Kerry: Charlie Kerins- The Boy From Tralee

Cathal O’Céirín ,Óglach na hÉireann, was born in the small cottage of number 5 Caherina, Tralee, on the 23rd of January 1918, to parents Tom Kerins and Johanna Griffin, both from the nearby village of Blennerville, only some few miles from Caherina. Kerins had two sisters Elsie and Lena, Elsie would be one of the last to see him before his execution in 1944, and did not know he was politically involved until then. It is remarked that growing up Charlie was an astute student, first attending Balloonagh primary and CBS primary in Edward Street, both not too far from his home. Kerins achievements were noted and he won a Kerry County scholarship to CBS the green Tralee, in the town park. Like many boys who attended Christian brother schools Kerins was treated badly by one of the Brothers, this made Kerins move to a private Catholic college, the Jeffers institute, where he completed his intercert with top honours, subsequently passing the matriculation to the national University of Ireland. Kerins further trained in Fennells radio shop in Ashe Street, Tralee where he qualified as a radio engineer. 

With the club then known as the O’Rahillys, Charlie won a County senior championship medal in 1939, the club is now known as Kerins-O’Rahillys in his memory. A childhood friend recalls childhood activities with Kerins, playing football in the streets near the Abbey, riding a pony up and down Dominic Street, Maurice Lynch later recounts meeting Charlie as he was on the run, going under the nom de Guerre of Pat Kearney, and staying with a bachelor in farmers bridge, some 6 miles from the town. During this time calls were sent out for assistance for Kerins, he had left in May of 1942 to take up position as full time GHQ staff for the IRA, and had been staying with the cumann na mban member Dr. Kathleen Farrell. Due to the deep generosity of the people of Tralee Kerins was able to return home many times, Kerins was welcome in any house and ample scouts kept an eye out for him. 

Denis Fitzgerald, known as Dinagh Fitz to the people of Tralee, was a dedicated friend and comrade of Kerins during their time in the IRA. Dinagh Fitz comments that both he and Kerins had joined at a crucial time for the IRA, en bloc internment had pushed numbers to the edge, Republicans were found in their hundreds interned in the Curragh camp, Crumlin Road, Portlaoise, and Mountjoy Gaol, this puts clear blue water that collusion between the Leinster house administration and British occupation were as united as ever in their attempts to destroy republicanism. Dinagh Fitz was interned in the Curragh camp the same time Charlie had been captured and interned in Mountjoy, he said a low came over the camp and remained for weeks after hearing Kerins had been executed, he believed that not only the loss of Charlie was monumental but the loss of their Chief of Staff affected them deeply, but morale did not sink and it only stood to determine them to continue their fight. 

Liam Dé Búrca was closely associated with Charlie Kerins and heavily involved in the IRA during Kerins’ tenure as chief of staff, first meeting him in Kerry in 1942 and accompanying him from Tralee to Dublin on being appointed full time GHQ staff, he remained in constant contact with Kerins for the next 18 months. Dé Búrca who hails from Belfast sets along the lines of how the IRA was in difficult times during Charlie’s tenure, with the IRA fighting on 3 fronts and internment attempting to pull at the seams of the movement, Dé Búrca is quoted here ‘there was a strong and united force of effort between, the British, Northern administration and Leinster house, to crush any spirit of Republicanism’. De Búrcarecounts Charlie’s first visit to Belfast and the occupied 6, where his morale and determination was steeled upon witnessing the British occupation first hand, Charlie vowed to rid the British imperialist abomination from the island of Ireland. 

Kerins knew well that an army convention was overdue, after 3 Northern comrades had escaped from Crumlin Road jail, but where it would be held was the question Charlie had put to DéBúrca, Belfast was suggested, which in 1942 had been seen as the lions den in many respects. The army convention was seen as a resounding success and saw Charlie Kerins elected as chief of staff following the arrest of Hugh McAteer. 

Earlier, in 1942 a former Republican turned special branch detective, Dinny O’Brien was shot and killed by IRA volunteers armed with a Thompson machine gun and travelling on bikes. O’Brien had earlier joined the Gardaí in 1938 and quickly became special branch detective, his knowledge of the IRA and Republican movement as a whole led to the murder of several young volunteers, he was a man of no principle and was known to have shot a volunteer who lay prone in the street, and brutally killed Sean Mac Giolla. The IRA had identified O’Brien as a legitimate target as ever and on the morning of September 9th 1942, was shot leaving his house, facing justice for his crimes. 

The events previously recounted had passed and all had culminated on the morning of June 15th 1944, in number 50 upper Rathmines Road. In the early June morning, free state army and Gardaí surrounded Dr. Kathleen Farrells, armed to the teeth in preparation for an attempted escape by Kerins. Such was the military exercise of the capture both free state army and Gardaí invaded the house, Charlie was cuffed before he awoke as if he lay in repose, preventing him from reaching the Thompson machine gun under his bed, which later a Garda detective could not prove it was the same gun used at the shooting Dinny O’Brien. Kathleen Farrell had been arrested aswell and was immediately housed in the women’s wing of Portlaoise jail. A comrade Fearghal O’Farrell who stayed in the same room as Kerins said that if the free state forces did not have him to witness Kerins would have been shot on the spot. 

Charlie Kerins’ internment was dragged out and he was not formally charged until the 2nd of October 1944, the trial, which in-fact was a military tribunal, took place in Collins’ barracks, Dublin. Presided over by 3 free state military judges who had no law qualifications, and prosecution for the state was barrister G.D Murnaghan. Membership of the IRA alone was and still is enough to convict someone and Kerins was no exception. Prosecution Murnagh set out that Kerins was first and foremost a member of the IRA and ‘one of the higher ups’. Elsie in the mean time had been catapulted into all of this, originally unaware that her brother Charlie was involved in any form of Republicanism, she didn’t believe that Charlie could or would be convicted on circumstantial evidence, such was the nature of the show trial. Elsie was subsequently told that Kerins would not not be sentenced to be shot as was the norm but would be hung. Elsie visited Charlie in Mountjoyduring the trial, where Charlie asked of her a favour, ‘I will if I can’ Elsie replied in the typical Tralee fashion, Charlie responded ‘whatever they say or come out with in that court room, keep the cool, don’t let me down’

As the trial proceeded on the Friday prosecution Murnaghread aloud how ‘a man could be convicted and sentenced on purely circumstantial evidence, in his first response during the trial Charlie Kerins asked him to the precedence for the case law, Murnagh refused and later was forced to admit that it only applied to a case with a 12 man jury. Bennett acting as chairman of the military tribunal adjourned the court until the Monday. Kerins reply came on the Monday that ‘you could have adjourned this court for 6 years, and my attitude towards it remained the same’. Subsequently Bennett read the sentence; death by hanging, on the 1st of December 1944, by English hangman Pierpoint, Elsie kept her solemn promise and gripped the seat to hold back the emotion. 

Elsie returned home to relay the news to her father. Meanwhile mass opposition to the show trial had developed around the country. The proceeds of the trial and the execution sentence were widely censored in a gross abuse of the wartime censorship powers, the court had pandered to the British, employed an English hangman and now it came DéValeras turn to further the cause of British Imperialism in Ireland.

One particular night before the execution the then existing Republican Prisoners Release Association assembled in their offices in North Fredrick Street, Dublin, armed with buckets of paste, brushes and posters which called for the reprieve and release of Kerins. As they left their offices a gauntlet of Gardaí and special branch lay siege on them and seized all materials relating to the night of action. The association was forced to regroup, and were reduced to running around the North inner city with humble sticks of chalk, writing 2 words on the walls ‘save Kerins’.  

A following night a peaceful vigil was organised for O’Connell Street, as the congregation kneeled on a traffic island, the riot squad from store Street were dispatched. The vigil was forcefully broke up and brutalised by the riot squad, young and old alike were trampled and assaulted, the free state clearly performing the duties of the British occupation. 

Kerins’ family assembled in Dublin the night before the execution, 30th of November 1944, they had travelled with fellow Tralee men, Michael O’Sullivan and Jack McEllistrem. Kerins was held in Mountjoy and showed gallant bravery in the lead up to the execution, in meeting with the governor of Mountjoy before the execution, the governor mockingly said ‘untie your collar button’. He later spotted Kerins untying his top button, and broke down in tears, as did a fellow kerrymanMike Scannell, who was working as prison warder in Mountjoy, he too could not stop crying on hearing Kerins was to be hung. At the same time a march was organised in Tralee which attracted thousands and marched right up to Kerins’ home in Caherina.

On the morning of the first Friday in December Kerins was hung, the Fianna Fail administration boasted that the IRA was dead and that they had killed it. A year later as a young Ruari O’Bradaigh attended Colaiste Connaught in An Spideal, he was approached by a older student, and handed a memoriam card. O’Bradaigh proudly remembered on the 50th anniversary of Kerins’ execution in 1994, that the memoriam card read – ‘In proud and loving memory, Charles Kerins, who died on the scaffold for the Irish Republic, Mountjoy Gaol, 1st of December 1944, Ar dheis raibh go ainm’. It is here O’Bradaigh steeled his determination, seeing a young man of 26 give the ultimate sacrifice gallantly in the name of the 32 county Irish Republic. Here O’Bradaigh quotes the martyred Padraig Pearse ‘The enemies of this country cannot undo the miracles of God, which ripen in the hearts of young men, seeds sown by the young men of Ireland of another generation’ ‘they think they have pacified Ireland; they think they have purchased one half of us and intimidated the other half, they think that they have foreseen everything, they think they have provided against everything; But the fools, the fools, the fools! They have left us our fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace’

The words of Pearse transcend the generation, and situation, ever eternal.

In memory of Charlie Kerins, who died for the Irish Republic, the peoples Republic.

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