Soloheadbeg: what really happened?

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 1 (Spring 1997), Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 5

Seventy-eight years ago on a quiet Tipperary roadway the first nationalist revolt against the British Empire this century was started by a small band of armed men from townlands and villages—Donohill, Solohead and Hollyford—in the vicinity of Tipperary Town. The Soloheadbeg ambush shook British rule in Ireland and sparked a controversy which can be heard to this day.
The controversy centres on the sequence of events at Soloheadbeg on that fatal day—21 January 1919—and on whether the Volunteers, in the circumstances, were justified in taking life. Prior authorisation for the action was not sought or received from Volunteer headquarters in Dublin and Dáil Éireann (which co-incidentally met for the first time on the same date) had not yet approved the opening of hostilities against the Crown Forces. So what really happened at Soloheadbeg?

Quantity of gelignite

Sometime before Christmas 1918, Seamus Robinson, Séan Treacy, Dan Breen and other members of ‘C’ and ‘E’ companies of the Third Tipperary Brigade received intelligence reports that a large quantity of gelignite was due to be delivered to Tipperary Town. They determined to seize the gelignite for use in the hostilities they intended to open shortly against Crown forces. Robinson had participated in the 1916 Rising. Treacy had been a member of the IRB since 1911. Breen and the others had been involved at least since the setting up on the Irish Volunteers in Tipperary in late 1913. They were all deeply committed to the republican cause. Robinson was the organiser and Treacy the logistics expert. Already Treacy had been jailed twice for republican activities, on one occasion for taking part in an illegal guard of honour for de Valera, when the ‘Chief’ addressed a Volunteer gathering at Dobbyns Hotel, Tipperary Town. Prior to his release he had been on hunger strike in Mountjoy Jail, and subsequently was active in organising the Volunteers in Tipperary and other areas.
A number of them were becoming despondent and restless. They felt that the Volunteers were becoming too closely associated with the Sinn Féin party whose republican credentials, at this time, were unclear—the party was still a coalition of dual-monarchists, republicans and home rulers. They were frustrated with the dilatory attitude of staff headquarters in Dublin and believed that the movement would go to seed unless employed quickly. They decided to set the pace in Tipperary.
The date of the shipment of the gelignite was uncertain. They knew that a quantity was due for delivery to Soloheadbeg quarry for stone-blasting. The quarry was not far from the homes of Treacy (Solohead) and Breen (Grange/Donohill) so Lar Breen, Dan’s brother, also a Volunteer, was sent to work there to keep a close watch. Plans for the seizure were made weeks before. Seamus Robinson later recalled extensive discussions with Treacy, and the consideration which they gave to rumours that the police guard might vary from two to six, or may even be as large as twelve. Their plans allowed for various contingencies. One was based on the possibility that the guard would be a small one, and that they could overpower the RIC men without firing a shot. Tadgh Crowe, one of the Volunteers, had been earmarked to march the RIC men down the road after the seizure and to keep them covered while his colleagues escaped; then, after a time, to withdraw himself. At another stage of the planning gags and ropes were hidden in the quarry, so that the policemen could be bound, gagged and left to cool off in a nearby field. The big question was: how many policemen would accompany the load? On this they could only speculate.
On the fatal day, one of the Volunteers, Paddy Dwyer from Hollyford, was posted as a watch-out in Tipperary Town. He saw the explosives—160 pounds of gelignite—being loaded on a cart outside the military barracks and noted the size of the escort. Only two policemen and two council workmen would accompany the cart. He cycled ahead and watched the party reach the cross-roads at the foot of Kingswell Hill outside the town. Dwyer needed to know which of the two routes to the quarry the cart would take: the longer one by Bohertrime or the shorter by Kingswell Hill. He pretended to be repairing the slipped chain on his bike until they passed him, taking the Bohertrime route. Dwyer himself took the shorter route and informed Robinson and Treacy—who were in command of the operation—that the cart was on its way. The ambushers got into position behind the whitethorn hedge of Cranitch’s field near the quarry and waited.

Ambushers’ plan

The cart took the best part of an hour to approach. The horse was led by Godfrey, one of the workmen, and the two policemen, Constables MacDonnell and O’Connell, walked behind with their heavy rifles slung on their shoulders. They were heavily built men, caped for the rain, and sported the then customary long Prussian-type moustaches. MacDonnell, a florid, almost antique fellow, puffed on his briar pipe as he strode. Both chatted to Flynn, the second workman. The ambushers’ plan was to stop the cart as it passed the gate of Cranitch’s field. They were to jump out and command the policemen to surrender their weapons, then they were to seize the cart.
The affray when it happened lasted a matter of minutes. The cart came abreast of the gate and a challenge was shouted. This is believed to have been ‘hands up’ and is said to have been shouted twice. The RIC men were taken aback and initially thought that those behind the hedge were playing a practical joke. On seeing the masked men they moved to unsling their rifles. At least three ambushers were visible to the police. Constable O’Connell stooped for cover behind the cart and Constable MacDonnell got excited and began to fumble with his weapon. Sean Treacy opened fire with an automatic rifle and Robinson and Breen fired their revolvers. Paddy O’Dwyer jumped onto the road and caught the horse’s head. He was followed by Breen and Robinson. The two policemen now lay dead on the roadway. The two workmen looked on, stupefied.
The big question is whether the policemen attempted to fire their rifles. The fact is that neither of their weapons discharged. Even if their rifles were in fact levelled on the ambushers (and there is no reason to disbelieve the contention that they were) the policemen were still likely to have been at a disadvantage: the element of surprise was against them. There is little doubt that it was Treacy who fired the first shot. He must have felt that if he did not shoot quickly, he would have been shot himself. He was known as a humane man and it would have been out of character for him to have shot in cold blood. One theory is that he may have mistook the movements of the policemen. His eyesight was acknowledged to be poor and rain was falling heavily. Against this, is the fact that the road at the point of the ambush is only seventeen feet wide and that the policemen must have been less than ten or twelve feet away. Treacy would have seen clearly at such a distance. More likely is the possibility that Constable MacDonnell’s fumblings with his rifle were misconstrued, or that Treacy himself panicked. Endless scenarios may be speculated upon. A number of the group afterwards expressed surprise at what had happened. Tadgh Crowe, Paddy Dwyer and Sean Hogan were unanimous in stating that Treacy, Breen and Robinson only fired when they found themselves—within a split second—in danger themselves. The difficulty of the situation may be explained by what happened the following year to Tom Barry’s West Cork flying column at Kilmichael, when at one stage the Auxiliaries appeared to be surrendering, but when some of Barry’s men went forward to take them prisoner, they were fired on and two IRA men were killed. Barry then ordered that no prisoners be taken. Dan Breen’s later comment on Soloheadbeg that ‘six dead peelers would have made a better impression than two’ was most likely post-war bluster. He showed in subsequent actions that he was never so trigger-happy as to shoot without cause.

Shock and outrage

There was local shock and outrage at the killings. The following day The local Nationalist described the ambush as ‘a very deplorable affair’. The London Times devoted three column inches to it under the headline ‘Policemen shot dead in Tipperary—cartload of explosives captured’. Tipperary was declared a ‘special military area’ and all fairs and markets were banned. There was a big security clamp down and for weeks Black Marias and military lorries could be heard speeding up and down country roads. It was the first time ever that aeroplanes were used to track guerrillas. A reward of £1,000 was placed on the head of Dan Breen, and raised to £10,000 later that year. It was never collected.
At the inquest the coroner described the tragedy as the saddest that had ever occurred in Tipperary. The medical evidence was that Constable MacDonnell was shot in the left side of the head and through the left arm, and that his death was instantaneous; Constable O’Connell was shot through the left side, and from the track of the bullet he must have been in a stooping position. He appeared to have been shot from behind.
The workmen, Flynn and Godfrey, were unable to say whether the policemen offered resistance. The evidence of both was confused. Flynn collapsed in the witness box and had to be removed to hospital with a nervous breakdown. Both policemen were widely acknowledged to have been quiet, inoffensive men who were well-liked in Tipperary Town. Constable MacDonnell was a widower with a large family. He had been stationed in Tipperary for thirty years and had come from County Mayo. He was reputed to have had a dry wit and was well-known in local pubs for challenging people to spell long words. He would say: ‘Can any man here spell rodydandron? Well, I’ll tell ye: r-h-o-d-o-d-e-n-d-r-o-n!’ Constable O’Connell was a native of Coachford, County Cork, who during a recent influenza epidemic had nursed colleagues back to health. Neither man had strong political views, and both were in the force for bread and butter reasons. In considering the constables it should be remembered that they were members of a widely unpopular armed force, which had been used repeatedly to enforce harsh, unpopular and sometimes violent policies, especially during the Land War a generation earlier. They were vulnerable on two counts: because they were the nearest and most accessible source of arms and ammunition which the Volunteers so desperately needed; and because they were responsible for ensuring that the King’s writ ran in a land which was now largely republican.

‘Slay them if necessary’

The point that the Third Tipperary Brigade acted without authority is seen by some to be of little importance, for Dáil Éireann never formally declared the opening of hostilities in the War of Independence. It did not accept responsibility for the actions of the Volunteers/IRA until April 1921. The War of Independence developed from actions like that at Soloheadbeg and from the British response to them. It should, however, be noted that on 31 January 1919 (ten days after Soloheadbeg) the official organ of the Volunteers, An tÓglach proclaimed that every Volunteer was entitled to 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’.
Soloheadbeg was the one episode in the careers of Sean Treacy and Dan Breen around which speculation and controversy was to rage. Both men were courageous and patriotic. In subsequent attacks on RIC barracks (Hollyford, May 1920; Drangan, June; Rearcross, July) the record shows that they conformed to an operational code and preferred to scare the RIC out of their barracks than to shoot them. But is there still a lingering doubt about Soloheadbeg? Did they or did they not carry out a murderous ambush on two unsuspecting policemen from the safe shelter of a ditch? Today, Treacy and Breen lie beyond the controversy, safe in the immortality and affection given to Irish patriots. And History—truly the hardhearted Muse—has forgotten the policemen.

Kevin Haddick Flynn is a London-based writer and lecturer.

Further reading:

D. Breen, My Fight For Irish Freedom (Dublin 1924).

R. Bennett, The Black and Tans    (London 1959).

S. O’Callaghan, The Easter Lilly    (London 1956).

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