A letter written by an anti-Treaty IRA soldier killed in the Civil War in Co Kerry finally reached his mother after six years and travelling 10,000km – despite the fact she lived less than five kilometres from where her son was tied to a landmine and blown up by Free State Forces.
The story of Stephen Buckley and how a letter written hours before he was killed made its way to his mother, Hannah, is told by his grandnephew, Fr Tom Looney. Buckley was one of four men killed by National Army troops at Countess Bridge in Killarney 100 years ago this month.
“Stephen took the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War and on March 3rd, 1923, he was captured with two of his comrades, Dan O’Donoghue and Tim Murphy, at a dugout on the Buckley farm at Rathdrinagh, Killarney, and brought to the Great Southern Hotel where the Free State forces were based,” Fr Looney said.
“Early on the morning of March 7th, Stephen – along with his comrades, Dan, Tim, Tadhg Coffey and Jer O’Donoghue – was taken from his cell by a party of Free State officers and soldiers and brought half a mile or so through the fields to Countess Bridge.
“When they arrived at the bridge, the five prisoners were ordered to start clearing a barricade put on the road a short time earlier by Free State troops and as they did, a Free State officer detonated a bomb hidden in the barricade and Stephen and three others were mortally wounded.”
All of the men were killed by Free States troops firing at them except for Coffey, who, like Stephen Fuller at Ballyseedy earlier that day, survived the blast and managed to escape to tell the tale of what happened at Countess Bridge.
According to Fr Looney, Buckley, knowing he was going to die, wrote a letter to his mother before being taken from his cell. He secretly gave it to a Free State soldier who was guarding him in the hope it would be delivered uncensored to his mother at Rathdrinagh, just 5km away.
“But the Free State soldier was fearful that he might suffer the same fate of another Free State soldier – the Tailor (Daniel) Sugrue, shot in suspicious circumstances after giving a bottle of stout to another republican prisoner. He decided not to bring the letter to Hannah Buckley,” said Fr Looney.
“Instead, he put it in a book and took it with him to New York where he emigrated after the Civil War and there, some years later, he gave it to Red Mike Quill, who had also taken the anti-Treaty side and gone to New York where he became a leading figure in the transport union.
“And in 1929, Mike Quill got the letter to his brother, Dan, back at Gortloughera in Kilgarvan and he brought the letter to Stephen’s mother, and my grandaunt, Hannah Buckley at Rathdrinagh. It took six years and it crossed the Atlantic twice but she finally got to see her son’s last letter.”
In the letter, Buckley, tells his mother not to mourn his death but to rejoice that one of her family should give his life to the republican cause, as did Patrick Pearse, Terence MacSwiney, Kevin Barry, Cathal Brugha, Liam Mellows and fellow Kerryman, Jim Daly – executed weeks earlier by the Free State in Tralee.
“I am quite reconciled and proud and happy to die for the sacred cause of Irish independence. I would like to live longer, especially for my dear mother’s sake, to make you happy but God has willed otherwise so I am ready,” wrote Buckley.
“I am certain that the cause for which I die, the cause of truth, right and honour, must triumph in the end. Pray for those who sent me to death, that they may be converted to the national faith and never allow yourselves to any ill-feeling for them. With the best of love, I remain true until death, a republican soldier.”
Fr Looney said: “It’s a desperately sad story – her son killed in a terrible atrocity here in Killarney and it took six years for his letter to reach – but the great news is that it did finally reach her so she at least had the solace years later of being able to read his farewell to her.”
The four men killed on the Countess Bridge, as well as Coffey, were remembered this week by the Kerry branch of the National Graves Association in a ceremony on the very spot where they were blown up.
Dr Tim Horgan, historian and author of Dying for the Cause – Kerry’s republican Dead, gave an oration at Countess Bridge in which he declared that the names of Stephen Buckley, Tim Murphy, Dan O’Donoghue, Jer O’Donoghue and Tadhg Coffey would not be forgotten, but remembered with pride.