Kerry brothers killed at home persuaded to take pro-Treaty side by Michael Collins

Tom and John O’Connor-Scarteen shot dead at family bakery in Kenmare five months after hearing Collins speak about Treaty in 1922

It was Michael Collins’s persuasive powers that led two brothers to take the pro-Treaty side which was to cost them their lives in one of the most notorious incidents of the Civil War, says one of their descendants.

Former Mayor of Kerry, Cllr Patrick O’Connor Scarteen told The Irish Times that he believed his grand-uncles, Tom (20) and John O’Connor-Scarteen (25) decided to take the Free State side after hearing Collins make the case for the Treaty at a meeting in Killarney in April 1922.

“I believe the reason they joined the National Army was because they were fierce Collins people, they were Collins men, through and through, and they went over to listen to him in Killarney in April 1922 to make the case for the Treaty and a week later, they went off and joined the National Army.”

Less than five months later, on the morning of September 9th, 1922, Tom and John O’Connor-Scarteen were shot dead at their family bakery in Kenmare on Main St by a small group of anti-Treaty IRA who were part of a 70-strong force who had entered the town from the west.


Cllr O’Connor-Scarteen told RTE’s Black Sheep series in 2006 how he was just a small boy when he first learned about the shootings which caused huge revulsion throughout the country and contributed to Kerry seeing some of the bitterest exchanges during the Civil War.

“I remember when I was five years of age, I went into my grandmother’s house, and I saw her sprinkling Holy Water at the top of the stairs, and I asked her what it was for and she said ‘Tom, your granduncle, died here and John died up there’ — that was the first time I heard about them.”

John and Tom had played an active role during the War of Independence in Kerry with Tom prominent in the Headford Ambush against Crown Forces but after joining the National Army, he fought in Dublin before leading a large landing of 200 Free State troops in Kenmare on August 11th, 1922.

Cllr O’Connor-Scarteen said that two first cousins of the family, Nora O’Sullivan (12) from Valentia and Kathleen Moriarty (19) from Glencar, were staying at the house near the bakery at the time and witnessed the killings which were carried out at around 7am by a small party of four or five gunmen.

“According to Nora and Kathleen, John was shot as he came down the stairs and Tom was dragged from his bed and shot in the head — Tom reportedly pleaded with the republicans, ‘For God’s sake, don’t shoot an unarmed man’ — he was just 20 and his brother was 25.”

Cllr O’Connor-Scarteen said that the killings caused strong feelings throughout Kerry and many anti-Treatyites were horrified, including senior North Kerry IRA leader, Tom McEllistrim who visited the O’Connor-Scarteen home in the days afterwards to express his condolences.

Historian and author of the seminal work on the Civil War, ‘Green Against Green’, the late Prof Michael Hopkinson was unequivocal in his view about the killing of brothers who were asleep in their beds after returning home from a night raid when their killers arrived on the premises.

“The republicans burst into the baker’s shop in the early hours of September 9th and murdered — it seems to be as straight forward as that — the two unarmed brothers ... it would seem this may have been due to personal likes and dislikes, it may have been due to drink, I don’t know,” he said.

According to Cllr O’Connor-Scarteen, the brothers’ mother, Deborah was reportedly less than enamoured of her two sons’ involvement in the IRA during the War of Independence but once she learned of their deaths when a priest arrived to break the news, she was forgiving of their killers.

“She saw the priest coming up the yard ... and the amazing thing was what she said to him after she learned that Tom and John had been killed — she asked him to say a Mass for ‘the souls of the people who killed her boys’ — the power of forgiveness she showed there was unbelievable.”

The anti-Treaty IRA temporarily vacated Kenmare to allow the funerals take place with one newspaper reporter observing that the town came to a standstill in “a tribute of affection and farewell given by the people to the two young men they loved so well”.

The first anniversary of their deaths was marked by an enormous replica funeral procession of 300 soldiers and Civic Guards, complete with a band playing the Dead March and hundreds of local women carried flowers to the graveside where a volley of shots was fired over the grave.

The O’Connor Scarteens were among approximately 175 people, including almost 90 pro-Treaty National Army soldiers, over 70 anti-Treaty IRA and 15 civilians, who were killed in the Civil War in Kerry where the fighting was among the most intense and bitter in the country.

The brothers will be remembered at a special 100th-anniversary commemoration this Sunday, September 4th at their graves at the Old Cemetery in Kenmare where Minister of State at the Dept of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Peter Burke will give an oration.

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times