Irish history always seems to have a gothic element. It is marked by the return of the repressed, haunted by the undead. The hankering after closure cannot be satisfied.
As Mary Tyrone puts it in that most Irish of American plays, Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, “The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future, too. We all try to lie out of that but life won’t let us.”
The centenary of the Ballyseedy massacre, the worst single atrocity of the Civil War, in which Free State forces took nine anti-Treaty IRA prisoners from Tralee and blew them up with a mine, is being marked at ceremonies, some of which are rival, this weekend. For most people in Ireland now, it is ancient history, the subject of an unseemly squabble between those who lay claim to apostolic succession from the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War.
Yet I’ve always been struck by the strange overlap between Ballyseedy and the Kerry Babies scandal of the 1980s, the chilling way in which the State inflicted terrible trauma on a family – and then returned 60 years later to retraumatise the same family.
A hundred years ago, Stephen Fuller was the only survivor of the Ballyseedy massacre. Fuller had, apparently, kept his trauma to himself for many decades until, in 1980, he gave an interview to Robert Kee for the groundbreaking BBC series, Ireland: A Television History. You can watch it on YouTube.
Fuller speaks calmly in his softly undulating Kerry accent. His narration of what happened at Ballyseedy is simple and straightforward. He does not raise his voice.
But his eyes are full of pity and terror – eyes from which the vision of utter inhumanity could never be erased. They tell their own story of unending hurt.
Just two months after Stephen Fuller’s death in February 1984, gardaí arrested Joanne Hayes and accused her of a murder she could not possibly have committed, setting in train what became known as the Kerry Babies scandal.
The new State responded to the knowledge that its forces had committed these cold-blooded murders by conducting a rigged inquiry
They also charged Fuller’s cousin, Bridie Fuller, a much-respected retired nurse, with attempting to conceal the birth of a child by secretly disposing of his body. These charges were false.
At one level, of course, this link is mere coincidence. These are different stories from different eras. There is no sense at all that the Hayes and Fuller families were targeted in 1984 because of what happened in 1923 – or even that the gardaí involved in the Kerry Babies story were at all aware of the historic nerve they were touching.
There is, nonetheless, a continuity between the events that tells us something important about the long-term legacy of the Civil War. The war imprinted on the new State a mentality that expressed itself in grotesque ways in the Kerry Babies scandal.
Like the wicked fairy that turns up at the birth of the princess, Civil War cursed the State while it was still coming into existence. The curse was impunity, cover-up, and a capacity to bury the trauma of victims under layers of official indifference.
This is not the place to refight the conflict, but what is relevant here is that it involved the State in retaliatory acts of extreme violence and that some of those acts were murderous atrocities. Ballyseedy is one of the starkest examples.
The new State responded to the knowledge that its forces had committed these cold-blooded murders by conducting a rigged inquiry and blaming the victims. As Diarmaid Ferriter noted in The Irish Times last Friday, “the cover-ups were blatant”. No one was disciplined, let alone prosecuted.
And the State was happy, too, to leave a pall of trauma over that part of Kerry. Mollie O’Shea, whose brother was one of those murdered at Ballyseedy, was admitted to Killarney Mental Hospital in 1928, and deemed “hopelessly insane”.
It took almost 35 years for the State to apologise to Joanne Hayes and her family, admit its own guilt and pay compensation
Stephen Fuller tried to get the State to help her, but it coldly refused to compensate her or the other families.
Fast forward 60 years and we have the State returning to the same part of Kerry and victimising one of the same families. And we have the same pattern of obfuscation, victim-blaming and – over decades – refusal of compensation.
What happened in the Kerry Babies case was that gardaí somehow got not just Joanne Hayes but also her family to confess to killing a newborn baby that had been washed up miles away at Cahirciveen. It quickly became apparent that they could not have done what they confessed to.
But what happened next is that instead of properly investigating how these false confessions were obtained, the State investigated the victims. The Hayes and Fuller families were subjected to a public tribunal of inquiry in which they, and not the State, were essentially put on trial.
Perhaps the nadir of this outrageous spectacle came in February 1985, when the tribunal held a special sitting in the County Hospital in Tralee. Bridie Fuller, Joanne’s aunt, was terminally ill.
“Frail and white-haired”, she was wheeled from her hospital bed into a room full of lawyers. She was cross-examined about events that had nothing whatsoever to do with the Cahirciveen baby that was the supposed subject of the Garda murder inquiry.
Mary Cummins, reporting from Tralee for The Irish Times, noted the torment of Bridie Fuller’s sister, niece and nephews: “Back at the courthouse, the Hayes family was huddled in a corner of the gloomy foyer. Joanne Hayes was crying uncontrollably. She ran off to the ladies’. Kathleen, the strong one of the family, was white and distressed. Mrs Mary Hayes was mute and her face was furrowed.”
This is, obviously, not as bad as blowing prisoners to smithereens. But it nonetheless manifested an official mindset in which the proper response to a State scandal was to avoid all accountability for its own actions and heap further torment on the victims.
When it was published, the Kerry Babies tribunal report was a travesty that failed to deal with the real question – how people confessed to crimes they did not commit – and instead obsessed about Joanne Hayes’s sex life.
It was very striking, though, that in spite of this official branding of Hayes as an immoral woman, local people strongly supported her and her family and protested at their treatment. Perhaps a memory of what had happened in the 1920s made them sceptical of the State’s responses to its own misdeeds.
It took almost 35 years for the State to apologise to Joanne Hayes and her family, admit its own guilt and pay compensation.
Would all of this have happened without the Civil War? Maybe. But the continuity between Ballyseedy and the Kerry Babies shows how, in the violent circumstances of its birth, the State acquired habits of mind that were very hard to shake off.
Perhaps, in that sense, the Civil War will be over when we can be confident that those habits have died.
This article was amended on March 10th, 2023.