When the horror of war hits homes

Ryle Dwyer looks at a frenzy of violence against British forces at the height of the War of Independence in Kerry, and reveals the grisly fate of two Black and Tans who went missing

Unless the Tralee policemen in Sinn Féin custody are returned before 10am on the 2nd, instant reprisal of a nature not yet heard of in Ireland will take place in Tralee

Black and Tans search a civilian at gunpoint as a body lies prone in the background. The British paramilitary force laid siege to Tralee in autumn 1920.

TV3’s documentary In the Name of the Republic presents a disturbingly real account of the War of Independence. The more squalid events of any war frequently go under-reported because many of those involved wish to forget such things.

In Sept 1920, the IRA kidnapped two Black and Tans in Tralee: Godfrey A Jasper and Charlie Bentley. They were held for weeks.

Jasper was suspected by some for involvement in the Aunascaul killing in August of Paddy Kennedy, a brother of Tadhg Kennedy, the intelligence officer of the Kerry No1 Brigade. Jasper was present but Tadhg Kennedy learned he didn’t do any shooting.

As a warning to the British — who were due to execute Kevin Barry in Dublin on Monday, Nov 1 — the Kerry No 1 Brigade of the IRA was ordered to kill as many members of the crown forces as possible over the last weekend in October.

The first officer killed that weekend was the prisoner Godfrey Jasper. He was taken to Banna on the night of Friday, Oct 29, “and executed, despite my protest”, Tadhg Kennedy told the Bureau of Military History.

Locals were repulsed. They had grown to respect the two prisoners in the previous five weeks of their captivity. Charlie Bentley actually settled and lived a full life in the area. Jasper’s remains were not recovered until the 1930s when the sand in which he was buried shifted.

On the Sunday after Jasper’s killing, the IRA lashed out at the crown forces throughout the brigade area, extending from Killorglin to the Shannon. Two RIC men were mortally wounded in Abbeydorney, and four were shot in Ballyduff, two fatally. Two policemen were shot and wounded in Causeway, and two were kidnapped in Ballylongford. The kidnapped pair were seriously mistreated for days, before orders were sent from Dublin to release them. One of the men, Constable William Muir, was so shaken by his ordeal that he committed suicide some weeks later.

The same day, two policemen were killed near Killorglin, while two more were shot and wounded in Dingle. A policeman and a sailor were shot and wounded in Tralee, where two other police were kidnapped while in conversation with a couple of girls near the local gas works. Paddy Paul Fitzgerald and a colleague captured the two men at gunpoint, and handed them over to another IRA company.

Events in Kerry surrounding these incidents have been largely overlooked by historians even though the Black and Tans unleashed a reign of terror in Tralee. They torched the County Hall and opened fire as people emerged from 12pm Mass at the parish church on Monday, All Saint’s Day.

A group of foreign journalists who had attended the funeral of Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney in Cork on Sunday came to Tralee to see what was happening. They included reporters from the Associated Press of the US, Le Journal of Paris, the London Times, the Daily News, the Manchester Guardian, and London Evening News.

They witnessed Tans posting a warning on Monday night: “Unless the two Tralee policemen in Sinn Féin custody are returned before 10am on the 2nd inst. reprisal of a nature not yet heard of in Ireland will take place in Tralee and surroundings.”

“I do not remember, even during the war, having seen a people so profoundly terrified as those of this little town, Tralee,” Jacques de Marsillac of Le Journal reported.

All shops, businesses, and schools were ordered to remain closed for over a week. Tommy Wall, 24, an uncle of the present mayor of Tralee, apparently thought he would be safe from the crown forces because he had served in the First World War.

But one of the Tans hit him in the face with a rifle butt and ordered him off the street. Then, as he walked away, he was shot dead.

Although publication of the town’s three newspapers was suspended for the duration of the nine days of the siege, the international press focused on Tralee as never before. What was happening in the town made the front pages of the Montreal Gazette on four different days and the front page of New York Times three different times.

The two missing policemen — Constable Patrick Waters, 23, from Loughanbeg, near Spiddal, Co Galway, and Constable Ernest Bright, a Londoner — were killed on the first night by order of Brigadier Paddy Cahill. Their bodies have never been found.

As they were kidnapped near the gas works, there were rumours that they were burned in its furnace. But they were handed over to the other IRA company away from the gas works. One of the men who took them prisoner later said that he believed they were buried in the canal near the home of the lock-keeper, William O’Sullivan, who was an active member of the IRA company that took charge of them.

The lock-keeper’s grandson told me a very different story after I wrote about the siege for The Kerryman in the mid-1990s. His story had some circumstantial evidence supporting it.

He said the two men were buried in his grandfather’s family tomb in Clogherbrien graveyard, just outside Tralee. When his grandmother died in 1926, his grandfather balked at burying her in the family tomb with the two policemen, so she was buried beside the tomb. But the family of Patrick Waters were never informed.

PS O’Hegarty explained in the first episode of In the Name of the Republic that he became increasingly disenchanted with the IRA’s campaign.

“We glorified ambushes and stunts and jobs and secret executions,” he contended. “We abolished all the ordinary laws of morality and of public decency and of social responsibility.”

Ironically, O’Hegarty’s brother Seán was the brigadier of the Cork No 1 Brigade, “which carried out the greatest number of killings, even women and children were not spared,” according to Prof Eunan O’Halpin. The Cork killings feature on tonight’s episode on TV3.

*Ryle Dwyer is author of Tans, Terror and Troubles, published by Mercier Press.

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