With the world’s rather limited attention span at present being directed at the horrors that are the civil wars in both Ukraine and Iraq/Syria, one could almost be forgiven for thinking that the Irish road to eventual independence came with a rather limited human cost, that we were spared the worst excesses of zealotry and that the blight of internecine conflict never troubled us.
But unfortunately you would be wrong. So very, very wrong.
The Irish civil war shocked even those most jaded by the long campaign waged for independence in Ireland. The Ireland of the 1913 Lockout, the Somme, the Easter Rising, the Tan War and Bloody Sunday, did not leave the butcher’s bill lacking when it came to a post-Treaty schism. The events of 1922-1923 are shadowy in aspect, they are rarely brought into the full light of day; partly one suspects because of the shameful nature of ‘falling’ from the heroic epic of fighting the ‘invader’ to fighting one’s brethren and partly owing to the squalid, hateful nature of the conflict itself. During this period men and women who had pledged their lives to something better, to something greater than themselves, to an ideal, a hope, those same men and women fell like angels and contested the scraps on a barren earth.
The Irish Civil War saw the deaths of many; some estimates put the losses at between one and four-thousand souls. Whilst the republicans managed to inflict about eight to nine-hundred casualties on the nascent Free State forces, they received far higher casualties themselves; needless to say, the civilian population also suffered high casualties. Although the hostlities were sread throughout the island, they were concentrated in the South and West. The new National Army was able to bring overwhelming forces to bear on the beleagured rebels and eventually, after the loss of the major towns and the Fall of Limerick and Cork, the Anti-Treaty IRA were forced to adopt their tried and tested Guerrilla Warfare strategy. During the Winter of 1922, the IRA’s conventional structure had been destroyed and men had grouped together in units of under ten, living together in safe-houses.
Also during the Winter of 1922, the Free State, shorn of its leadership of Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith in the previous months, was left to prosecute the war as best it could. The Provisional Government authorised the execution of Anti-Treaty prisoners. With the die cast, the executions of over seventy Anti-Treatites soon led to assassinations, including that of TD Seán Hales.
And assassinations swiftly led to Free State atrocities like the Ballyseedy, where nine captured republicans were tied to a landmine, which was then detonated, killing eight and allowing only one to escape. Massacres such as this ignited the public consciousness in condemnation of this period in our history. The revulsion shared by many concerning this period had led to a ‘blacking-out’ of it from the national consciousness, until its emergence in recent decades.
One event which generated great sadness in recent years was the massacre at the small North Kerry townland of Clashmealcon. During the Free State’s Spring offensive in 1923, Jim McGrath was captured and was tortured extensively at Ballymullen Barracks, Tralee. Jim apparently revealed the location of a secret IRA hideout, Dunworth’s Cave, which he believed had been unoccupied for some time. Unfortunately when the National Army soldiers brought him to show them where the cave was, he came across a small cadre of IRA men hiding out there, including his brother Thomas (Tom) McGrath. After an exchange of gunfire, in which two soldiers were killed, the Free Staters decided to starve the IRA out of the cave and camped out around the mouth of the cave. A number of the men, including Tommy O’Shea, decided to try and swim from the cave that night, but they were drowned in the attempt.
The IRA leader, Timothy Lyons offered himself in surrender in order to save his men. While he was being lifted up on a rope out of the cave, the rope snapped and he fell to the cave floor. There, despite his grave injuries, the soldiers ‘riddled’ him with bullets. In latter years great doubt has been cast on whether the rope actually snapped, instead theories have been put forth that Lyons was dropped to his death and effectively murdered by the soldiers keen to avenge the deaths of their comrades earlier in the siege. Once the rest of the men had surrendered (Rudge Hathaway, an ex-British soldier who had deserted to fight for the IRA, James McErney and Edward Greaney), they were escorted to Ballymullen Barracks, where they were executed on the 25th of April, 1923.
And the story abided in folk memory for generations until the local community in North Kerry were able to come together and erect a monument to the fallen men, both at the site of their house (some three-hundred metres from the cave) and nearer the cave itself. Photographs of both monuments are attached to this article.
Whatever their actions, may they finally rest in peace.
Directions from Ballymullen, Tralee, Co. Kerry to Clashmealcon War memorial.