From Easter 1916 until the bitter end of the Civil War, Kerry was embroiled in bloody conflict. Now, for the first time in published form, many of the county's main participants in the struggle tell their own stories. These were narrated to Ernie O'Malley in the late 1940s and early 1950s. During their lifetimes, these men were reluctant to recount their exploits, even to their own families, but were willing to speak to Ernie O'Malley, a respected and legendary IRA leader during the War of Independence and Civil War.
Working from his father's notebooks, Cormac O'Malley, with local Kerry historian, Tim Horgan, has produced the only comprehensive first hand accounts of the War of Independence and the Civil War in Kerry. Many of the bloody and controversial incidents of the period are brought vividly to life through the words of the participants. The extensive footnotes enrich the original interview text and the work is complemented by a photographic section which includes previously unpublished photographs of the time.
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Interview with Cormac O'Malley
The spirit of independence from central control has always been highly regarded in the Kingdom of Kerry. Back in 1583 in the hills above Ballymacelligott, Tralee, after four years of warfare, the great Earl of Desmond was captured and executed. Kerry was finally conquered by the English crown. Its broken people retreated to the bogs and mountain glens, taking with them their faith, the remnants of their culture and an independence of mind that would see them withstand the centuries of oppression that would follow. In the mid-nineteenth century, the children of a starving nation sought refuge in America and from there the winds of freedom in the form of the Fenian Brotherhood rekindled the faint embers of liberty that still remained in the hearts of a once proud people. James Stephens and his fellow Fenian organisers found ready and willing recruits in the county as they spread the message of insurrection. The Irish Republican Brotherhood became especially organised in Kenmare, Killarney and the south of the county. In 1867 the Fenians of Cahersiveen rose in a short and ill-fated armed revolt against the crown. Though quickly suppressed by the forces of the Empire and its Irish allies, the flame of freedom was not quenched by force of alien arms or condemnations from pulpits and politicians.
A generation later, during the Land War in the 1880s, young men from around Castleisland, Firies and Ballymacelligott would organise and arm themselves and roam the countryside to right the wrongs inflicted on their enslaved people. Again, the Empire would use its might to suppress these Moonlighters. Executions, imprisonment and banishment would prove to be insufficient to pacify the disaffected and in the early years of the twentieth century a proud people would find a renewed interest in their culture and history.
In 1913, shortly after the founding of the Irish Volunteers in Dublin, branches were founded in parishes and towns throughout Kerry. Leaders were elected and Austin Stack of Tralee became head of the Kerry Irish Volunteers. The seeds of rebellion were once again being sown when the Great War intervened. Following the call of John Redmond to the Volunteers to join England's army, the majority of the Volunteers in Ireland joined his National Volunteers, but in Kerry the Irish Volunteers remained loyal to the Irish Republican Brotherhood and its council's determination to strike for freedom. On Good Friday 1916, the attempt to land arms for the Rising at Fenit failed and Roger Casement was captured at Banna Strand. The first casualties of the Rising died at Ballykissane Pier in the chaos of that weekend, but the rebels at Valentia Cable Station informed the world on Easter Monday 1916 that the Rising had begun.
Following the arrest of Stack, and hampered by the necessary but excessive secrecy, the Kerry Volunteers were in disarray. Robert Monteith, who had landed with Casement, was given command of the mustered Volunteers and, having assessed the situation, he ordered the men to return to their parishes and prepare for another day. It was left to Jim Riordan in Firies to fire the only shots in Kerry in 1916. Executions and widespread arrests failed to intimidate those whom England could not purchase.
The Volunteer movement in Kerry had reorganised into a single brigade in 1917 and in April 1918 the Volunteers of Ballymacelligott attacked Gortatlea RIC barracks, the first such attack in Ireland following the Rising and long before Soloheadbeg in 1919. Further recruitment and reorganisationallowed the formation of three brigades in the county in 1919, dividing it into North, South and South-West Commands, and in each brigade were battalions and companies. Volunteer attacks on the crown forces escalated and at the beginning of 1921 a younger, more militant group of Volunteers gained command of the fighting men. Brigade flying columns were formed and the IRA, as the Irish Volunteers were called after 1919, gained in confidence and experience, inflicting large numbers of casualties on the crown forces.
Following the Truce in July 1921, with few exceptions, the officers and men of the three Kerry brigades rejected the Anglo-Irish Treaty. After the Free State army's attack on the Four Courts in late June 1922 at the start of the Civil War, these men again took up arms in defence of their Republic. In a campaign marked by brutality, summary executions and massacres, the Civil War dragged on bitterly for ten months. By the time of Frank Aiken's dump arms order in May 1923, Republican forces in North Kerry had been driven underground. In South Kerry they remained largely intact while fighting a guerrilla war with the invading Free State army which had reached a bloody stalemate.
Ultimately the defence of the Republic failed. The defeated Republicans were precluded from employment under the new Free State administration and many disillusioned men were forced to emigrate, largely to America. Those that remained regrouped into various factions. Most followed de Valera and his Fianna Fáil party into the constitutional politics of a twenty-six county state in 1927, while others remained resolute in their commitment to the Republics of 1916 and 1919 and, in the words of Liam Lynch, would 'serve under no other law'.
- From introduction by Tim Horgan.