Until now, it has been easy to recall how, a century ago, the Irish fought successfully for independence, defeating an empire whose leaders boasted that the sun never set.
Now comes the centenary when our freedom fighters divided and killed each other in a bitter civil war.
Michael Collins’ centenary celebrations nine days ago were managed very well to avoid potential splits. But in many ways it was easier, too, because opponents of the December 1921 treaty settlement revered Michael Collins as the most effective leader of the freedom struggle.
So did those who accepted the imperfect and controversial settlement he and his colleagues had delivered. For both sides, Michael Collins was the lost laughing boy who was mourned by all.
Now come other horrors that remind us of that old bitter song Take it down from the Irish traitors of the mast.
Next Sunday, people from across South Kerry and beyond will gather to commemorate the centenary of the killing of two forgotten victims of Ireland’s Civil War. Brothers John and Tom O’Connor-Scarteen, IRA activists who became pro-Treaty National Army officers, were shot dead while they slept in their beds during a visit to the family home in Kenmare in early September 1922.
In its own way, it’s amazing that over the years we haven’t heard more about this story of two young brothers who were murdered while they slept at their mother’s house. The incident also challenges the simple stereotype that the pro-Treaty “Free Staters” were the masterminds of atrocities during the 11 months of the internecine killing, which ran from June 1922 to May 1923, with sporadic action in the years that followed. Historians believe that a total of 175 people died in Kerry in the Irish Civil War, and by one reliable count 90 of them supported the treaty party, 70 people opposed the treaty and 15 were innocent, unintentional civilian casualties. The Scarteen murders tell us that one side could be just as evil as the other.
A rough death toll isn’t particularly helpful when it comes to where we need to go from now on. However, it helps us to say that both sides have had their own share of scares and we need to walk away from both.
We have to learn from the widespread comment of the Scarteen boys’ distraught mother at the time. Deborah O’Connor-Scarteen’s first reaction was to ask the local priest to say mass for those who murdered her sons.
That required some generosity. Family members present at the home at the time, Nora O’Sullivan of Valentia, just 12, and Kathleen Moriarty, 19, recalled the brutality of what happened.
John O’Connor Scarteen, then 25, was shot dead trying to get down the stairs. Tom, just 20, was dragged out of his bed and shot in the head.
Tom reportedly begged his killers. “For heaven’s sake, don’t shoot an unarmed man,” he reportedly said. Grim stuff indeed.
It is also interesting to note that the O’Connor-Scarteen family remained active in Irish public life for generations to come.
Two brothers of the soldiers killed later served on Kerry County Council, and one of them, Pat, served alternately as TD and Senator. Subsequently, Pat’s son Michael was a longtime Kerry County Councilor.
Today, a third generation, Patrick, has served on Kerry County Council since 2009. That adds up to 74 years of uninterrupted service to local politics by various members of this Kenmare family, all democratically elected by the local community.
Looking at the other side of the equation, we have to acknowledge that the McEllistrim family in North Kerry took the anti-treaty side. Tom McEllistrim Sr, a leading IRA activist, visited O’Connor-Scarteen’s home after these killings to sympathize with the bereaved family.
The McEllistrim family has also contributed to Kerry politics for three generations from 1923 to recent times. But the more important point was that both sides of this brother-on-brother war were disgusted by the O’Connor-Scarteen murders.
These killings came at a time when the fledgling Free State government had decided to use landings at sea to oust anti-Treaty forces
The Scarteen brothers – a nickname deriving from the location of the family farm – were among a large number of pro-Treaty soldiers who landed at Kenmare Bay in early September 1922 to take control of the area.
The anti-treaty side felt it was losing the conflict and had no response to these sea landings, which had been repeated in key centers across the country.
Anti-Treaty forces, anxious to escalate the conflict in a more ruthless form, had launched a counterattack on Kenmare. They went to the family bakery on Main Street where the two young men slept upstairs.
Free State Army posts were taken by surprise. They later said that the attackers drew lots to decide who would carry out the murder.
The tragedy of this and many other insidious events is the prospect that these anti-Treaty forces could have been comrades of these two young men just months before. The O’Connor-Scarteens were part of the group that fought in the 1921 Headford Junction ambush, considered one of the key battles of the Revolutionary War.
It was her IRA record that propelled her to a high rank in the fledgling Irish Free State Army. At the time of her assassination, John, the elder, held the rank of brigadier general while Tom was a captain.
The people of Kenmare and the surrounding area have preserved the memory of these and other murders during this dark time.
For a long time, these memories were rarely discussed publicly, as people tried to deal with the past calmly without rekindling old bitterness.
Patrick O’Connor-Scarteen, representative of the third generation, says it’s time to celebrate this centenary with realism and lots of kindness.
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/politics/commemorating-the-civil-war-poses-more-challenges-than-michael-collins-centenary-41945989.html Commemorating the Civil War presents more challenges than Michael Collins’ centenary