The Court Martial of Captain Joe Keohane

Irish Army soldiers near the border in 1969
Irish Army soldiers near the border in 1969

Gearóid Ó Faoleán looks at the court martial of Irish soldier, republican activist and Gaelic football star Joseph Keohane in 1971.


On the night of 9 September 1971, an officer in the F.C.A. was being held under close arrest in Sarsfield barracks, Limerick city on suspected arms offences. A number of other officers in several southern barracks were questioned over the course of the prior days by members of army intelligence (G2).


The arrested officer was Captain Joseph Keohane of Kerry.[1] Keohane was a household name for many people at the time and certainly for those of a previous generation. He had won his first senior all-Ireland football medal for Kerry at just seventeen in a replayed final against Cavan in 1937. The Kerry team with Keohane in the full-back position won a further four all-Ireland trophies; in 1939, 1940, 1941 and 1946. Although Keohane retired from inter-county football in 1948, he continued playing at club level for another seven years.[2]


Joseph Keohane a well known Kerry Gaelic footballer, and FCA (reserve) soldier was accused of misappropriating ammunition in 1972, at the height of the Northern Ireland conflict 

Initially working as a civil servant in the Department of Lands, Keohane joined the Irish Defence Forces during the Second World War (or The Emergency) as it was referred to in Ireland). Several of the Kerry players on the 1937 and 1939 team were interned following the outbreak of that war due to suspected IRA membership.[3] Although retiring from the defence forces in the mid-1950s and becoming a Munster organiser for Gael Linn, Keohane had been called up as a front-line reserve officer when sectarian violence flared in the north during the summer of 1969. As a result of the subsequent conflict there, Keohane spent some time on border duties with the defence forces before returning to Munster to train F.C.A. recruits.[4]


With formal charges brought against him, Keohane was due to face court martial at the beginning of December 1971. Although the charges had yet to be made public, it was understood that they ‘relate[d] to the Northern situation.’[5]



Kerry, the GAA and the Northern conflict

Several days before the trial’s commencement, Keohane was unanimously selected as the new Kerry senior football trainer and manager; replacing his old teammate, Jackie Lyne.[6] One could possibly interpret this selection as being, at least in some part, a public gesture of defiance from an influential section of the population in the county.


Following the sectarian burnings of August 1969 in Belfast, seventeen of twenty-six Kerry county councillors had seemingly supported a motion calling on Jack Lynch’s government to “remove its ban on Óglaigh na hÉireann [the IRA] as a gesture of unity and goodwill.”[7] Indeed, in the aftermath of the split in the republican movement in December of that year, Kerry had become something of a ‘provisional stronghold’.[8]

A majority of Kerry County Councillors passed a motion calling for the legalisation of the IRA in 1969

Having spent a period of time largely arming and training, the provisional IRA moved onto the offensive in early 1971; killing the first British soldier of the conflict in February of that year.[9] As a result of this death Northern premier, Brian Faulkner, declared ‘war’ on the ‘Irish Republican Army Provisionals’.[10] From the beginning of the year until a month prior to Keohane’s arrest a total of thirteen soldiers, two policemen and sixteen civilians had been killed in the north. However, with the imposition of internment on 9 August 1971, the level of violence drastically escalated. By the end of that year, the figure had risen to 174 dead and 2,375 injured.[11]


The Court martial begins


When Joe Keohane’s court martial began on 2 December 1971, he was charged with over a dozen counts of fraud, misapplication of rounds and acting ‘to the prejudice of good order and conduct’ between the dates of 1 and 20 of the previous July.[12] By arguing that his client had initially only faced four charges and that this had risen to thirteen just days before the trial, Keohane’s solicitor – Mr Joseph Grace of Tralee – successfully sought an adjournment of ‘four to six weeks’.[13] When the second court martial began in early January 1972, Keohane faced the following charges:


1) Fraudulently misapplying 391 rounds of .303 ammunition having drawn 1,500 rounds from Ballymullen barracks, countyKerry, on 1 July.

2) Failing to ensure the return of the unexpended 391 rounds to barracks.

3) Knowingly signing a document that he knew to be false certifying that members of the fifteenth infantry battalion had each fired forty rounds of .303 ammunition at Ballydunlea.

4) A similar charge relating to the firing of twenty-eight rounds per soldier.

5) As above with eighty-three rounds per soldier.

6) Falsely signing a document certifying that he himself had fired eighty-three rounds at Ballydunlea.

7) Misapplying 180 of 750 rounds of 9mm ammunition at Ballymullen barracks.

8) Failing to ensure that the above ammunition was returned to barracks.

9) Knowingly signing a document that he knew to be false certifying that members of the fifteenth infantry battalion had each fired sixty rounds of .303 ammunition at Ballyclough, countyLimerick.

10) Misapplying approximately 160 of 440 rounds of 7.62 ammunition at Ballydunlea following target practise on 10 July.

11) Failing to ensure that the above rounds were safely returned to barracks.

12) Falsely certifying that all members of the fifteenth battalion had fired sixty rounds at Ballydunlea on 10 July.

13) Failing to ensure the return of 250 rounds at Ballymullen barracks on 20 July.[14]



Hostile crowds surround the British embassy in Dublin in 1972.
Hostile crowds surround the British embassy in Dublin in 1972.

Despite strong opposition from the prosecution, Keohane’s solicitor sought and received a second adjournment; arguing that due to the serious nature of the charges, more senior counsel was needed.[15]


In the interim between this second adjournment and the court martial, a series of significant events occurred on the island. On the last day of January, the British army shot twenty-six civilians at a civil rights march in Derry city; fourteen of whom were killed – the day known as Bloody Sunday, 1972.[16] The reaction to these killings in the southern state was potentially very dangerous for the Fianna Fáil government. In the words of Bowyer Bell, ‘the mob was in the street. The IRA was immune.’[17]


Koehane’s court martial took place shortly after the Bloody Sunday shootings in Derry, in which the British Army killed 14 nationalist demonstrators.

On the Sunday night following the shootings, a crowd of perhaps fifty people picketed the British embassy in Merrion Square, Dublin.[18] By the following morning, the number of protesters in the square had swelled to 8,000; representative of all sections of society.[19] Across the state there were similar reports of protest and disobedience. The Irish Times reported disturbances in Ballinasloe, Ballina, Ballyhaunis, Birr, Carrickmacross, Cashel, Ennis, Limerick, Longford, Monaghan, Mullingar, Rosslare, Sligo, Thurles, Tralee, Waterford and the west Donegal area.[20]


As marches and demonstrations occurred across the state, the protest continued outside the British embassy in Dublin with the Irish Independent reporting on ‘a wave of petrol bombings’ directed at the building as well as British-owned businesses around the city.[21] The embassy was also targeted with a gelignite bomb planted by the official IRA which ‘tore the steel-reinforced front door off its hinges.’[22] The building was burnt down on the night of 2 February following four hours of petrol bombing, to the delight of the crowd of approximately 25,000. When the fire trucks arrived to extinguish the flames, protestors charged the gardai who were protecting the firemen and managed to cut the water pumps, ensuring the building’s total destruction.[23]


Keohane’s court martial finally began at Sarsfield barracks on 7 March 1972, with the defendant denying all charges levelled against him.[24] The senior counsel sought by Keohane’s solicitor turned out to be none other than veteran legal representative and former IRA chief-of-staff, Seán MacBride. The defence first sought to ague that Keohane was not in fact subject to military law, and thus the court martial was illegitimate. MacBride noted that when Keohane was called up for duty in 1969, he should have been made swear a fresh oath and sign a relevant form as stipulated under section 43 of the defence act.


Cross-examining a Captain Moriarty, MacBride had him concede that no such form was signed by Keohane. This technically meant that his position within the defence forces should have been officially considered to have expired three months after the initial call-up on 16 August 1969. MacBride declared that the onus was thus on the prosecution to prove that Keohane was even liable for prosecution under a court martial.[25]


In response, the prosecution called Captain James F. Whelan, adjutant general’s branch, general HQ. Whelan produced a certificate, a statement of the terms of service pertaining to the August 1969 call-up, which would have had Keohane liable beyond the three-month span as laid out in the defence act. Under cross-examination, Whelan admitted that this statement of terms had only been drawn up in March 1972; in fact, in anticipation of the court martial.[26] However, the prosecution maintained that:


(…) every person subject to military law who steals, embezzles or fraudulently misapplies or receives, knowing it to be stolen or otherwise unlawfully obtained, any property of a person subject to military law, or any public property or service property is guilty of an offence against military law.[27]


This argument was accepted by the court and the court martial proceeded.

‘Buckshee’ ammunition

MacBride then made another tactical argument, one concerning ‘buckshee’ ammunition. Questioning a number of officers (and NCOs), he drew attention to the fact that it was a widespread practise for officers to utilise less of the ammunition during target practise than had originally been signed for. This was done so that extra (or ‘buckshee’) ammunition could be provide to members of battalion shooting teams to enable them to have addition practise prior to competitions. Further, that it was quite common for men who were not officially accounted for on sign-in sheets to take part in shoot-offs for this same purpose. Consider the following transcript from the court martial:


Corporal O’Donoghue said he was on the shooting range at Ballydunlea on July 10, 1971.

Mr. McBride [sic] – You are down as having fired 60 rounds of 7.62 ammunition. Is that correct? – No, that is not correct.

You are down in the book as having fired a total of 60 rounds of ammunition – is that your name? (witness showed ledger) – Yes.

How many rounds did you in fact fire? – Approximately 90.

Court – Can you tell us how you recall firing 90 as against 60? – I fired the complete table first – what I believe to be a complete table. The second detail was going on the firing points and somebody in the butts did not want to fire. I was let fire instead of him. I did not complete the table. I handed over to somebody else. I fired about 90 in all, I estimate.

Court – Can you remember who asked you to fire second sequence of shots? – I do not know if anybody asked me. Permission was given for me to fire by Capt. Keohane as far as I know.

Corporal Morrison, called by Mr. McBride said he was in the Regular Army in July 1977 and was present at Ballydunlea.

Mr. McBride – Did you fire? – I did.

What kind of weapon did you fire?

– FN rifle.

How many rounds did you fire?

– As far as I can recall about 60 of 7.62 ammunition.

Did you ask for leave to fire on that day? – No.

Have you seen the register kept on that day? – No.

On the register is your name entered? – No. I do not see my name here.[28]


So common was this practise of hoarding ammunition for subsequent, unregistered target practise that some witnesses refused to answer questions on it – on the advice of Commandant Jordan, judge advocate – due to the likelihood of their incriminating themselves.[29] As the Kerryman rather dryly noted of this practise of buckshee, ‘everyone had heard of it, but it was a different question when it came to anyone who had personal experience of it.’[30] Despite MacBride’s arguments and revelations, Keohane was found guilty on nine of the thirteen charges made against him. He was severely reprimanded, discharged and fined £25.[31]


‘A little bit more than an ordinary army court martial’

Tom Barry, pictured in 1972, described the incident as 'a little bit more than an ordinary army court martial'.
Tom Barry, pictured in 1972, described the incident as ‘a little bit more than an ordinary army court martial’.

During his trial, Aontacht Éireann TD Kevin Boland and former IRA chief-of-staff Tom Barry both provided character references for Keohane.[32] Boland stated that, as a former Minister for Defence, he was well aware of the practise of accumulating surplus ammunition, adding ‘it was general knowledge that the most successful shooting teams had as their training officers officers who were able to arrange for extra practise with live ammunition.’[33] Barry described the verdict as ‘saddening’; he stated ‘Men of my age – I am 75 now – never thought we would see the day when the Irish Army would parade a man like this.’[34] It was Barry’s opinion that Keohane had been scapegoated at a time of heightened political tension due to the ongoing and rapidly escalating conflict in the north:


He thought that all “this set up” savoured of a little bit more than an ordinary army court martial. There was less than £20 involved and accused was put to humiliation of a public court martial. It would not happen in any other army of the world, he said. Captain Keohane had been paraded in front of the public. Somebody should ask why Captain Keohane had been singled out “and whether this matter is legal or political”.[35]

Koehane was reprimanded, fined and discharged from the Defence Forces. Republicans vocally criticised the episode.

Speaking at a demonstration in Cork city several weeks earlier in the wake of the Derry shootings, Barry had exhorted the people to not let street demonstrations be the end of their activism: ‘parades, protests and passing resolutions were good in their own way, but they were absolutely useless unless the whole nation was united behind a final effort and stood “behind the men who will meet these people with arms”’[36]


Keohane continued on in his football managerial career for a number of years. During the grim period of the blanket and dirty protest and subsequent hunger strikes in Long Kesh, he was a solid presence in the anti-H Block campaign. The GAA was tearing itself apart debating their position on the conflict during this period; many republican prisoners, north and south, were GAA players or former players.


At one annual congress in the early 1970s, an amendment had been made to rule seven of the GAA’s constitution concerning engagement in political activity. The addition of the prefix ‘party’ to the original prohibition on ‘political activity’ allowed for any amount of interpretation as far as republicans were concerned, given the anti-H Block campaign was not a registered political party. However, in 1980 the congress designated it as such regardless and banned participation in it on the part of its members.


At that same congress, the Kerry delegation had called for the GAA to unequivocally condemn the conditions in the H Blocks.[37] Despite the prohibition, Joe Keohane was a noticeable presence during the 1981 general election in the south, canvassing for hunger striking prisoner, Joe McDonnell. As Magill noted: ‘In Sligo, the rally was well organised (…) Kerry footballer Joe Keoghan [sic], a big sentimental man introduced the prisoner candidate’s two young children (…)’[38]


Although Keohane died in 1988, his legendary skill as a footballer has ensured he will not soon be forgotten in Kerry or further afield. In 1999, he was chosen by a panel of sports journalists and former GAA presidents for the position of full back for the millennium football team; a team composed of the true greats from the history of codified football. In Tralee, a roundabout is named after him prompting the joke that nobody could ever go through Joe Keohane, you could only go around him.[39] Coincidentally or not, one of the roads leading onto the roundabout is named after another Kerry footballing legend and well-known republican, John Joe Sheehy.

Gearoid Ó Faoleán is working on PHD at the University of Limerick and on republicanism in the south during the ‘Long war’. 


[1] Irish Times, 10 September 1971.

[2] Ibid., 20 November 1971.

[3] Ibid., 10 September 1939 and 10 March 1972.

[4] Ibid., 10 September 1971.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 20 November 1971.

[7] United Irishman, November 1969.

[8] Eamonn Mallie and Patrick Bishop, The provisional IRA (London, 1987), p. 132.

[9] Kevin Kelley, The longest war: Northern Ireland and the I.R.A (London, 1990), p. 148 and ‘An index of deaths from the conflict in Ireland’, ( (17 June 2013).

[10] Kelley, The longest war, p. 150. British military commanders referred to it at this time as a ‘shooting war’. Irish Times, 10 February 1971; Irish Press, 8 February 1971.

[11] Caroline Kennedy-Pipe, The origins of the present Troubles in Northern Ireland (London, 1997), pp 54-5.

[12] Irish Independent, 3 December 1971.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Irish Times, 10 March 1972.

[15] Ibid. 6 January 1972.

[16] The fourteenth victim, John Johnston, died of his wounds several months later. ‘“Bloody Sunday”, 30 January 1972 Derry’, ( (17 June 2013).

[17] J. B. Bell, A time of terror (New York, 1978), p. 217.

[18] Irish Times, 31 January 1972.

[19] Irish Independent, 1 February 1972.

[20] Ibid., 2 February 1972.

[21] Irish Independent, 2 February 1972.

[22] Ibid.; Brian Hanley and Scott Millar, The lost revolution: the story of the official IRA and the workers party (Dublin, 2009), p. 174.

[23] Irish Independent, 3 February 1972.

[24] Irish Press, 8 March 1972.

[25] Ibid. and Kerryman, 11 March 1972.

[26] Kerryman, 11 March 1972.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Irish Times, 10 March 1972. Those that Keohane was found guilty of are numbered on the above charge sheet as 1, 3-7, 9-10 and 12.

[32] Aontacht Éireann was a short-lived nationalist party formed by Kevin Boland following the 1970 arms trial. See: Catherine O’Donnell, Fianna Fáil, Irish republicanism and the Northern Ireland troubles, 1968-2005 (Dublin, 2007).

[33] Irish Times, 10 March 1972.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Irish Independent, 1 February 1972.

[37] Ibid., 28 January 1980.

[38] Magill, June 1981.

[39] Evening Herald, 29 July 2008.

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