Civil War commentators guilty of lazy and inaccurate self-judgment, says author

Dr Tim Horgan rejects suggestions of moral comparison between anti-Treaty IRA men and Free State soldiers who killed them

Commentators, who are reduced to saying of the Irish Civil War that “dreadful things were done on both sides”, are guilty of lazy and inaccurate self-judgment, a prominent author on the conflict in Kerry has told a commemoration to five men killed in an atrocity by Free State forces in the county.

Dr Tim Horgan, author of Dying for the Cause – Kerry’s Republican Dead rejected suggestions there was any moral comparison between the anti-Treaty IRA men blown up at Ballyseedy, Countess Bridge in Killarney and Bahaghs near Cahersiveen and the Free State soldiers who killed them.

“They tell us that dreadful things were done on both sides ... It might rhyme with present day political requirements but not with history. In those matters of history, to each other we owe respect, there is no hierarchy of grief but to the dead we owe the truth.

“There was not an equivalence between the five men who were placed around a mine here and those that detonated it,” Dr Horgan told a crowd of over 500 people who gathered last weekend for a commemoration to remember the five men killed at Bahaghs 100 years ago this week.


Michael Courtney (24) of Waterville, Dan Shea (21) of Dromid, John Sugrue (21) from Ballinskelligs, Willie Riordan (19) from Renard and Eugene Dwyer (24) from Waterville were all killed when they were first shot in the legs and placed on a mine which was then detonated by Free State troops.

Details of what happened the men were revealed in a statement by Jerome O’Riordan of Cahersiveen, O/C Third Brigade of Kerry IRA, uncovered in the papers of Labour leader, Tom Johnson by Kerry born historian, Dr Richard McElligott of Dundalk Institute of Technology.

O’Riordan told Johnson, who raised the killing of 17 anti-Treaty IRA prisoners at Ballyseedy, Countess Bridge and Bahaghs in the Dáil in April 1923, that the five men blown up by Free State troops at Bahaghs on March 12th, 1923 were picked out for death three days earlier on March 9th.

O’Riordan said that the information came from an anti-Treaty IRA prisoner who was being held with the dead men by National Army troops at the Cahersiveen Workhouse at Bahaghs and who was released on March 14th from Free State custody and told what had happened to his dead comrades.

Five names called

According to O’Riordan, the five men, Courtney, Dwyer, Riordan, Shea and Sugrue were all tried separately in an office in the workhouse by three National Army officers, Griffin, Foley and Hegarty on March 9th but nothing happened to the men until three days later.

Around 4.30am on the morning of March 12th, two soldiers entered the room at the workhouses where 30 prisoners were sleeping and called out the five names before returning soon after with another two soldiers and, together they removed the five prisoners.

According to O’Riordan, the remaining prisoners knew nothing about what had befallen the five men until nightfall when a Free State officer, a Lt W McCarthy asked a prisoner called John Graham what was supposed to have happened to the other five men and he said they had been taken to Tralee.

“McCarthy then said: ‘They were murdered on the road this morning by the men who took them out.’ He said that he himself was putting in his resignation that night (and that) the fellows that killed them were some of the Dublin Guard who were at the workhouse on Sunday (March 11th)

According to O’Riordan, Lt McCarthy told how one of the Dublin Guard put a gun to the head of one of the National Army guards and told him he would blow his brains out if he didn’t take them down to the prisoners and he also threatened a sergeant with the same fate if he told anyone.

“He [the Dublin Guard officer] then took them down the road, there was no attempt to escape as the prisoners were shot first, then put over a mine and blown up, it was a Free State mine and made by themselves,” said O’Riordan, quoting from the prisoner who told him what McCarthy had said.

“This is all in Lt McCarthy’s statement- ... there were six or eight in the lot that murdered them, a murder gang going around trying to keep on the war. They themselves, Free State officers, would support the Free State government and fight for it but would not fight for murder.”

O’Riordan’s statement also tells how the Free State soldiers gathered up the remains of the five prisoners and put them in coffins but the friends of the five men went out to Bahaghs and “collected other parts, portions of hands, hearts and livers” and put them into the coffins.

Contradictory report

O’Riordan said newspapers reports of March 13th referred to the men being killed in an ambush, but this was not true. “There was no ambush as all our troops were removed from the vicinity. There was no ambush and no mine and no Free State soldiers dead that day,” he said.

It later emerged Lt McCarthy’s account of what happened was corroborated in papers released by the Department of Justice in 2008 which revealed that an investigation into the killings by An Garda Síochána found that the men had been shot and blown up by a mine at Bahaghs.

The garda report flatly contradicted a statement given by Comdt JJ Delaney, who told a Court of Inquiry in Tralee in 1923 that he had taken five prisoners from the Bahaghs workhouse on March 12th to remove a barricade on the road between Cahersiveen and Valentia.

Delaney told the inquiry: “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 – I examined the barricade and did not see the mine.

“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,” said Delaney, adding that it was “a lie to say that the prisoners were shot” but were killed instantly in the explosion.

Recalling the atrocity on Sunday, Stephen Kelleghan of the Bahaghs Memorial Trust thanked all who contributed to the restoration of the monument to the five men before Sean Collins, a descendant of Michael Courtney, played a song he wrote about the killings called The Rosary Beads.

Michael Courtney was a noted musician and another descendant, Denis Collins played two marches, Return to Fingal and The Battle of Aughrim on Michael Courtney’s fife before Aine Sheehan closed proceedings with a ballad about the atrocity entitled The Boys of Bahaghs.

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times