Calls for National Army officer’s account of Ballyseedy ambush to be read into record of Dáil Éireann

Lieut-Colonel Niall C Harrington believed official account of 1923 massacre was ‘entirely untrue’

In 1997 Pat Butler was making a drama-documentary about the horrific events of Ballyseedy when he was sent a single sheet of paper that had been found in an attic. The document directly contradicted a government claim that the killing of eight Republican prisoners during the Civil War occurred as a result of an accident when they were made to clear a landmine at Ballyseedy, which is outside Tralee in Co Kerry.

In April 1923, the then minister for defence, General Richard Mulcahy, told Dáil Éireann that the prisoners had been instructed to remove obstructions from the main road between Tralee and Kilorglin. It was at this point on March 7th, 1923, that the mine went off. Similarly, he stated a landmine explosion which had killed five prisoners at Countess Bridge near Killarney five days later was also an accident.

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Mulcahy read the results of the military court of inquiry into the record of Dáil Éireann. The court of inquiry had been presided over by Major-General Paddy O’Daly, the same man who had ordered the republican prisoners to be killed.

The sheet of paper sent to Pat Butler stated that the findings of the court of inquiry were “entirely untrue”. The claim did not come from somebody on the republican or “irregular” side, but from an army officer, Lieut-Colonel Niall C. Harrington, who held the second highest rank in military intelligence during the Second World War.


The mine which killed the eight republican prisoners was not constructed by anti-Treaty rebels but by two officers in Tralee barracks, he wrote. He even named those who built the mine as “captains Eddy ‘Ed’ Flood, and Jim Clark”.

Harrington continued: “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.”

This extraordinary testimony is all the more powerful for coming from a National Army officer and it corroborates the testimony of the only survivor of the Ballyseedy ambush, Stephen Fuller. He too was tied to the landmine, but survived the blast and gave his account in an interview with the historian Robert Kee in the 1970s for the groundbreaking series Ireland: A Television History.

Fuller told Kees: “And, they tied us then, our hands behind our back, and left about a foot between the hands like, and the next fella. They tied us in a circle then around the, around the mine. And they tied our legs then, and the knees as well with a rope. And then they threw off our caps and they said we could be praying away now as long as we like.”

Fuller’s full testimony was broadcast in the drama-documentary Ballyseedy.

Butler echoed calls from the Co Kerry historian Dr Mary McAuliffe for Fuller’s alternative account to be read into the record of the Dáil. He went further and stated that the testimony of Harrington should also be read into the parliament’s record because it is an independent source for the allegations that the court of inquiry’s findings were false.

He suggested that both testimonies be read alternatively by Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. Together, he said, they could perform 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.”

Butler also called on RTÉ to rebroadcast Ballyseedy. The drama-documentary was shown for the first time in its entirety at a conference on the Civil War in Kerry last week.

Varadkar was asked on RTÉ's Prime Time if it was time for the State to issue an apology in relation to Ballyseedy. He admitted what happened at Ballyseedy was wrong and an atrocity, but atrocities had been carried out by both sides. He said he was committed to addressing the legacy of the Civil War before the Decade of Centenaries ends later this year.

A number of events marking the centenary of Ballyseedy take place this weekend. The main non-political commemoration is being held at the Ballyseedy monument on Sunday at 3.30pm with members of the victims’ families. The event is organised by the Ballyseedy Memorial Committee. A Sinn Féin commemoration, which is to be addressed by party leader Mary Lou McDonald, takes place at midday on Sunday.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times