Gearing up for war: Soloheadbeg 1919
By Aengus O Snodaigh
On the very day that Ireland was asserting its right to govern itself
in the Mansion House, Dublin, 80 years ago, an IRA attack, though
unconnected, was to have as profound an effect on the course of Irish
The events of that day in Soloheadbeg, near Limerick Junction, County
Tipperary, were not, as often stated, the first IRA attack on crown
forces since 1916 or even the first to result in crown force
casualties. Since 1916 a secret war was being waged throughout
Ireland. A reading of the pamphlet `Two years of English Atrocities
in Ireland 1917-18' confirms this. Listing killings by the RIC; the
baton and bayonet charges against public meetings by British soldiers
and police, and the `official' number of civilian casualties; raids
and seizures; suppression of newspapers; and the introduction of
repressive legislation in the period, the pamphlet also gives a
invaluable list of the hundreds arrested, charged and imprisoned for
``political offences''. Sometimes it lists the `crime' for which they
were convicted, including giving their name in Irish, singing
seditious songs, travelling without a permit or smuggling weapons and
During these years seven people were shot or bayoneted to death by
soldiers or the police, six including Thomas Ashe died in prison or
owing to broken health shortly after release from jail. I have found
only one crown forces' casualty in the period, that of a District
Inspector Mills who died from blows of a hurley when he led a charge
against an anti-conscription march in Dublin on 14 June 1918.
It becomes obvious that during the two years prior to 1919 both the
IRA and the state were gearing up to a major conflict. The IRA was
recruiting, training and arming its Volunteers, while Sinn Féin and
the other organisations engaged in challenging English rule in
Ireland were upping the ante through their electioneering, the
anti-conscription campaign, the blatant defiance to English rule,
using the Irish language, singing national songs, breaking curfews,
organising public meetings and dances to promote republicanism and to
exert the right to free speech and assembly.
The euphoria of the election results and the defeat of the British
attempts to force conscription on Ireland saw the IRA step up its
activities and it was only a matter of time before they would be
forced to use the arms they were carrying more often on the raids for
arms and on the ambushes of police explosives convoys.
South Tipperary was no different from anywhere else in Ireland.
During 1917 and 1918 Volunteers were openly drilling and parading in
uniform and when in March 1918 two prominent Volunteers were charged
with illegal drilling 200 Volunteers were mobilised to descend on the
courthouse in Tipperary. ``The district inspector sent for military
reinforcements, who were surrounded, before the Volunteers entered
the court and made a laughing stock of the proceedings''.
Tipperary Volunteers felt that the organisation was becoming too
closely associated with Sinn Féin, the republican credentials of some
of whose leading members were in their eyes doubtful. Many in the
party were nationalists, home rulers or dual monarchists.
Dan Breen, in his autobiography, My Fight for Irish Freedom, says
``the Volunteers were in great danger of becoming merely a political
adjunct to the Sinn Féin organisation''.
When information filtered through to the Brigade prior to December
1918 of explosives being transported in their area they began their
preparations. Lar Breen, a brother of Dan, was sent to work in a
local quarry to gather intelligence. He confirmed that a delivery was
expected around 16 January but the exact date and route couldn't be
confirmed. The Volunteers had to lie in wait for a few days before
word came that the convoy was on its way.
Those involved on the day of the operation were four officers of the
3rd Tipperary Brigade IRA; Sean Treacy, Dan Breen, Sean Hogan (then
only 17) and Seamus Robinson. They were joined by five other
Volunteers: Tadhg Crowe, Mick McCormack, Paddy O'Dwyer (Hollyford),
Michael Ryan (Donohill) and Sean O'Meara (Tipperary) - the latter two
being cycle scouts.
Robinson, who participated in the 1916 Rising, was the organiser and
Treacy, a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood since 1911, was
the logistics expert.
In their planning for the ambush Treacy and the others were unsure of
the size of the police contingent which would be guarding the
gelignite and made preparations for various contingencies, including
a guard of up to 12 RIC men. Tadhg Crowe was to guard the policemen
when they were captured while Paddy Dwyer was the lookout who was to
follow the convoy from Tipperary town.
On the eventful day Dwyer saw the explosives, 160 pounds of
gelignite, being loaded on a cart and heading off with a guard of two
policemen. He cycled ahead and watched as they took the long route to
the Soloheadbeg quarry. He took the short route and informed the
anxious Volunteers of the convoy's size and movements. The horse was
being led by two workmen Edward Godfrey and Patrick Flynn, while the
two policemen, Constables Patrick MacDonnell and James O'Connell,
walked behind with their rifles slung over their shoulders. As they
passed Cranitch's Field near the quarry the policemen were called on
to surrender by masked men. When they took up firing positions Sean
Treacy, followed by Breen and Robinson, opened fire.
Leaving the two RIC men dead on the road the IRA hurried the horse
and cart out of the area, burying the sticks of gelignite in a hide
close by. Two sticks were dropped at other locations to throw the
crown forces off the scent.
The Volunteers then went on the run. GHQ were anxious that those
involved would go to the USA until the situation calmed down, but the
Volunteers refused. Sean Treacy said ``any fool can shoot a peeler and
run away to America''. Instead he asked that a proclamation directing
all British troops to leave Ireland be issued. Condemnation for the
killings was swift and from every quarter, including local
republicans. Breen states:
``The people had voted for a Republic; now they seemed to abandon us
who tried to bring that Republic nearer, for we had taken them at
their word. Our former friends shunned us. They preferred the
drawing-room as a battleground.''
Dáil Éireann said nothing, though some Sinn Féin leaders publicly
disapproved of going down the path of armed insurrection once more.
It wasn't until April 1921 that Dáil Éireann, at Erskine Childers'
bidding, formally declared hostilities against Britain.
Tipperary was declared a ``special military area'' and all fairs and
markets were banned. Military reinforcements were rushed to the area
and a major hunt was on for the IRA men. A reward of £1,000 initially
offered was increased to £10,000, but to no avail. The men involved
remained on the run and they all saw regular action in the subsequent
war, some making the supreme sacrifice for Ireland's freedom.
As with other ambushes of the time the sole purpose of the ambush in
Soloheadbeg was the capture of explosives. An order curtailing
military style operations from the IRA GHQ meant no major operation
occurred for a few months after Soloheadbeg. The official newspaper
of the Volunteers, An tOglach took a different line stating ten days
after Soloheadbeg that Volunteers could use ``all legitimate methods
of warfare against the soldiers and policemen of the English usurper,
and to slay them if necessary to overcome their resistance''.
Dan Breen view was that ``if we waited for orders from Dublin or from
GHQ to do an ambush, there would never be a fight''.
Despite the fact that the Soloheadbeg operation did not signal the
start of a military campaign the Brigade's officers held a meeting at
Nodstowns, Cashel and decided to follow up the attack. In the words
of Tipperary's Dan Glesson ``the thing was gathering momentum''. Two
RIC men were assassinated in the county in June of that year, and
around the same time two more RIC men were killed and another wounded
in ambush at a disused quarry at Lorrha, County Tipperary.
The ambush at Soloheadbeg, County Tipperary, took place on 21 January
1919, 80 years ago this week.