Fuller, Stephen (1899–84), farmer, political activist and survivor of the 1923 Ballyseedy massacre, was born on 25 December 1899 at Fahavane, a hamlet just outside the village of Kilflynn, north of Tralee, Co. Kerry. The eldest child of Daniel Fuller, ‘an extensive farmer’, (Kerryman, 3 Feb. 1940), and his wife Ellen (née Quinlan), Fuller had one brother, four sisters and another sibling who died in infancy. The Fullers had farmed in Fahavane for generations and the name is common in North Kerry. The music promoter Bill Fuller (qv) is sometimes described as a nephew of Stephen but this is unlikely since Bill’s father (who farmed at Glenoe near Lixnaw, southwest of Tralee) was also called Stephen, but they may have been cousins. Joanne Hayes – the woman at the centre of the 1984 ‘Kerry Babies’ scandal, whose mother’s maiden name was Fuller – was reportedly a cousin of Stephen.
Fuller was active in the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), playing on the Tullig Gamecocks team captained by George O’Shea (c.1897–1923) which won the 1916 Kerry County Hurling Championship. At the beginning of 1918 Fuller joined the new Kilflynn company of the Irish Volunteers (later G Company), with 100 members and O’Shea as captain; neighbours who joined the company included Timothy ‘Aero’ Lyons (d. 1923), Timothy Tuomey (d. 1923) and John Shanahan. These were part of a core group who became active members of the 2nd Battalion, No. 1 Kerry Brigade, in which O’Shea was captain and Fuller attained the rank of first lieutenant; this intimate nexus of neighbours was to be devastated in March and April 1923. Fuller graduated from drilling and participating in the anti-conscription movement and 1918 election campaign, via arms raids and mail interception, to ambushing the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), attacks on police barracks (Ballybunion in March 1920 and Causeway in March 1921) and participating in the capture and execution of crown forces members. Fuller also policed local land disputes and enforced judgements of republican courts. Fuller’s father and younger brother Sean (1904–72), who played hurling for Kilflynn and became second lieutenant of the company, were active republicans.
Fuller was one of thirty-four members of G Company, led by O’Shea, who refused to accept the Anglo-Irish Treaty and took up arms against the Free State in the civil war. After participating in the early attempts to hold Limerick city for the anti-Treaty IRA and maintain a defensive line in East Limerick, he returned to North Kerry and engaged in guerrilla activities including sniping at personnel of the provisional government and the destruction of roads and bridges.
In February 1923 O’Shea, Fuller, Tuomey and Shanahan were captured in a dug-out at Glenballyma Wood near Kilflynn. They were brought to Ballymullen Barracks in Tralee where they were interrogated by David Neligan (qv). This involved being blindfolded, beaten with hammers and subjected to mock execution by firing squad; Fuller was spared the beating because one National Army officer commented that he had been ‘a good man in the Tan times’ (Kerryman, 26 Dec. 1980).
On 6 March 1923 five National Army soldiers were killed by a trap mine concealed in a supposed arms cache at Knocknagoshel, to which they had been lured by a false tip off. A sixth soldier was blinded and had both legs amputated at the knees because of his wounds. The General Officer Commanding in Kerry, General Patrick O’Daly (qv), announced that in future prisoners would be used to clear barricaded roads. Late the following night nine prisoners (including Fuller, O’Shea and Tuomey; Shanahan was spared because he was temporarily paralysed, and for the rest of his life was haunted by unfounded rumours of betrayal) were brought north of Tralee to Ballyseedy Cross by National Army soldiers under the command of Ned Breslin, who told the prisoners they would be killed as a reprisal; Fuller was puzzled in retrospect at their passivity and suspected they thought this was another exercise in mental torture. The prisoners were tied to a buried mine (there was no barricade) at a distance of two to three feet and to each other’s arms, knees and ankles, facing outwards about eight feet apart in a circle with the mine at its centre. Eight prisoners were killed by the explosion and subsequent machine-gun fire; fragments of their bodies were left in the roadway or hanging from trees, and references to crows eating human flesh at Ballyseedy retained currency for decades. The fragments were brought back to barracks in nine coffins, in the belief that they represented nine corpses. An official announcement claimed that the prisoners had been killed by a republican mine while clearing a barricade. Relatives were invited to collect the remains at Ballymullen barracks, where O’Daly had a military band greet them with popular ragtime music, including the ‘The Sheik of Araby’.
Fuller survived, having been blown into a neighbouring field by the explosion, which also severed the ropes binding him. (Subsequent rumours that throughout his escape he was trailing another man’s severed arm are fictitious.) His clothing had been blown off and he had lost the skin from his back and the backs of his legs. Fuller’s body was peppered with gunpowder grains, pieces of gravel and small metal fragments; most of these eventually worked out but some remained in him until his death. Fuller’s survival was widely regarded by pious republicans as a miraculous intervention of Divine Providence; Fuller maintained ‘it was just the way the mine went up’ (Irish Times, 21 Jan. 2023). After recovering consciousness, Fuller staggered to the house of the Curran family at Hanlon’s Cross. The next day two anti-Treaty IRA men smuggled him away in a horse and trap belonging to a former British Army veterinarian. They transported Fuller to a dug-out on the farm of the Daly family (one of whom, Charles Daly, was a republican officer executed at Drumboe Castle in Donegal on 14 March 1923), where he was attended by a local doctor. He was sheltered in farmhouses around Abbeydorney, including one belonging to a local protestant and political opponent, before moving to the Herlihy farm at Rathanny, where he remained for seven months (punctuated by a brief visit home). He then returned to his home district but did not go back to his family home until March 1924. For fifteen months after the explosion Fuller suffered from insomnia, and a doctor who examined him in the early 1930s certified that he showed ‘neurasthenic’ symptoms (which in later years might have been called post-traumatic stress disorder).
The night after the Ballyseedy massacre five more prisoners were killed by a landmine at Countess Bridge, Killarney, under similar circumstances; a sixth, Tadhg Coffey, was blown clear and escaped. Five days later four more prisoners were blown up near Cahirciveen after being shot in the legs to prevent escape. At least three other Kerry prisoners were killed in custody during the month of March.
Fuller’s neighbour ‘Aero’ Lyons was killed by National Army soldiers on 18 April under suspicious circumstances, after his flying column were besieged for three days at Clashmealcon caves; surviving column members were executed after courtmartial. Lyons was buried in Kilflynn with O’Shea and Tuomey and their grave became a site of commemoration. O’Shea’s sister Molly, an active member of Cumann na mBan who had been sexually assaulted by Black and Tans in 1921, suffered a mental breakdown as a result of the deaths of her brother and Lyons, described as a close friend. She was admitted to Killarney Mental Hospital before being classified as harmless and incurable and allowed to return home to be cared for by her brother until her death in 1948. Fuller was prominent among the anti-Treaty IRA veterans who lobbied for her to receive a pension.
Anti-Treaty forces were quick to publicise the survival of Fuller and Coffey and their accounts of events. An official public enquiry into the landmine killings was announced by the government, but as it was conducted by Patrick O’Daly and held in Ballymullen barracks, Fuller and other republican witnesses did not testify. The enquiry’s report, restating the official version of events, was read into the dáil proceedings and as late as 1980 was cited by persons attempting to deny the authenticity of Fuller’s account. The atrocities and cover-up caused disquiet even among Free State personnel, with Commandant Niall Harrington (son of the Parnellite MP Timothy Harrington (qv)) particularly outspoken behind the scenes; Harrington drafted a memorandum in which he stated that O’Daly knew and approved of the murders. The extent of Richard Mulcahy’s (qv) complicity in the cover-up is debated.
BALLYSEEDY AFTERMATH AND POLITICAL CAREER
Fuller’s return home was possible because wide publicisation of his account of Ballyseedy (notably by Dorothy Macardle’s (qv) pamphlet Tragedies of Kerry (1924)) reduced the risk that he might be killed to silence him. In April 1925 he was one of the speakers at a second anniversary commemoration at Clashmealcon caves. In August 1925 Fuller’s brother Seán was charged with possession of two rifles found in the family home during a police search. At his trial the defence claimed Seán and his parents were not aware of the rifles and implied that they had been acquired by Stephen for self-defence, and that this was reasonable considering his experiences. (Fuller stood up in court when requested but was not called to testify.) The judge appears to have seen some legitimacy in this claim, for although convicted Seán Fuller was merely fined £2.
On 24 February 1931 Stephen Fuller married Maryanne Tuomey, sister of Timothy Tuomey who died at Ballyseedy; shortly afterwards he built a new farmhouse at a cost of £50. Maryanne died of tuberculosis in October 1933. On 4 January 1938 he married Anne O’Brien (d.1992); they had four sons. Fuller remained active with Kilflynn GAA, playing in hurling matches as late as 1933 and in later life serving on the club committee and holding various offices, including the presidency. He was also vice-chairman of North Kerry Hurling League for some years from 1927.
After the Fianna Fáil government extended the military pensions scheme to anti-Treaty veterans in 1932, Fuller was awarded a wounds pension of £150 per annum (the highest possible award) for the injuries incurred at Ballyseedy, and in 1936 he was awarded a military service pension of £47 5s. per annum. Fuller’s attempts to secure a widow’s pension for his second wife led to the introduction of the 1959 Army Pensions Bill. His son Paudie, who inherited the family farm, recalled that Fuller could work but was visibly slowed by his injuries and that while he was not mentally impaired his reluctance to talk about his experiences may have had psychological as well as social and personal roots.
Fuller became a prominent Fianna Fáil activist in North Kerry. In June 1934 he was elected to Kerry County Council for Tralee district, becoming a member of the agricultural and mental health committees and serving until 1942, though his attendance declined after election to the dáil. In September 1937 he made representations to the council after seeing a mental hospital attendant kick a patient.
In 1937 Fuller became one of three Fianna Fáil TDs in the four-seat North Kerry constituency, holding his seat at the 1938 general election; he was an invited guest at the handover of the Cobh naval base (one of the Treaty ports) by the British Royal Navy in July 1938. His dáil interventions mainly concerned local matters (such as river drainage) and IRA pensions. Fuller lost his seat at the 1943 general election to Dan Spring (qv) of Labour; this represented a nationwide protest vote against wartime conditions and a local Kerry backlash against the internment and execution of IRA members by the Fianna Fáil government. Although Fianna Fáil speakers in Kerry regularly recalled Ballyseedy for decades after the civil war, and newspaper coverage of his candidacy identified him as the survivor of Ballyseedy, Fuller avoided public mention of his civil war experiences, confining his speeches to praise for the economic and constitutional record of the Fianna Fáil government and predictions that, if re-elected, de Valera would soon end partition.
Fuller’s silence reflected a strong view that the new generation should not be burdened with his dark memories, and that if he harboured bitterness it would consume him; contemporaries contrasted him with the outspokenly vengeful Dan Breen (qv). Fuller later told his son Paudie that he considered having O’Daly killed but decided it was better to leave him to live with the knowledge of what he had done. Ned Breslin settled in Tralee and married a sister-in-law of George O’Shea. On at least one occasion Fuller walked out of a pub when Breslin entered. Paudie Fuller, who served as a Fianna Fáil county councillor from 1972, recalled that his father was uncomfortable at the number of people who wished to meet him, and reluctant to speak of his experiences even to his family (though when he did speak he warned them not to bear grudges over it).
Fuller remained active in Fianna Fáil at local and constituency level after 1943, but never again contested an election; in 1970 he was awarded a gold watch for long service by the Comhairle Dáil Ceanntair. He put his name forward for the Fianna Fáil candidacy in the 1956 North Kerry by-election, but withdrew before the nominating convention was held; since the death of the incumbent Clann na Poblachta TD in a car crash evoked widespread sympathy and his daughter won the by-election with a substantial majority, Fuller’s attempted candidacy probably represented an offer to carry the flag rather than a serious attempt to return to national politics. Fuller was not invited to the 1959 unveiling of the Ballyseedy memorial (sponsored by Sinn Féin sympathisers and sculpted by Yann Goulet (qv)) because of his support for Fianna Fáil.
After the loss of his dáil seat Fuller lived the rest of his life as a farmer. He may have been the Stephen Fuller who was one of the seven-member founding committee of Kingdom Cooperative Livestock Mart in Tralee in 1958; he was a founder of the first Irish farm school in Abbeydorney. Fuller was a trustee of the parish hall (founded as a Sinn Féin/Labour hall in 1918) and participated in legal proceedings over such matters as the award of a dancing licence for the hall and disputes with neighbours who allowed cattle to trespass on its grounds. He attended annual Old IRA dinners at the Great Southern Hotel in Killarney.
TELEVISION INTERVIEW AND DEATH
In 1980, at the persuasion of his son Paudie, Fuller gave an interview to the journalist John Ranelagh for use in Robert Kee’s (qv) series Ireland: a television history. Ranelagh found Fuller ‘delightful, marvellous and remarkably accurate’ (Kerryman, 26 Dec. 1980). Fuller expressed puzzlement that he had never been interviewed by Irish media, suggesting that it was because the perpetrators had been fellow Irishmen rather than Black and Tans. (Shortly afterwards he gave a supplementary interview to the Kerryman journalist Peter Levy, published on 26 Dec. 1980). An excerpt from the filmed interview was shown in the tenth episode of Kee’s History, broadcast by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) on 3 February 1981 and on Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ) soon afterwards. The full interview was donated to the RTÉ Archives, and longer excerpts were included in the 1997 RTE drama-documentary Ballyseedy (dir. Frank Hand, narrated and presented by Pat Butler, with Michael O’Sullivan playing Stephen Fuller in reconstructed scenes).
Stephen Fuller died in Edenburn Nursing Home, Tralee, on 23 February 1984 and was buried beside O’Shea, Tuomey and Lyons in Kilflynn. His son Paudie established the Stephen Fuller Memorial Coursing Cup for dogs of all ages, contested annually on the family farm. Rival Ballyseedy commemorations were held by Sinn Féin and Republican Sinn Féin in 1998 and 2003, with both groups producing memorial booklets. The Fuller family, particularly Paudie, subsequently participated in commemorative events at Ballyseedy and Knocknagoshel, with the former Fine Gael minister Jimmy Deenihan declaring that Paudie Fuller ‘has done more than any other man in North Kerry to bring us all together’ (Irish Times, 21 Jan. 2023). Glenageenty Forest Park, opened in the early twenty-first century, lists as one of its features the trail followed by Fuller from Ballyseedy to the Curran house.
Stephen Fuller’s fame largely rests on one night at Ballyseedy. To trace him through the rural society from which he and his fellow Volunteers originated and in which his life was spent, however, gives a fuller understanding of the devastating effects of the conflicts of 1916–23 on a tightly knit rural and small-town society, dominated by extended families of farmers and their service-industry relatives, and of how that society remembered and forgot those traumas.