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Ballyseedy monument, Co Kerry.
Civil War

The hurt remains: Ballyseedy and the story of a bomb blast that still roars 100 years later

This weekend marks 100 years from the massacre of eight IRA anti-treaty men at Ballyseedy.

PAUDIE FULLER SITS in the living room of his old farmhouse in rural north Kerry surrounded by pictures of grandchildren and extended family. 

He is 81-years-old and one of the last direct blood connections to Ireland’s revolutionary birth – his father, Stephen, fought in the War of Independence and took the anti-treaty side in the subsequent Civil War.

Stephen Fuller’s war record is vast with battles and fights against the British with his fellow IRA men in the townland of Killflynn near Tralee in north Kerry.

But it is the story of how he became a lone survivor in one of Ireland’s darkest days, in the massacre at Ballyseedy, that has kept his memory alive to historians and locals.

On 7 March 1923 nine men were taken in a truck from their prison in Ballymullen Barracks in Tralee on the orders of the Free State National Army – tied around a landmine and murdered in reprisal for the killing of soldiers the day before.

The nine men were Patrick Buckley from Scartaglin, John Daly from Castleisland, Pat Hartnett from Listowel, George O’Shea, Tim Tuomey and Stephen Fuller from Kilflynn, James Walsh of Churchill, Michael O’Connell from Castleisland, and John O’Connor from Innishannon, Co Cork.

Eight died that day, only Fuller survived.

Now Paudie Fuller, a former Fianna Fáil councillor, sits in the family’s farmhouse in the isolated townland of Kilflynn and tells a story of the rawness of the trauma suffered in the fields and boreens of that picturesque rural landscape. 

In a broad bellowing North Kerry accent with his eyes fixed and bright he tells of the impact on the lives of those directly affected and how his father’s stoic acceptance of the horror meant that he rarely spoke of it. 

Paudie Fuller doesn’t spare his language when speaking about the events of 100 years ago and declares: “It was an atrocity. It was brutal murder, it was a f##king war crime.”

IMG_3641 Paudie Fuller, son of Stephen Fuller. Niall O'Connor / The Journal Niall O'Connor / The Journal / The Journal

Three of the men killed at Ballyseedy were from the Kilflynn area and the passage of time has not dulled the understanding and hurt suffered by the surviving family members. They were arrested inside a dugout by National Army troops a week before.

In the local community sprinkled across the rural area of fields and ditches Fuller said that the “hurt remains”.  

“They talk about it, they enquire about it. There’s a lot of hurt about it, there’s a couple of families who were blown to pieces because of it – that is what happened,” he said. 

In the Dáil in 1923 it was claimed that the men were not killed by the National Army but in fact killed as they cleared a mine from the road. 

Fuller has been hoping for an apology from the State and he will meet Tánaiste Micheál Martin this weekend to discuss the issue about the Dáil record.

“The record is wrong and it should’ve been corrected long ago. This was an attack by Ireland on its own people – if my father hadn’t survived no one would know about it,” he said. 

The issue of the Dáil record is centred around the comments by then Chief of Staff of the army and Minister for Defence General Richard Mulcahy in which he claimed the men were killed as they attempted to defuse their own device. 

But Stephen Fuller told a different story and what is now accepted as the reality is a tale of barbaric murder and slaughter by the burgeoning Free State in response to similar atrocities of the anti-treaty IRA. 

In a BBC interview from 1980 Stephen Fuller tells the reality of that day.

“He gave us a cigarette, he said ‘that’s the last cigarette you’ll ever smoke’. He said ‘we’ve got to blow you up with a mine’.

“We were removed out to a lorry and made to lie flat and taken out to Ballyseedy. We arrived out and the language was abusive. One fella called us Irish bastards and he was Irish himself. 

“Another fella was asked to say his prayers – he said ‘no prayers, our fellas got no time for prayers – some of ye might go to heaven and might our fellas there’.

“They tied us then, our hands behind our back, and left about a foot between the hands from the next fella and tied us in a circle around the mine and tied our legs and knees with a rope.

“Then the captain said we could be praying away as long as we like. The next fella to me said his prayers and I said mine too. He said goodbye and I said goodbye and the next fella picked it up and they said goodbye lads and off it went and I went up with it of course,” he said. 

Stephen Fuller, centre, campaigning during an election in the 1930s Stephen Fuller on the right. Campaigning during an election in the 1930s. Owen O'Shea Owen O'Shea

Fuller, in a miracle of the blast radius and violence of the explosion, was severed from the ropes and flung high into the sky, landing into a drainage ditch nearby. 

Go back

To understand the events of Ballyseedy there is a need to go back to 1923 and, through the research of historians Owen O’Shea and University College Cork’s John Borgonovo, see what the situation on the ground was at the time. 

Local historian Owen O’Shea, who has just published a book on the period No Middle Path: The Civil War in Kerry, said that his research has found that such was the slaughter at Ballyseedy, that dismembered body parts lay scattered around – and it was this carnage that allowed Fuller’s body go undiscovered.   

He would later make his way, severely burned with stones embedded under his skin, to a house and spend the rest of the Civil War being protected by the people of Kerry loyal to the Anti-Treaty side. 

O’Shea said that the other men were dead almost instantly, with some of them shot as they lay dying on the roadway.

The Kerry historian said that the men’s mutilated bodies were taken in coffins to the local barracks.

Family members came to view the remains and as they arrived at the gate. Paddy O’Daly, the man in charge of the National Army in Kerry, had placed an army band to play lively ragtime music at the gate. 

Violence broke out as the soldiers intimidated and verbally abused the families – the coffins were cracked open. One of the families, O’Shea said, could only identify the remains of their loved one because of the curls of his hair.

It was not the end of the bloodletting – on 12 March in Cahirsiveen five IRA prisoners were blown up in a mine – again the National Army were blamed.

In Killarney at Countess Bridge on 7 March 1923 four IRA prisoners were also killed in an explosion – this was a new tactic that saw the Civil War violence descend to a level of pure barbaric extra-judicial killings. 

But what had caused a supposed disciplined force to become an army that saw extra-judicial killings and summary executions as the way to go? 

Major General Paddy O'Daly, head of the Kerry Command of the Free State Army from January 1923 Courtesy South Dublin Libraries Brophy Collection Major General Paddy O'Daly. Owen O'Shea Owen O'Shea


The fighting was particularly bitter in County Kerry from June 1922 to March 1923 since Irish National Army troops took back Tralee in an amphibious landing.

Both O’Shea and Borgonovo said that the violence took an even more sinister turn with the arrival of two men in the county – Major General Paddy O’Daly and intelligence officer David Nelligan.

O’Daly was a former member of Michael Collins’ assassination squad based in Dublin who killed spies and British agents in some of the most famous incidents of the War of Independence. 

Dave Nelligan was an ex Dublin Metropolitan Police officer who acted as a spy for Collins inside Dublin Castle and passed critical information to the IRA as they prosecuted their fight against the Crown forces.

Both men then took on senior roles in the Civil War after the Treaty and were part of the Dublin Guard – a group of National Army soldiers who were tasked with solving the Kerry insurgency.

Borgonovo said: “The most extreme and contested of National Army violence took place under the direction, or command, or it was closely associated with Major General Paddy O’Daly and Colonel David Neligan.

“One of the interesting aspects of the Kerry case study is that both of those characters were very closely associated with Michael Collins, and were kind of protegees of Collins.

“Then among the Dublin Guard leadership, who were also implicated in some of this, are some people who are closely associated with Collins and so that raises difficult questions about the period”.

The historians reference an incident in Kenmare, County Kerry when O’Daly led a group of soldiers that saw the brutal beating of two women in their home. They were the daughters of Dr Randall McCarthy. 

A handgun was left behind – later identified as that owned by O’Daly – on the handle, it was claimed, were notches denoting the amount of kills he had made. 

On that occasion, like in regard to the other killings, a blind eye was turned by Mulcahy and WT Cosgrave, the then leader of the Irish Government.

IMG_3653 John O'Shea, nephew of George O'Shea who was killed in the Ballyseedy blast. Niall O'Connor / The Journal Niall O'Connor / The Journal / The Journal


O’Shea said that the apparent excuse for Ballyseedy was the killing of five soldiers in a booby trap bombing in the townland of Knocknagoshel in north Kerry the week previous.

It happened on 6 March 1923 when a tip was received that there was a dugout and arms dump at a woodland near Castleisland. It was a ruse and a trap by the anti-Treaty IRA to kill intelligence officers.

The soldiers went there, including senior Dublin Guard officers, and as they inspected the structure the bomb was detonated killing five instantly with one soldier Private Patrick O’Brien surviving.

Three Kerry men were killed in the blast; Patrick ‘Pats’ O’Connor,  Laurence O’Connor for Lissycurry in Causeway and Michael Galvin from Killarney.

Two Dublin Guard soldiers Capt Edward Stapleton and Capt Michael Dunne were also killed.

The horror of that incident can not be understated – O’Connor’s decapitated head was found by a school girl later in a stream.

O’Shea said this sent O’Daly into a rage and he had to be held back from going and killing the prisoners. He then sent an order that IRA prisoners would be used to defuse landmines and clear booby trapped locations.

But the historian believes that the enacting of legislation to permit the execution of anti-treaty IRA fighters  gave an approval for O’Daly’s tactics.

O’Shea believes that the Kerry National Army command, under O’Daly, interpreted that to be a carte blanche to commit extra-judicial killing.  

“That was outside the laws and rules of warfare and outside the norms of what would be expected from an army,” he said. 

He said there was combined pressure from central Government and National Army command that drove O’Daly to greater amounts of brutality. 

O’Shea said there is a large volume of evidence that shows both Nelligan and O’Daly engaged in, or at least condoned, “extensive abuse and torture” of anti-treaty prisoners. 

He also said there is evidence of the murder of prisoners either in transit or in military custody. 

This was total war and O’Shea added: “Of course, it must be said that the IRA were attacking and killing Free State Army soldiers in large numbers. And actually, there were more Free State Army soldiers killed during the civil war than the IRA,” he said. 

The statistics show 173 people were killed during in the Civil War in Kerry, with 86 of those identified as Pro-Treaty.

Whatever about the broad brutality of the war in the county, it was Knocknagoshel that sent O’Daly, O’Shea said, even further into a spiral of murder and reprisal. 

“On hearing of Knocknagoshel, he went into a rage – he had to be physically restrained,” he said. 

Just 24 hours after the killing of the Free State troops the nine prisoners were beaten and tortured – at one point they were shown nine coffins in a room with one of those, it has been claimed, carrying the name of Stephen Fuller. 

O’Shea’s research from witness statements said that a barricade was built by National Army officers and a landmine placed in it – this was to be a staged incident and made to look like the IRA were killed by one of their own mines. 

In the aftermath of the mine explosion the army issued a statement, and held enquiries, one led by O’Daly himself, that claimed it was an accident. 

But a Free State military officer Niall Harrington, acting as a quasi whistleblower, dismissed the reports and revealed that the killings were orchestrated and part of the Dublin Guard’s activities to bring the war to an end. 

The scene at Ballyseedy is now marked by a spectacular monument. It is on the side of a busy main road and far from the rural isolation of 100 years ago. 

Nearby a garden centre welcomes visitors, close by also is Ballyseede Castle Hotel popular with tourists and visitors to the area. 

While the scene is quiet and the debris and horror of the day has vanished with time – the relatives of the dead men have not rested.

John O’Shea, the nephew of George O’Shea, had recently campaigned along with Paudie Fuller to have the Dáil record corrected.

The Irish Independent reported that a recent motion on Kerry County Council to seek a correction of the Dáil record failed.  It seems that the council at least is as divided as the events of a century ago. 

John O’Shea said that the passage of time “hasn’t dulled it for us, it is emotional”.

“I feel it is great that they be commemorated and honoured and remembered – but I would welcome any effort to correct the Dáil record,” he said. 

In Kilkenny yesterday, when asked by The Journal, Tánaiste Micheál Martin was non-committal on a state apology.

This weekend there are competing commemorations at the site – one from Fianna Fáil and the other from Sinn Féin.

Regardless of the political machinations and reticence to address the issue head on – Paudie Fuller and John O’Shea and other relatives will pay tribute to their loved ones.

Ballyseedy will return to a quiet townland of boreens, woodland and roadway – the victims and perpetrators barely explained or understood – the events a century later still too raw to extinguish the generational hurt and grief. 

Kilkenny reporting from Eoghan Dalton.

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