the part of an applicant for compensation or in respect of whom compensation is claimed is a bar to the claim."

The note concludes: "The onus of preparing evidence in respect of any alleged excesses by the troops during the period of hostility rests upon the party who considers himself aggrieved."

How the relatives of the victims were expected to gather evidence is not specified.

A similar claim was lodged by the father of Daniel Shea (20). In a covering letter, Insp C Reynolds of Cahirciveen supports the version of events set out in the claim.

"This act was perpetrated by a number of men of the National Army known as the 'Visiting Committee' and was not an official reprisal," he writes.

The deceased was "a labourer earning about £2" and practically the sole support of a family of eight. Similar claims and covering letters were lodged by the fathers of Courtney, Dwyer and Sugrue.

Nothing was done after the executive council decision and a letter on April 12th from the Compensation (Personal Injuries) Committee, set up to adjudicate on claims arising from the War of Independence and its aftermath, sought a reply from the ministry of home affairs to its initial query on the claim arising from the death of William Riordan.

In reply, the committee was informed of the executive council's decision that prima facie evidence of participation in an attack against the State was a bar to the claim.

A reference to the obligation on claimants to prepare evidence on the incident is deleted from a draft version of this reply.

"The circumstances in which Riordan and other prisoners met their deaths . . . were the subject of an investigation by a military court of inquiry," the reply states.

A further letter dated May 27th, in reference to claims lodged by relatives of the other victims and the widow of one of the men who died at Ballyseedy, states that the decision of the executive council in the Riordan case may be taken as covering the others as well.

The final item in the file is a letter to the secretary of what was now known as the Department of Justice from the secretary of the Compensation (Personal Injuries) Committee in which he indicates strongly that the claims will be rejected, assuring Friel that the members "will be very careful to guard against making any recommendation for payment of compensation when there has been any 'default' on the part of the applicant or the person injured within the meaning of their terms of reference".

The relevant provision in the committee's terms of reference stipulated that any injury in respect of which compensation is being claimed must have been sustained "without default" and by a "non-combatant" in the course of operations "by the National Forces against persons engaged in armed rebellion against the government of Saorstát Éireann"

In a pamphlet entitled, Tragedies of Kerry (1938 edition), republican historian Dorothy Macardle quotes Lieut McCarthy (first name not given) as stating that he was in bed when the five men were taken from the workhouse prison during the night.

"It was a Free State mine laid by themselves," he says.

"It is a murder gang that is going around trying to keep on the war."

Niall C Harrington, another Free State officer who served in the county and was later a senior official with the Federated Union of Employers, wrote in a memoir entitled Kerry Landing (Anvil Books, 1992) in relation to all three incidents: "The facts are that the mines used in the slaughter of the prisoners were constructed in Tralee under the supervision of two senior Dublin Guards officers.

"An alleged military court of inquiry into the occurrences was held in Tralee on 7 April 1923; the submissions made to the court and the findings brought in are, to my personal knowledge, totally untrue."