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Wednesday 6 December 2023 Dublin: 4°C
AP/Press Association Images The surrender of anti-Treaty forces in July 1922

Read Me ‘They wiped up the blood’ – first-hand stories from the battle for independence

Raiding the British barracks, and the brutal killing of prisoners – men recall fighting in the wars that shaped Ireland.

ERNIE O’MALLEY was a senior Republican commander in Co Kerry during the War of Independence, and later the Civil War.

He was also a historian in the making, who interviewed a number of his fellow fighters after the conflict collecting first-hand accounts.

Many Republican survivors of the two successive wars were reluctant to talk openly about their experiences, with many holding secrets even from their own families.

But they were more comfortable talking to O’Malley, who recorded all the interviews in notebooks. His son Cormac O’Malley, along with Tim Horgan, has now collected the interviews for a new book, The Men Will Talk To Me.

Here, two men remember incidents – a raid on a key barracks, and the brutal killing of prisoners – from the fighting in Kerry.

1. Tom McEllistrim

Tom McEllistrim was a farmer in Ballymacelligott who joined the Irish Volunteers in 1915. He led the attack on the Gortatlea RIC Barracks in April 18, and remembers it here. Later a TD, McEllistrim died in 1973.

This was the first real attack. Six of us met in a little hall in Ballymac: Jack Cronin, Maurice Reidy, Tom Mac, John Browne, Richard Laide, John Flynn. We planned to take the barracks by surprise. There were four RIC men in it. We had information that the door would not be locked. We knew that two men went out on patrol. We put one man near to the barracks, right on the railway station to watch the patrol go out; and then he told us when they had gone out.

We waited near the post. It was about 10 o’clock and it was quite dark, so we moved on to the barracks. I walked up to the door. I had a flash lamp and a revolver in my hands. Jack Cronin was behind me and Browne and the others were to follow. When I turned the door handle, I found that it was locked. I knocked and someone inside said ‘Who’s there?’ ‘’Tis me.’ ‘Who are you?’ I said, ‘’Tis alright. Come on and open,’ for the locals often knocked on the door and went in.

And he opened the door. We had masks on us for we were all well known to the police. I was at once to push past and get on in. As soon as he saw the mask, he got startled, but I pushed in past him and the other man in the kitchen made a dart for the room door but I got across into the room and he was trying to close the door against me. I stuck my foot in the door and we had a pushing match at the door for about three seconds. I pushed up the door on him and as I did, the door banged down again and we grappled. He was unarmed and he was an old man. We were tumbling about in the darkness in a very small room and I fell on top of him.

Just as it happened, Cronin burst in the door. He had a double barrelled shotgun and he put it on the RIC man. He put up his hands. I looked into the kitchen and I saw our lads below forcing the other lad to put up his hands and they had. We didn’t want to spill any blood.

Ernie O'Malley, who interviewed the survivors (Mercier Archive)

The rifles were up on a rack. I lifted down a rifle and put it on a cupboard, when all in a sudden, a shot rang out. I whipped round and I saw Browne wheel around and fall in the kitchen; and in three seconds the floor was covered with blood for he had been shot through the head.‘What was that?’ I said. Moss Carmody and I went down to the kitchen and I saw him putting up his shotgun and he fired at the door.

And as I said, ‘What’s that?’ I saw a police cap at the door but the shotgun missed. As I knocked, the 10 o’clock train steamed in. The station was only 15 yards away and we heard the noise of the engine. ‘Could there have been military on the train,’ we now thought. There were five of us inside the barracks, and what would we do. Our course then was to fight our way out and that was an awful setback for a crowd of young lads. We lifted up Browne and we brought him out with us, and also we brought out a new shotgun with us.

Before we went out, there was whispering and Cronin walked up. ‘We’ll shoot them lads now,’ he said. ‘How can we shoot them,’ I replied, “with their hands up?’ and the RIC were in terrible fear. Browne was dead, but we got out without any shots being fired at us. We got to the railway, threw off out masks and were lifting him when three or four shots were fired. We dropped him and we fired back.

They had seen us getting into the barracks and they had ambushed us from the outside. Laide made an attempt to rush in to tell us they were in the station and Sergeant Boyle shot him in the back with a revolver as he came in. Laide got away and he lived only two or three days for the bullet had gone into his stomach. So we had two dead men.

The two funerals were on the same day, but there was no raid made by the police. The police had made their report to suit themselves. They wiped up the blood from the floor inside. They said that all the shooting had been from the outside by us.

Michael Collins (marked with a cross) leaving Dublin Castle with Kevin O'Higgins and WF Cosgrave after the surrender of anti-Treaty forces in 1922 (Tophams/Topham Picturepoint/Press Association Images)

2. John Joe Rice

John Joe Rice was born in Kilmurray and worked on the railways. He joined the Irish Volunteers in Tralee in 1914, and led Republican forces in Kerry during the Civil War. He was later active for Sinn Féin, and died in 1970.

We lasted longer in South Kerry for the Staters had to come at us in big bodies. There were 700 to 800 of our lads in gaol in the end, but there only 70 to 80 active column lads amongst them. We kept the Staters on the go. We got a share of arms from GHQ. GHQ told me that they wanted to help the fellows in the North as the British had the numbers of the rifles which they had handed over to the Provisional Government. I collected 80 or 90 rifles in Killarney to send them on. And the division told me that they had a number of rifles in Mallow for exchange and I got them, but I didn’t give any back for them.

The first Free State army in Kerry were local men. Very few of our lads went F/S and only six or seven of them were of any importance. The best of the men stuck where they were. The Free State garrisoned towns.We got a power of stuff out of Kenmare, a couple of hundred rifles we got.

The brigade was nearly half the county. It extended from Castleisland to Kenmare and it had five battalions. We had very good fighting ground in our area, really impossible to round up in some areas. The Staters landed at Kenmare Pier. They had The Dublin Guards with them and men from the First Northern Division, a fine lot of blackguards they were.

They were getting it tough, and they had no local crowd to hold the area for them. They had bad information, for they jailed men at the beginning who would have been on their side. They came by boat to Kenmare to Fenit. They swarmed in from all sides, for we had a huge coastline to hold. Reen Pier, at Killorglin, at Cahersiveen. Beating of prisoners at first.

Neligan shot John Connor who joined the Free State afterwards. He was a youngster, not of very good class either. Neligan fired a bullet into his chest. It went out and went in through his arm.

Neligan presided at all the beatings and torturings. Hancock in Kenmare did not act like a rational human being. Wilson who was in Kenmare and in Killarney was very bad. Soon the medium changed from beating to shooting.

The blowing up of our men was an organised affair. Stephen Fuller is still alive. Coffey in Killarney survived. There was a coffin handed over to Fuller’s people with his remains for they thought he had also been included in the scraps left of other men. He ran away under machine gun and rifle fire and got over an eight-foot gate. His cap had three bullet holes in it, his coat was holed but he was not wounded, but he had scratches. Fuller was blown over a road into a field and he found a hand tied to him. The men were roped in a circle, a mine was placed in between them, and it was exploded.

The Men Will Talk To Me, edited by Cormac O'Malley and Tim Horgan, is available now from Mercier Press priced €17.99.

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