Free State use of prisoners to clear roadblocks in Cork set precedent for Kerry ‘horror’ - historian

Dr Andy Bielenberg of UCC says practice of using prisoners to clear mined roadblocks 100 years ago began in Newcestown, West Cork

The deaths of three prisoners who were forced by Free State troops to clear an anti-Treaty IRA barricade when it exploded in West Cork 100 years ago this month set a precedent that was to have even more devastating consequences in Kerry a month later, a leading historian has argued.

Dr Andy Bielenberg of the School of History at University College Cork said the decision by National Army troops to use anti-Treaty IRA prisoners to clear roadblocks in Cork may well have been motivated by what happened near Macroom in September 1922.

He said that the deaths of seven National Army soldiers while clearing a roadblock at Carrigaphooka outside the town appears to have led to a change of approach by the National Army with prisoners being used to clear roadblocks, as happened in Newcestown on February 4th, 1923.

National Army troops arrested a number of young men emerging from mass at St John the Baptist’s Church in Newcestown on that Sunday morning and brought them to Farnalough just outside of the village and forced them at gunpoint to start clearing a roadblock set up by the anti-Treaty IRA.


As they were clearing the road, a mine concealed in the barricade exploded and two men, Charles O’Leary (18) from Derrycool, Bandon and Patrick Murray (19) from Rushfield, Enniskeane were killed while a third, John Desmond (22) from Raheen, Newcestown died from his injuries on February 24th.

Dr Bielenberg, who has compiled the Cork Fatality Register 1919-1923 with Emeritus Professor James Donnelly Jnr of University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the National Army practice of using anti-Treaty IRA prisoners to clear roadblocks reached its apogee in Kerry just a month later.

“I think the practice of using prisoners to clear mines started in Cork first and then moved to Kerry – Newcestown does set a precedent for what happened later in Kerry but the National Army leadership in Cork seems more disciplined and gets control of it sooner,” he said.

“In Kerry, with the Dublin Guard under the leadership of Paddy O’Daly, it gets very bad with obviously the atrocity at Ballyseedy where anti-Treaty IRA prisoners are tied to the mine but also at Countess Bridge near Killarney and Bahaghs near Cahersiveen where prisoners are also blown up.”

Much of the detail of what happened at Newcestown has come to light from a pension application filed in 1934 by Patrick Murray’s mother Nora and the statements of prominent anti-Treaty IRA men from West Cork such as Tom Hales, John O’Neill and William Desmond in support of her claim.

Murray was a casual farm labourer, who had served as a dispatch rider with the 1st Battalion of the Cork No 3 Brigade of the IRA during the War of Independence and according to his commanding officer, O’Neill, he was “a loyal volunteer” who took the anti-Treaty side during the Civil War.

Hales said he understood that Murray “had no way out” when he was ordered by National Army troops to clear the roadblock at Farnalough while Desmond also said he was “compelled to remove the barricade” and O’Neill stated that he was “shattered by the explosion and died in an hour”.

Local historian and author of From Newce to Truce, Sean Crowley, quotes from the papers of National Army Intelligence Officer, Michael J Costello, who said a Capt Byrne had contacted him on the night of February 3rd to say that 15 Irregulars had been to Confession in Castletownkinneigh.

A Commandant Finnegan then ordered National Army troops to surround both Castletownkinneigh and Newcestown churches the next day but when troops under a Capt Fleming neared Newcestown, they found their way blocked by a stone wall on the road with a bomb pin visible on the wall.

“As the congregation emerged from the Church, our men picked out some 12 or 15 men. Some of these were wanted men and some were mere suspects. They were marched back to the barrier and were got to help our men in removing the barricade,” wrote Costello.

“The work was almost complete when, on the removal of a flat stone, just on the road level, some smoke was noticed coming from the ground and in about five seconds, an explosion occurred, killing two and wounding seven of the civilian prisoners,” he added.

Costello also recorded that before the explosion occurred, those arrested by Capt Fleming and his men had already cleared another barricade set up the anti-Treaty IRA without incident even though the IRA had left a sign on the barricade warning civilians to be careful.

“On the first barrier, which was removed without incident, and which was a quarter of a mile from the second, was a piece of cardboard, stating ‘Civilians beware, this wall is mined’ ... the object of the barrier was to prevent our lorries rushing the church door at Newcestown.”

Capt Fleming and Pte John Milton of the National Army suffered minor injuries and, together with the others wounded in the explosion, were brought to Bandon Hospital with the more seriously injured being brought to the Mercy Hospital where John Desmond died on February 24th.

The explosion caused outrage with relatives of the victims claiming at the time that some of those who were killed or wounded were not members of the anti-Treaty IRA, including Denis O’Brien from Newcestown, whose sister, Anne O’Halloran, wrote to The Cork Examiner to reject National Army claims they were Irregulars.*

“The seven boys lying wounded in the Mercy Hospital, Cork had absolutely nothing to do with the Irregular movement, neither had any of their families. One of the wounded, Denis O’Brien is my brother, and the others are friends and neighbours,” wrote Ms O’Halloran, a teacher.

The father of one of the three deceased, 18-year-old Charles O’Leary, engaged Bandon solicitor, PJ O’Driscoll, to send a similar letter to The Cork Examiner, again rejecting any suggestion that his son was a member of the anti-Treaty IRA.

*This article was amended on March 3rd, 2023 to make clear that the last three paragraphs report on claims that were made at the time by relatives of those killed and injured in the explosion.

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times