The good weather puts a gloss on things - not only on the countryside but almost inevitably on each and everyone of us. Good humour is to be found everywhere, drawn out of us as if by a magnet of sunshine. I was lucky to have arranged to spend the weekend in County Kerry which repays in scenes of unsurpassed rugged beauty the visitor who takes the time to travel to the South West. The good weather allowed me to see Kerry at its best, even though early June is too early for the roadside fuchsia to be in bloom. Some of the lakes and mountains of Kerry provide the most beautiful scenery I have ever looked upon, either in this country or anywhere abroad for that matter.
Amidst the beautiful scenery as you travel around Kerry there are always reminders of that terrible tragic period in our history when Irishmen fought each other in the Civil War. I travelled one day to Cahirciveen, not in search of history but almost inevitably came in contact with the past when I examined the monument near the Parish Church which commemorates those “who died in the struggle for Irish freedom”. Unlike other suchlike memorials which normally give the date of the struggle as either “1916-1923” or “1919-1923” the Cahirciveen memorial recorded it as “1916-19…”. The inclusion of the name of an I.R.A. man who died in 1941 confirms that so far as Cahirciveen is concerned the struggle for Irish freedom did not end with the Treaty. The hideous statue which tops off the Cahirciveen memorial is a repulsive looking representation of an I.R.A. gunman which in style and artistic deficiency is similar to the Sean Russell memorial which I used to pass in Fairview Park on my way to work many years ago. The late T.J. Barrington whom I knew in the Institute of Public Administration in Dublin has referred to the Cahirciveen figure as “the hideous limestone hominid on the high plinth”.
From the Cahirciveen memorial I passed to the former workhouse from where on 12th March 1923, five men, prisoners of the Free State Army, were taken out, brought a short distance from the town and summarily executed. I was interested in finding out why the five young men who fought on the anti-treaty side and who had been captured more than a week previously by the Free State Army had been killed without any pretext of a trial. The answer was not long in coming. Their killing was part of the concluding stage of the reprisals carried out by some Kerry-based Free State soldiers for what had happened just outside the small village of Knocknagoshel that same month.
On the way home later in the week I visited Knocknagoshel. It is a place remembered in Irish history for the extraordinary banner carried aloft by local men at a Parnell rally in Newcastle West in 1891. I can still remember the history lesson in the Christian Brothers School when the late Bill Ryan told us of the banner which read “Arise Knocknagoshel and take your place amongst the Nations of the earth”. It was and remains equalled only by the memorable headline once carried in the Skibbereen Eagle, a local newspaper which announced, “The Skibbereen Eagle has its eye on Lord Palmerston and the Emperor of Russia”.
The banner bearing of 1891 is today commemorated with a plaque on the gable end of a house in the centre of Knocknagoshel village. Just outside the village in a steeply inclined field, which in 1923 was part of Baranarigh Wood, five soldiers of the Irish Free State were killed by a booby trap mine on 6th March of that year. It was their deaths which would lead to the reprisals over the following few days, culminating in the killings outside Caherciveen. The men killed at Knocknagoshel were Free State soldiers, three officers and two privates, one of whom was a local man. Lieutenant Pat O’Connor was targeted by the I.R.A. because of his knowledge of the local I.R.A. organisation and the men involved in it and because of the energetic manner in which he pursued those who opposed the Irish Free State. The atrocity was to lead to reprisals against the anti-treaty side and the first of these reprisals occurred the day after the killings.
Ballyseedy is the name of a townland just outside Tralee, which history might have bypassed but for the infamous incident which took place there on 7th March 1923. It was the day after the five Free State soldiers had been killed in Knocknagoshel and at Ballyseedy eight I.R.A. men would be killed in a similar fashion as a reprisal for the previous day’s events. In fact nine prisoners were taken from Tralee Workhouse which was being used as a Free State Army base and a prison and brought to Ballyseedy Cross where they were bound hand and foot and tied together around a log lying across the road. A mine concealed by the log was detonated and eight of the men died instantly. The ninth man, Stephen Fuller, was blown away into a ditch from which he eventually escaped. Ballyseedy, like the earlier Knocknagoshel incident, was an atrocity of barbarous proportions which has left a lingering dark stain on the personality of the people and the place which we have come to know as The Kingdom.
But even as the news of Ballyseedy was spreading across the locality, yet another atrocity was taking place just twenty miles or so away. This time five men who were also prisoners of the Free State Army and held in the Great Southern Hotel which had been requisitioned as an Army base were taken to Countess Bridge in Killarney. There they were fired upon by their guards, four of the men died on the spot, while the fifth like Stephen Fuller at Ballyseedy miraculously made his escape and survived to tell what happened. The next act in what was to become known as the Tragedies of Kerry came five days later just outside Cahirciveen when more five republicans were executed.
The Civil War period left a legacy of bitterness and shame which those of the present generation might find difficult to understand. Many of the young and not so young men involved at that time had to emigrate, usually to America, to escape the repercussions of the events and incidents in which they were involved or thought to be involved. Even young women who sympathised or were involved with one side or the other were ill-treated and many, like school teacher Kathleen Walsh of Knocknagoshel who helped the local I.R.A. men in setting up the Knocknagoshel booby trap, had to emigrate after the Civil War. Indeed three of Kathleen Walsh’s sisters took the same route to escape the bitter aftermath of the Civil War.
Ballyseedy Cross on the main Killarney/Tralee road has a fine memorial by the Breton sculptor Yann Renard-Goulet which commemorates the Kerry men who died in the War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War. Erected where the men were blown up on 7th March 1923, the memorial nevertheless reflects the losses on all sides during the two wars and as such tries to transcend the legacy of bitterness which was left in the wake of the Civil War.
The memorial on Countess Bridge Killarney to the four men killed there makes no attempt to commemorate anyone other than the four men, “soldiers of the I.R.A. who were murdered here by Free State forces on March 7th 1923”. There are no memorials so far as I could see to the men who were killed in the wood at Knocknagoshel.
Throughout County Kerry there are many more memorials to the war dead of the time. However, it was the events of March 1923 in Knocknagoshel, Ballyseedy, Killarney and Caherciveen which gave us the most deadly month in the history of the Civil War.
As I travelled around the beauty spots of Kerry in the bright June sunshine it was hard to imagine the tragedies which were once part of life in that county. Tragedy in another form and in another county was again highlighted for me when passing through the village of Adare where I stopped to see the memorial plaque erected on the wall of the local Garda Station to the late Garda Gerry McCabe. His death too was a barbarous atrocity which brought nothing but shame on the perpetrators and the organisation they represented.
Shame is something we all feel at some time or other and in the town of Athy in the months and years which followed the Armistice of 11th November 1918 it was a feeling which might justifiably have filled the thoughts of some locals. They had turned their backs on the local men returning from the 1914-18 War just a few years after the same young men had been cheered as they marched to the Railway Station on their way to the Front. For more than 80 years the men who fought and died in the First World War were written out of our history. Over the past ten years or so the public’s attitude and indeed the State’s attitude has changed so that now it is possible to commemorate the sacrifices made by the men of the First World War and make amends for the neglect they endured in the intervening years. As part of the reclaiming of a neglected part of our history the Chairman of Athy Town Council on Sunday 18th June at 3.00 p.m. will unveil a plaque on the Town Hall to the memory of the men of South Kildare who fought in the 1914-18 War.
Over 2000 men from Athy and district enlisted during the 1914-18 War while more than 200 of them were killed in action or died of wounds or gas poisoning. They are buried in places as far apart as Flanders and Gallipoli, in graves which family members back home in South Kildare never had an opportunity to visit. The ceremony on 18th will give the families of those men an opportunity to remember in a public way the lost generation from Athy and district. It would be nice if the rest of us would come out that afternoon to lend our support.