Fascinating Kerry murder stories recalled

Killings were not common in Co Kerry’s past, but were often brutal — perhaps the influence of Civil War carnage, says Richard Fitzpatrick.

TRUE crime author Anthony Galvin’s Ring of Death: Famous Kerry Murders will be published tomorrow. Galvin was surprised how few murder cases there have been in Kerry, since the State’s foundation in 1922, compared to other counties.

“There were some brutal ones, like the case that the film, The Field, is based on, and the farmer who was killed by his brother and thrown down a well in Dooneen, near Killarney.

“They’re the murders that you almost expect in Kerry, about land, but I didn’t expect that whole years would go by with Kerry in complete peace. Kerry people are a lot calmer and more peaceful than I thought they were,” he says.

Galvin was also surprised by the barbarity of the Ballyseedy massacre, an act of reprisal by the Irish Free State’s newly-formed army, on the outskirts of Tralee in March, 1923, during the Civil War. “It wasn’t one isolated incident, where a couple of army men went wild and lost control of themselves; it was so deliberate and thought-out. It’s very hard to get over such a savage act. It’s chilling to think that the forces of the State could act like that. If we heard about that happening in the Soviet Union under Stalin, we’d be shocked,” Galvin says.

A mix of national politics and quarrelling neighbours caused the Ballyseedy massacre.

Pat O’Connor farmed a plot of land at Glansaroon, Castleisland. He had a row with two neighbours, Patrick Buckley and John Daly. Both men were members of the IRA, the Republican army that was fighting the Irish Free State’s troops in the Civil War, which had started in June 1922.

The army was raiding IRA safe houses near Castleisland, Co Kerry, on a tip-off, it was rumoured, from the disgruntled Daly.

The IRA sentenced Daly, in a kangaroo court, to a £100 fine for informing. He refused to pay, so the IRA broke into his house and stole £36. O’Connor’s son, Paddy, went to the army barracks in Castleisland and enlisted. His information led to several arrests, including Buckley and Daly, who were taken into custody on Feb 4 1923.

In response, the IRA’s commanding officer, Humphrey Murphy, tried to bomb Paddy O’Connor but failed, so he lured him with a forged letter to the location of a supposed arms dump at Bairinarig Wood, near Knocknagoshel.

When Paddy O’Connor arrived with a party of eight to investigate the dump, they were blown up by a landmine. Five men, including O’Connor, were killed immediately. A sixth lost both legs. In a press statement after the explosion, the Kerry command of the Irish Free State’s army announced that IRA prisoners would clear road obstacles in future.

Some days later, nine IRA prisoners, including Buckley and Daly, from a barracks in Tralee, were trucked in the middle of the night to a pile of rubble on the road at Ballyseedy. They were bound together by rope — with their shoelaces also tied — around the ‘road block’ and told to remove the rubble from the road. They set remorselessly to work until a landmine exploded. Remarkably, one of the nine men, Stephen Fuller, was blown clear of the explosion into a field and, although badly burned, he scuttled to safety to a nearby house he knew would be sympathetic. Nine coffins were filled randomly with body parts.

The same bloody ruse by the army was repeated twice within five days — at Countess Bridge, close to Killarney, and on the road from Cahirciveen towards Valentia Island. Seventeen men were killed in total.

Although Fuller become a Fianna Fáil TD in Dáil Éireann in the 1930s, the murders went unpunished. An inquiry came to nothing.

“Today, they wouldn’t have got away with that sort of a cover-up,” says Galvin. “A large part of it is because the media jumps on things. There are so many media outlets and not all of them back the Government.”

Galvin says that murders among strangers can be cruel, but murders among people who know each other are always cruel. One of the grisliest murders related in his book is a double murder, committed five years ago in Moyvane, a little village in the north of the county.

Thomas Barrett, then 30, befriended Denis Hanrahan while studying at the Pallaskenry Agricultural College in the late-1990s.

Barrett was a regular visitor to Hanrahan’s house, often staying over. “He perceived some slight,” however, said a detective investigating the case of what Galvin describes as “a wild, Rambo-style fantasy”.

On the night of Wednesday, Mar 26, 2008, Barrett entered the Hanrahan house by the back door. He was dressed in an army camouflage vest and armed with a pump-action shotgun, hunting knife, and a crossbow. He shot Denis Hanrahan three times; and Hanrahan’s father, Michael, a widower, four times. He then went to Denis’s sister’s room, and trained the gun on her bed, but the bed was empty, so he retreated, driving home to Causeway, half an hour away.

Unsettled by the killings, he injected himself with an anti-anxiety drug normally used on pigs. Overcome by nausea on entering his house, he shouted for his mother.

As she came down the stairs, Barrett threw up. He was admitted to Tralee General Hospital, and transferred, voluntarily, to its psychiatric ward where, three days later, he confided to a psychiatrist about the double homicide he’d committed.

“A minor slight that was almost certainly unintended had festered in a fragile and oversensitive mind, and had destroyed two families,” says Galvin.

* Anthony Galvin’s Ring of Death: Famous Kerry Murders is published by Mainstream. It costs €13.99.

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