Apologies are needed for past atrocities, says Sinn Féin leader

Mary Lou McDonald lays wreath at memorial to five Free State soldiers killed by the anti-Treaty IRA in Co Kerry

The political descendants of all sides in the Irish Civil War need to be able to apologise for the awful atrocities committed in the conflict, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said as she laid a wreath at a memorial to five Free State soldiers killed by the anti-Treaty IRA in Co Kerry.

“The whole Civil War is a study in tragedy and trauma. My own family suffered in the midst of all this when my granduncle, James O’Connor, was executed at the age of 24 but I think now a century on we need the stories to be told and all the actions to be remembered as a moment of healing.

“I think we are big enough, and Ireland is strong enough, and our peace process is robust enough, for us to address these issues and meet each other halfway and to be forgiving to each other ultimately if we can find that in ourselves,” Ms McDonald told The Irish Times at Knocknagoshel.

Ms McDonald said she didn’t know whether any of her predecessors as leaders of Sinn Féin could have come to Knocknagoshel but she was said it was important for her to do so and she saw it as a sign of the progress that had been made in achieving reconciliation 100 years on from the Civil War.


Laying the wreath at Talbot’s Bridge near Baranarig wood in Knocknagoshel where five soldiers from the National Army were killed in an anti-Treaty IRA trap mine on March 6th, 1923, Ms McDonald was joined by William O’Connor from Ardfert, a nephew of one of those killed in the explosion.

Volunteer Laurence O’Connor was only 17 when he was blown up with fellow Kerrymen Lieut Pats O’Connor and Volunteer Michael Galvin and two members of the Dublin Guard, Capt Ned Stapleton and Capt Michael Dunne while a sixth soldier, Volunteer Joseph O’Brien, lost his legs in the explosion.

Earlier, Ms McDonald had also raised the issue of apology and forgiveness when she spoke at Ballyseedy near Tralee where eight anti-Treaty IRA men were taken out by Free State forces and tied to a landmine and blown up in retaliation for the deaths of the soldiers at Knocknagoshel.

Anti-Treaty IRA men John Daly, George O’Shea, Timothy Tuomey, Patrick Hartnett, Michael O’Connell, John O’Connor, Patrick Buckley and James Walsh were all killed.

Only Stephen Fuller from Kilflynn near Listowel survived the blast, making good his escape as dawn broke over Ballyseedy wood on the morning of March 7th, 1923, and making his way to a safe house where he told what had happened to his comrades and how he had escaped, she noted.

Ms McDonald said that she believed the current generations of republicans were those who would achieve the ideals of those killed at Ballyseedy but she said that a new Ireland could only be achieved when “we reconcile the hurtful legacy of the periods of terrible conflict and division”.

“To achieve the Republic… to realise the Ireland that can be, we must forgive each other. With open hearts, we must heal the wounds of the past, and must do it together. The Civil War was a tragedy for Ireland. So many families, from both sides, carried with them a deep and grievous hurt.

“Yet, Irish people have a huge capacity for forgiveness. To move forward. Stephen Fuller’s family said he always forgave the perpetrators of Ballyseedy. He didn’t want hatred and bitterness to win out. He didn’t want hatred to be passed on. What an incredible thing for him to do.”

Ms McDonald said that generations on from the Civil War which had caused such bitterness and 25 years on from the end of the conflict in the North, the challenge for Irish society now was to “say sorry, to forgive, and to mean it”.

“Here in this time, we have an opportunity to reconcile, to rise above the past and work together to build a better future for all. Forgiveness is a powerful thing. It can transform lives and it can transform the destiny of a nation,” she told a crowd of more than 700 at Ballyseedy.

Ms McDonald said ruthless acts were carried out on both sides in the Civil War but Ballyseedy stood out.

As well as dealing with “enormous grief”, she said the families of the victims “had to endure a cover-up and the lie that the men had been killed clearing explosives and obstructions that the IRA themselves had laid... We now seek for the truth to be acknowledged by the State.”

At a commemorative event in Ballyseedy on Saturday, Tánaiste Micheál Martin cautioned against any rushed response to calls to correct the Dáil record to reflect what happened there. Mr Martin said he noted that UCD academic Dr Mary McAuliffe had counselled against simply erasing the existing Dáil record from April 1923 when then minister for defence Richard Mulcahy had wrongly exonerated Free State soldiers of any misconduct in the deaths.

“Ballyseedy is a part of our history which we must never forget, but just as Stephen Fuller and those who served on both sides of that terrible war believe, it cannot define us. In coming here to remember the events of a century ago it is the spirit of understanding and renewal which we should seek,” Mr Martin added.

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times