Tánaiste cautions against a rush to correct Dáil record on Ballyseedy massacre

Fianna Fáil leader says it is important to remember darker events during Ireland’s fight for independence

Tánaiste Micheál Martin has cautioned against any rushed response to calls to correct the Dáil record to reflect what happened 100 years ago when eight anti-Treaty IRA prisoners were killed after being tied to a landmine by Free State soldiers at Ballyseedy in Co Kerry.

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.

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Dr McAuliffe had suggested it would be a simple matter of reading into the record an account given by Stephen Fuller, a survivor of the incident who said that Free State soldiers tied the anti-Treaty IRA prisoners to the mine and detonated the device, killing his eight comrades.

But Mr Martin said he would like time to consider such an approach, particularly as he felt it was important that Mr Mulcahy’s statement wou remain on the Dáil record as “a historical record” of the cover-up by the Provisional Government of what happened at Ballyseedy a month earlier.


“I am going to reflect on this, but I don’t think it’s as simple as it is being suggested,” Mr Martin said. “It’s now part of the historical narrative that attempts were made to cover up what happened here in Kerry in the aftermath of Knocknagoshel with the explosions at Ballyseedy, Countess Bridge and Bahaghs.”

Speaking after visiting the monument to the men who died at Ballyseedy, where he met Mr Fuller’s son, Paudie and the relatives of the other men killed there, the Fianna Fáil leader said he was very conscious of Mr Fuller’s dignified approach to what happened there on March 7th, 1923.

‘Savagery of the Civil War’

He said the family believed one of the reasons why Mr Fuller “stayed silent for nearly 50 years of his life was the that he didn’t want another generation to be infected with the savagery of the Civil War”.

“That’s very striking and when you talk to the Fuller family, that has always been their consistent position. Even though Stephen Fuller went on to become a Fianna Fáil TD, they never sought to carry on the bitterness or have another generation infected by it and that gives us a great lesson.

“I think the importance of these type of events is to enlighten new generations in as objective and fair a way as possible and to learn from them so we never again experience them again and that’s why political parties and movements should not hijack these events for their own advancement.”

Speaking later at a Fianna Fáil gathering at nearby Ballingarry House Hotel, Mr Martin said that while there were many episodes in Irish history of which people could be rightly proud, it was also important to remember the darker events during Ireland’s fight for independence.

“Unquestionably, the brutal massacre in Ballyseedy on the night of March 6th and 7th 1923, marked one of the lowest points in our national story. Even after 100 years what happened here retains the power to shock,” he told an audience of around 100 people.

‘Undeniable cause’

The insistence of the departing British that they should retain the power to impose conditions on the new state was “the direct and undeniable cause” of the division between former comrades that led to the Civil War and events such as Ballyseedy, Countess Bridge and Bahaghs, he said.

“I believe that the terrible crimes committed by government forces against prisoners deserve to be singled out and condemned in and of themselves – but an honest remembrance must also acknowledge other incidents which were the responsibility of others,” he said.

“In particular, we cannot remember March 1923 without acknowledging that the blowing up of five (Free State) soldiers at Knocknagoshel was a cruel and terrible event. It caused genuine shock throughout the community, even amongst those in whose name it was carried out.”

Mr Martin said it was the mark of “honest, democratic remembrance” to combine honouring one’s own with genuinely reflecting on the hurt caused to others and it was understandable that the news of Knocknagoshel was met with anger even though what followed was devoid of any righteous motive.

“It (Ballyseedy) reflected a brutal lawlessness which was already evident in the actions of certain men wearing uniforms which were supposed to represent legal authority but actually gave them impunity for some of the worst actions seen in our modern history,” he said.

“There was a concerted effort to cover-up what happened here and then at Countess Bridge and Bahaghs, Cahirsiveen, but the people of Kerry and the authorities always knew the truth. It was premeditated murder, nothing less.”

Mr Martin said Mr Fuller’s story, and those of his comrades, of how the deaths were planned belonged to no party but were rather part of Ireland’s story, which the public should never allow to be forgotten.

In his account, Mr Fuller said: ‘We were made lie flat down in the lorry and taken out to Ballyseedy. And they tied us then, our hands behind our back, and left about a foot between the hands and the next fellow. They tied us in a circle then 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. So the next fella to me said his prayers, and I said mine too. But I still kept watching where they went. It was that that saved me afterwards. But he said goodbye then, and I said goodbye, and the next fella picked it up, and he said goodbye, goodbye lads, and up it went. And I went up with it.’

‘Trail of bitterness’

Mr Martin said that when speaking about the incident almost 60 years later, Mr Fuller’s voice “is one of sadness and reflection. He is not seeking vengeance. He is not calling us to keep up the fight. No, he is asking that we remember. That we understand the truth. That we never let such terrible things happen again in our country”.

He said the events of Ballyseedy, Countess Bridge and Bahaghs and the executions of 81 prisoners by the Provisional Government “left a trail of bitterness which was an enormous burden for the new state”.

However, he said Ireland managed to rebuild a deep sense of community through the actions of men and women from both sides of the conflict who largely refused “to indulge in the type of partisanship and celebration” which such conflicts have led to in other countries.

“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,” he added.

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times