Free State attempted fourth atrocity in Co Kerry on same day as Ballyseedy massacre

Historian Dr Richard McElligott says failed bombing in Scartaglin could have killed another five anti-Treaty IRA members

A historian has uncovered evidence of a fourth landmine attack on anti-Treaty IRA prisoners by Free State forces in Kerry during the Civil War.

This event would have brought the death toll from such attacks to 22, but the bomb failed to detonate and, in turn, saved the lives of five men.

Dr Richard McElligott of Dundalk Institute of Technology said that most people were aware of the March 1923 atrocities, when Free State forces killed anti-Treaty IRA prisoners at Ballyseedy, Countess Bridge and Bahaghs.

What is not widely known, however, was that National Army soldiers attempted to kill another five anti-Treaty IRA prisoners near Scartaglin on March 7th, 1923 – the same day eight men were killed at Ballyseedy and four were killed at Countess Bridge.


Dr McElligott said that he uncovered details of this fourth atrocity in the papers of Labour leader Tom Johnson, who took a statement on the incident from one of the prisoners, Con Donoghue from Cordal, who escaped death when the landmine failed to explode.

According to Donoghue, he and four other captured anti-Treaty IRA members – Denis Prendiville, Paddy Reidy, James Houlihan and Tom Barrett – were ordered into a lorry at Castleisland Barracks, where they were being detained, and they set off for Scartaglin with an escort of 12 Free State troops.

He told how they proceeded for about 2½ miles until they came to Roche’s Quarry, where they encountered a barricade made of stones blocking their path. The men were ordered from the truck at gunpoint and told to start removing the stone barricade.

“We had only taken off a few stones when a bomb exploded and we ran to the sides of the road and lay down. Denis Prendiville remained standing in the road and some soldiers stayed about 200 yards down the road. Others came up behind the fence to where we were.

“They then threw bombs at us from inside the fence which exploded around the road. Shots were fired from [Paddy] Reidy’s side of the road at Denis Prendiville, who was seen trying to scramble on his knees to the side of the road,” said Donoghue.

The soldiers finally emerged from behind the ditch and ordered the men back into the lorry. They were taken back to Castleisland Barracks, where both Denis Prendiville and James Houlihan were treated for minor wounds suffered in the explosion.

Dr McElligott said many of details of the incident were confirmed by the officer in charge of the Castleisland prisoners, Comdt William McAuliffe, when he gave evidence at the court of inquiry into the Kerry killings, chaired by the senior officer at the time, Maj Gen Paddy O’Daly.

McAuliffe told the hearing that he received information that there was a barricade blocking the Scartaglin Road so he randomly selected five prisoners from the guard room to put in a Crossley tender and drive within 500 yards of the barricade.

‘They went up to the barricade and started work. When they had about a quarter of it removed, there was a small explosion. The prisoners were unhurt. They said there was a bomb under a stone. They carried on work and then three explosions occurred within a few seconds.

“One prisoner complained to me he was wounded. I put him in the Crossley – his name was Prendiville – with the remainder of the prisoners who were unhurt. Before leaving, I examined the barricade. I could not see any signs of a bomb. I put the prisoners back in the guard room.”

Dr McElligott said McAuliffe’s version tallies with Donoghue’s account but he does not mention the mine was made by Free State troops. Given Donoghue said the soldiers opened fired on the prisoners, however, it seems reasonable to think it was an attempt to kill them, as happened at Ballyseedy.

“What happened at Ballyseedy, Countess Bridge and Bahaghs was horrific but Scartaglin could easily have been similarly horrific. The death toll was appalling enough as it was, with 17 men killed, but it could very easily have been 22 if the landmine had exploded as intended.

“It’s like Countess Bridge in that they started firing at them and throwing bombs at them. I don’t know why the Free State officers in Scartaglin didn’t kill the prisoners. My interpretation is that they were hoping the mine would kill them and when it didn’t, maybe they lost their nerve.”

Dr McElligott said the Scartaglin landmine fits into a pattern with what happened in Ballyseedy, Countess Bridge and Bahaghs. He said he had no doubt but that it was a deliberate tactic drawn up by the senior officers of the Kerry Command, including Paddy O’Daly and Col David Nelligan.

“It all suggests to me a deliberate planned action across the entire county. We know the killings were in reprisal for Knocknagoshel, where five Free State soldiers including Pats O’Connor were killed in an IRA trap mine, but I don’t believe it was ‘a rush of blood to the head’ type of response.

“You would think if it was a rush of blood to the head, the lads in Castleisland – those taken out the Scartaglin road – would have got it first because Castleisland was the National Army HQ where Pats O’Connor was based, but instead they start the reprisals in Tralee with Ballyseedy.

“Other historians have made the point and I think it’s right: there is a geographical element to this. You have Tralee, Kerry IRA No 1 Brigade area, Countess Bridge, Kerry IRA No 2 Brigade area and Cahersiveen, Kerry IRA No 3 Brigade area, so they are sending a message to each of the IRA areas.

“They are saying ‘you hurt us, we are going to hurt you back more’ and it’s across the entire county so as to leave no one in any doubt. It’s crude but effective. It’s as if they want to send a message to the IRA but also to the wider community: ‘Stop or we’ll keep hurting you more and more.’”

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times