Soloheadbeg

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Summer 1997), Letters, Letters, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 5

Sir,—In his article ‘Soloheadbeg: what really happened?’ Kevin Haddick Flynn betrayed a dated and shallow understanding of a complex event. He sets himself the purpose of examining the intent and actions of Seán Treacy, Dan Breen and their comrades at Soloheadbeg. Did they set out solely to capture the gelignite or did they have the dual purpose of assassinating the escort as well? Did they panic in a tense situation or did they carry out a pre-arranged plan? This is an important question, one which is central to a deeper understanding of the escalation of the Anglo-Irish war. Unfortunately, while Mr Flynn does provide a good account of the events surrounding the killings he fails to set them in their proper context. Soloheadbeg was not the first attempt by volunteers to obtain arms and/or explosives at the point of a gun, nor was it the first time shots had been exchanged with police. That no fatalities had yet occurred was more a matter of providence than design. The level of politically related crime had been steadily rising in most parts of Ireland for the previous two years as the republican movement and the British administration ‘squared up’ to each other. By early 1919 an increasing tendency was becoming evident among volunteers in many areas to carry, display and use firearms. Treacy and Breen’s unit were one of the most radical and active  in Ireland but they were not the only ones. It is also incorrect to attribute any significance to the lack of authorisation for the action from GHQ in Dublin. It was not the common practice of volunteer units to seek such authorisation, as much because it was usually impractical as for any other reason.
Mr Haddick Flynn goes on to describe the Tipperary volunteers as being ‘distrustful’ of Sinn Féin. Again he fails to provide a proper context. A marked distrust of ‘politicals’ was not unique to the third Tipperary brigade; it was common throughout the volunteer movement then and later. Indeed, one possible interpretation of the Soloheadbeg action is that it was an attempt to wrest the local initiative from moderates and politicals by staging a spectacular, headline-grabbing, action.
It is also misleading to describe the volunteers as becoming ‘despondent and restless’. There was restlessness certainly, and frustration at what they saw (perhaps unfairly) as the overly cautious nature of GHQ, but as recent studies have shown these feelings stemmed more from enthusiasm and pent up energy than any feeling of failure or disillusion.
The Anglo-Irish war was not started, as Mr Haddick Flynn would have us believe, ‘by a small band of armed men’ in Tipperary. Soloheadbeg was part of a process which had been underway for some time and which had many more dimensions to it than guerrilla warfare, central though actions like Soloheadbeg were. The real significance of Soloheadbeg is that it was the first time that an encounter between volunteers and the security forces ended in fatalities and the first Dáil met on the same day, a fact that the author dismisses as co-incidental. Taken together these two incidents represent a sudden and significant escalation of the ‘Irish crisis’. Therefore an analysis of reactions to, and developments from Soloheadbeg would be a far more illuminating exercise than an attempt to ‘get into the head’ of Seán Treacy, Dan Breen or anyone else.—Yours etc.,
PAUL HANLEY
Sterling
Dunboyne
County Meath

Author’s reply

If Mr Hanley reads my article again he will see that I did not, as he puts it, attempt to ‘“get into the head” of Seán Treacy, Dan Breen or anyone else’. I simply recapitulated on what is known of the events at Soloheadbeg and outlined the controversy which arose from them. He accuses me of failing to put the feelings of the Tipperary volunteers for the Sinn Féin party in context. He is wrong, I did. I said that they believed that the Volunteer movement had become closely associated with Sinn Féin and that as a consequence it was going to seed. I even briefly specified why.
Mr Hanley says that it was misleading to describe the Volunteers as ‘becoming despondent and restless’. Misleading! This is surely an excessive charge when Mr Hanley tells us, in his next sentence: ‘There was restlessness certainly…’ If Mr Hanley questions my view that the men were despondent, I suggest that he read what Dan Breen had to say on the matter on pp. 68 and 69 of his My Fight for Irish Freedom (1944). Sean Treacy’s view was similar and is found on pp. 52 and 53 of Desmond Ryan’s Sean Treacy and the Third Tipperary Brigade (1945).
Mr Hanley’s next point is pernickety. Whether the Soloheadbeg ambush was part of a process or not is largely academic. The truth is that most historians have seen it as the beginning of a new sequence of events, and this would appear to be the officially designated view (see the note on the State Papers in the National Archives). We also have it from no less a person than the Chief of Staff, General Richard Mulcahy, that GHQ viewed the event similarly (see the Mulcahy Papers in UCD, P7/D/94).
Mr Hanley further says, ‘It is also incorrect to attribute any significance to lack of authorisation for the action from GHQ in Dublin’—I attributed none. Finally, Mr Hanley says ‘the writer dismisses as co-incidental the meeting on the same day as the first Dáil’. This is correct, I do. Is Mr Hanley suggesting that co-incidence was not involved? We know that the men lay in waiting for five days and that they were unsure of when the shipment would arrive. But maybe Mr Hanley holds the view that the RIC in Tipperary Town said something like: ‘Right lads, we know that the first Dáil will meet on 21 January, so that would be a good date for us to cart the explosives to the quarry’! In all, Mr Hanley’s letter is a rather tiresome exercise in nit-picking and hair-splitting.—Yours etc.,

KEVIN HADDICK FLYNN
London

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