Stories of the revolution: Ballyseedy and the Civil War’s worst atrocity

Survivor Stephen Fuller said Civil War divisions should not be passed on to next generation

Ballyseedy Massacre monument, Ballyseedy, Co Kerry.

Ballyseedy Massacre monument, Ballyseedy, Co Kerry.

 

The son of the sole survivor of the Civil War’s worst atrocity, the blowing up of eight anti-Treaty prisoners by Free State troops in Ballyseedy, Co Kerry in 1923, has said his father held no bitterness against those who tried to kill him.

Stephen Fuller, from Fahavane, Kilflynn, was blown into a ditch and remained free because the soldiers thought everyone had been killed as they observed the dismembered bodies. Fuller was later found severely burned, with grit under his skin, and received the maximum £150 pension when Fianna Fáil came to power in 1932, according to records released by the Military Service Pensions Collection.

His son, Paudie, a former Fianna Fáil councillor, told The Irish Times of his father’s reluctance to talk about the incident in any detail, even as they worked the family farm together over many years.

“He held no bitterness against those who tried to blow him up; in fact, he was full of forgiveness,’’ he said. “My father once said to me that the Civil War divisions should not be passed on to the next generation.’’

Stephen Fuller served as Fianna Fáil TD for Kerry North from 1937 until his defeat in 1943, when he returned to full-time farming. Although he remained active in Fianna Fáil, he rarely spoke about what happened in Ballyseedy and shunned media interviews. He died in 1984 aged 84.

His lack of bitterness was remarkable, given that the incident was a defining influence on Kerry and Irish politics for decades and was referred to from platforms by Fianna Fáil speakers during general election campaigns up to the 1980s.

A prominent monument near Tralee stands as a memorial to the dead. A Mass for the victims and a ceremony at the monument were held on the atrocity’s 90th anniversary in 2013.

It was an opportunity for Fuller’s extended family to recall a man who rejected personal bitterness, although he suffered from insomnia for some time after his narrow escape and had gravel and gunpowder buried in his body until his death.

Shortlived career

Those who knew him believe his reluctance to get involved in the cut and thrust of bitter Civil War divisions contributed to his shortlived Dáil career.

“As the sole survivor of the Ballyseedy massacre, he could have been a Dan Breen-like figure within Fianna Fáil, but he recoiled from beating the Civil War drum,’’ said a local political observer. “In that sense, he was very different from many of those who fought on the anti-Treaty side.’’

The military archives reveal Fuller’s application for a wound pension in 1932 was supported by local doctor Edmond Shanahan.

“I found him in a dug-out on a mountain suffering from severe shock,’’ Shanahan wrote. “All his back was burned with gunpowder and dozens of small pieces of grit embedded under the skin.’’

Fuller, in his account of the incident in the archives, recalled his capture and the later attempt to blow him up.

“I was tied up in three places. The explosion cut all the rope . . . It was about two feet from the mine – it would not be three feet. All the rest were killed – eight of them.’’

He also recalled that the incident had taken place in the middle of the night.

“I was able to scramble away somehow. I recovered my senses when I went up in the air, but I lost them again when I hit the road,’’ he wrote.

“I went straight up and must have been blown up fairly high. All my clothes were blown off. It was not known I escaped until the following day, I believe.’’

The files of three men blown up in the atrocity, Company Capt George O’Shea, Capt James Walsh and Patrick Buckley, have also been released in the latest tranche of files from military pensions archives.

The archives contain a handwritten note from Humphrey Murphy, who was officer commanding the anti-Treaty Kerry Brigade in the Civil War. He names two specific individuals as responsible for the massacre.

“Blown up in the famous Ballyseedy mine. Ask Davy Neligan and Paddy Daly for further particulars.”

Neligan was an ex-Dublin Metropolitan Police constable who joined the IRA and then the National Army. He served as the local intelligence officer in Kerry during the Civil War on the pro-Treaty side. Major Gen Paddy Daly commanded the pro-Treaty forces in Kerry who landed in Fenit in August 1922 with a view to taking the county back. He later admitted that “nobody had asked me to take kid-gloves to Kerry, so I didn’t”.

Eoin Neeson, in his book The Civil War 1922-23 (published by Mercier Press in 1966 and Poolbeg Press in 1989) vividly recalled the brutal environment leading up to the Ballyseedy atrocity.

He noted that most Kerry people openly supported the anti-Treatyites and their troops. The more important towns were occupied by pro-Treaty forces, but enemy columns could move among the hills with impunity.

“A shipload of petrol was even run into Tralee and unloaded by the anti-Treatyites while an attack on Tralee barracks pinned the pro-Treaty troops down,’’ Neeson wrote. “The general atmosphere produced mounting intransigence, determination and bitterness on both sides.’’

In cold blood

“When they were taken, they were liable to summary execution, torture or death without the formality of trial,’’ he wrote. He also told of how old comrades tortured and shot one another in cold blood.

Neeson then went on to describe what happened in Ballyseedy.

“In the spring of 1923 brutality reached a climax, early in March, after an anti-Treaty mine killed a Free State officer, who is alleged to have been notorious for torturing prisoners.

“On March 7th, nine anti-Treaty prisoners, one of them with a broken arm, another with a broken wrist, and one, John Daly, unable to walk from spinal injuries, were taken by lorry to Ballyseedy Cross about two miles from Tralee. The hands of each prisoner were tied behind him. Each was tied by the arms and legs to the man beside him.

“A rope was passed completely round the nine men so that they stood in a ring facing outwards. In the centre of the ring was a landmine . . .

“The soldiers who tied them took cover and exploded the mine. The remains of the prisoners killed were flung far and wide, bits of bodies hung from trees in the wood that bordered the roadside.

“By some explosive freak, one man, Stephen Fuller, instead of being blown to bits was blown into a ditch. He escaped across fields and ran until he reached the home of Charlie Daly, where he took refuge.

“The soldiers, thinking all the prisoners had been killed, put the remains of the eight men into nine coffins. The official explanation of these deaths was that the men were killed by mines attached to barricades set up by the anti-Treatyites which they had been clearing.

“But for Fuller’s escape this story might have been credited. Several of the men had been ‘interrogated’ in Tralee barracks by officers armed with hammers before the murders, hence the broken limbs.’’

Neeson wrote that largely as a result of what happened in Kerry, particularly at this time, Col Fred Henry of the pro-Treaty forces was appointed provost marshall, with one of his functions to investigate allegations of ill-treatment of prisoners, torturing, shootings and group murders.

He noted that executions carried out as a policy by the pro-Treaty authorities were met by counter-reprisals, shootings and burnings.

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