Diarmaid Ferriter: Kerry recovered from the carnage of the Civil War but never forgot

The county was the scene of some of the most brutal moments in the final, vicious phase of the conflict

This weekend in Tralee, a national Civil War conference, part of the State’s Decades of Centenaries Programme for 2023, will assess the conflict’s various dimensions and legacies, the discussions being hosted in the county that loomed so large during the final and vicious phase of the conflict.

Paddy O’Daly, appointed general officer commanding for the National Army in Kerry in January 1923, was determined to achieve a rout of the IRA there, setting the scene for vengeful excess. March became a “terror month”. At Knocknagoshel on March 6th, eight National Army soldiers investigated a tip-off about an arms dump, which was an IRA trap, and when a mine exploded, body parts were “strewn in all directions” with five killed; another lost his legs and was almost blinded.

The Knocknagoshel explosion represented the highest daily death toll for the army in six months. O’Daly announced that henceforth, republican prisoners would clear barricades in case of further booby-trap mines. Over the next fortnight, the lust for revenge resulted in 19 republicans being killed. The day after the Knocknagoshel carnage, nine republican prisoners in Tralee were taken to nearby Ballyseedy supposedly to clear rubble blocking the road. They were tied together before a pre-planted bomb was detonated.

As recorded by the Cork Examiner, the men were “mangled almost beyond recognition; portions of their limbs and flesh, with pieces of clothing, were found adhering to trees and strewn along the roads and fields over a hundred yards” from the scene. Miraculously, there was one survivor, Stephen Fuller, who lived until 1984. “One fella called us Irish bastards and he was an Irishman himself” Fuller recalled in 1980 of the events of that day, in the only public interview he ever did about it.


The army inquiry into the Ballyseedy slaughter, presided over by O’Daly, was a travesty. The families of the dead were not even notified of it. Four more prisoners were killed in the same way the following day at Countess Bridge near Killarney, and on March 12th, five more were killed at Cahirciveen. The cover-ups were blatant. O’Daly died at home in 1957; a portrait of him by Seán Keating adorned the walls of the Hugh Lane Gallery and he had been awarded a significant military service pension. One of the victims of the Cahiciveen killings, Daniel Shea, who had been a labourer earning 15 shillings a week, left his parents and four siblings behind on what was described to the military service pension overseers as “the grass of about 8 cows”. It took the family a decade to be compensated with a once-off gratuity of £133.

The military service pensions archive is littered with stories of this kind; gross inequities and intergenerational grief and loss.

Local historians have done much to uncover the scale of disillusionment in Kerry after the Civil War, arising out of the conflict and longer-standing social and economic difficulties. Noel Ó Murchú has revealed that of 257 recorded west Kerry Cumann na mBan members during the revolution, 106 were overseas in the 1930s, including 25 out of 36 from Ventry.

Determined to recover

It is all the more remarkable, then, that Kerry managed to shift the conflict quickly to the political stage. There was no doubting the depth of feeling on both sides; by 1933, over 90 per cent of general election voters in the county opted for one or other of the two Civil War parties. As republican apologist Dorothy Macardle famously recorded in her 1924 book, The Tragedies of Kerry, “the birds were eating the flesh off the trees at Ballyseedy Cross”, ensuring the memories were seared, but there was also a determination to recover.

One of the organisers of this weekend’s conference, historian Owen O’Shea, has pointed out that anti-Treaty IRA Civil War veteran Tom McEllistrim spent 46 years in the Dáil after the war, the longest Dáil career in the history of Kerry, but he never mentioned the conflict in parliament. He did speak to journalist and historian Nollaig Ó Gadhra in 1970, suggesting the war so “chastised us on both sides [that] we were better citizens afterwards”. But McEllistrim, a prolific writer on behalf of pension applicants, was well aware of the human, material and psychological toll that meant others struggled to be as measured as he was.

The shame felt that things descended to the point they did and the fact that the Irish democratic culture predated the Civil War combined to act as a salve of sorts. Historian Anne Dolan has suggested: “although there could be no forgetting, there was a will to forget… the end had been reached; there was no need to reminisce about the means”. That attitude facilitated a speedy political recovery, which, given the awfulness of events in Kerry a century ago, was quite an achievement, but measuring and appreciating the trauma that was deep and internalised is a more complex matter.