Five Free State soldiers, including three officers are killed by a booby trapped mine while clearing a road in Knocknagoshel, County Kerry, on March 6, 1923, during the Irish Civil War. Another soldier is badly wounded. National Army commander Paddy Daly issues a memorandum that Republican prisoners are to be used to clear mined roads from now on.
A party of eight Free State soldiers are sent to investigate a tip-off about an Irish Republican Army (IRA) arms dump. The tip-off is a ruse devised by the local IRA brigade to lure the enemy into a trap. At about 2:00 AM as they move stones to investigate the location where arms are allegedly buried, a mine explodes. Body parts are “strewn in all directions.” Paddy O’Connor, Michael Galvin, Laurence O’Connor, Michael Dunne and Edward Stapleton die instantly and a sixth is so badly injured, his legs are amputated. The IRA members who set the mine are hiding in a dugout about a mile away. The Knocknagoshel explosion represents the highest daily death toll among the Free State army in over six months.
Retaliation is swift and ferocious. Over the following two weeks, nineteen Republican prisoners die in County Kerry at the hands of the Free State. Knocknagoshel prompts an army statement that any future barricades or obstructions on the roads will be removed by republican prisoners. In his letter to officers in the Kerry Command, Brigadier Paddy O’Daly insists that “the taking out of prisoners is not to be regarded as a reprisal, but as the only alternative left us to prevent the wholesale slaughter of our men.” The implementation of O’Daly’s instructions is immediate and hugely repercussive.
On the night after the explosion, and in a move which reverberateds politically for generations, nine republican prisoners in Ballymullen Barracks in Tralee are taken to Ballyseedy on the Tralee to Killorglin road to clear a pile of rubble blocking the road. The nine, who had already been interrogated and abused in revenge for Knocknagoshel, are driven to the scene. It is suggested that one of the reasons these nine are selected from a wider group of prisoners is that they have no known links to the Catholic clergy or hierarchy so as not to antagonise the church which is actively and vocally supportive of the Free State and its leadership.
The army had planted a bomb in the rubble. They tie the prisoners by the wrists and their shoelaces and detonate the device. Eight of the nine are blown to pieces and killed instantly. The ninth, Stephen Fuller of Fahavane, Kilflynn, is thrown a considerable distance by the force of the explosion and, despite his injuries, manages to flee with the only eyewitness account of the incident.
When the dismembered remains of the eight dead men are placed in coffins and returned to their families at Ballymullen Barracks, there follows a “frenzy.” It is alleged that O’Daly orders the army band to play ragtime music as the bodies are handed over to the families at the gates of the barracks. The families react furiously, throwing stones at the soldiers and smashing the army coffins on the ground as they place the deceased in coffins they had brought themselves.
The funerals which follow prompted an outcry of condemnation of the actions of the Free State Army. As a result, it is decided that henceforth, prisoners who die in military custody in the Kerry Command areas will be buried by troops where they die rather than in their own parish. This is, as T. Ryle Dwyer argues, “tantamount to approving the barbarities that we being perpetrated and merely telling the soldiers to cover up their vile acts properly.”
Meanwhile, the police authorities move quickly to absolve themselves of any connections with the deaths at Ballyseedy on the basis that it was not reported to the Civic Guard in Kerry. The area is under an 11:00 PM curfew at the time and no patrols are undertaken after this hour. However, the superintendent Tralee notes, “In any event, in the Ballyseedy area at that time there were a considerable number of Irregulars, which rendered it unsafe for the Guards to patrol there.”
(From: “Body parts were ‘strewn in all directions’ – the bloody climax of the Civil War in Kerry” by Owen O’Shea, http://www.owenoshea.ie, March 7, 2021)