The military side of the Irish War of Independence is commonly considered to begin with, in the grand scale of things, a relatively small ambush in the countryside of County Tipperary, on the same day that Dail Eireann met for the first time in Dublin. Two men were killed, making the event far from the most costly of the revolutionary period in terms of lives lost. But, with men killed, it was certainly the most significant act of politically motivated violence in Ireland since the beginning of the Easter Rising.
There had been some violent incidents before of course. They included an attack on RIC men in Ennistymon, County Clare, who were involved in a land seizure, and a later potshot at an RIC constable in the same place. Some RIC barracks had been raided for arms, small bombs had been thrown at others to no serious effect and explosives had been stolen in Wexford. British military personnel were often the subject of stoning and other assaults. But, before the 21st January, the only fatality in this period among “Crown Forces” was an RIC man accidentally shot by his own service.
But there was, as of yet, no firm direction on the military side of things. The threat of conscription had passed, so that was no longer a focal point. The IRA was actively engaged with drilling and arms seizures, with GHQ and republican publications, often with J.J. O’Connell writing, encouraging a growing resort to “hedge-fighting” tactics. But the lack of concrete action was becoming problematic: various IRA units around the country could not keep young men drilling indefinitely, and there were suspicions from many that the political wing of the movement would need to be forced into a war.
The men behind the attack we will discuss today, officers and ranks of the Third Tipperary Brigade of the IRA, sometimes also known as the Mid Tipperary Brigade, certainly held to the idea of making a start so that others would follow, permission from on high or not. There were several key figures: IRB member Sean Tracey, who was Vice Commandant of the Brigade; fellow IRB member Dan Breen, soon to become one of the most famous faces of the war; Sean Hogan, who provided the safehouses where the attack was planned; and Seamus Robinson, a former Monk who had fought in Sackville Street in 1916, and was now the O/C of the Brigade.
Must of the impetus for the ambush is attributed to Tracey, with Robinson joining the planning late owing to a spell in prison. All of the men involved could be categorised as true believers in the republican cause, who had already fought, or faced jail time, for that cause. They were concerned that Sinn Fein’s republican credentials did not match their own, and were growing restless over the lack of activity.
In December 1918 they had received intelligence that a quarry in Soloheadbeg – a small townland near the Limerick/Tipperary border – would be receiving a transport of gelignite from the Tipperary Town army barracks soon. Gelignite was a valued explosive, as it could be moulded easier than dynamite and, provided it was kept away from anything capable of detonating it, could be stored safely. Primarily used for rock blasting, it has long been a favourite of guerrilla and paramilitary groups. The notification, from Breen’s brother Lars who had a job at the quarry, was that the gelignite would be moved around the 16th or 17th January. They quickly decided that an attempt to hold up this transportation would be attempted. Robinson wanted it dome before the Dail met, fearing that after that point political interference would become inevitable.
The authorities were not fools, and would never have allowed explosives to be transported without guards: the IRA’s action were dependent on what kind of escort the explosives would have. Tracey reckoned that they had force enough to handle anything between two and six armed men without resort to bloodshed, despite the Brigade’s chronic lack of guns themselves. Anything more than that, and they would be in serious difficulties if the ambush was still attempted. They reconnoitered the likely route, and determined that a site not far from the quarry, a hedge near a place called Cranitch’s Field, was the best choice. Starting on the 16th, the ambushers waited at the chosen site, with others keeping watch on the barracks to give them early warning. They were armed with mostly revolvers, and one rifle. The days passed without incident, with the group spending nights in an abandoned house nearby.
On the 21st, the lookout spotted the the load of gelignite, being transported on a horse-drawn cart. To the delight of the ambushers, there were only two RIC men, alongside two local council workers, involved in the transportation. The cart was carefully observed as it made its way towards the Soloheadbeg quarry, so the ambushers would know in advance what specific routes were being taken, and thus how long it would take for them to approach the Cranitch’s Field position. Once this was known, lookouts raced ahead to inform Robinson, Tracey, Hogan, Breen and the others.
The ambushers waited patiently, as rain fell on their position. When the cart approached, one council worker was leading the horse and the two RIC men, with rifles slung on their shoulders, walked behind, apparently without much in the way of alertness. When they passed the gate of the field, Robinson’s men issued a challenge – generally described as a simple “Hand’s up!” – and moved in front of the cart.
We have only the accounts of the ambushers for what happened exactly, and so it must be taken with a degree of healthy wariness. The RIC men – Constables James McDonnell and Patrick O’Connell – did not fire their rifles before they were killed by the ambushers’ bullets. Those ambushers claim the RIC attempted to bring their arms to bear on them, but some have speculated that movements to unsling rifles, possibly to surrender, may have been misconstrued. In the split-second decision making of such things, it must be considered a not unintelligible decision for the ambushers to open fire when they saw the movement of rifles.
The matter is complicated by bombastic statements Breen would make years later, where he claimed that he and Tracey fully intended to “start a war” by killing the constables that day, and not just taking the explosives. This is something not corroborated by the others who left statements, including Robinson, who was in command. Regardless, the end result is the same: the armed defenders of the gelignite were killed, and the IRA took no casualties. The council men were subdued and the cart taken and driven off at speed. The gelignite, 160 pounds of it, would be hidden, for later distribution to various battalions. As soon as they were sure the explosives were far enough away, the remaining ambushers released the council workers, and dispersed.
The Soloheadbeg ambush demonstrated many of the reasons why the IRA was soon to become such a difficult opponent for the British military and the RIC. The men involved planned their operation with care, utilising local contacts to determine how, when and by what route the explosives would be transported. They were able to pick and choose their own battlefield. At the critical moment, rightly or wrongly, they followed through with an escalation of violence. They achieved their stated objective without taking any losses themselves, and made good their escape without incident. Moreover, this was no mere banditry or opportunistic theft. The IRA men stole explosives, with the aim of using them to effect more ambushes and attacks in the future.
On the other side, the RIC showed a lack of care in the limited numbers of guards placed to protect the explosives and, by all accounts, an underestimation of how things stood in the countryside. When the critical moment came, it is possible that the constables were not adequately prepared to deal with what was in front of them. By the time the scale of what had occurred became known to the RIC and British military at large, it was too late to catch the ambushers.
The reaction to the killings was, in the short term, resoundingly negative. While members of an unpopular police force, McDonnell and O’Connell, both Roman Catholics with no great political leanings, were not disliked in the local area. There was condemnation from the clergy, and in the local and international press. When the identities of the ambushers became know, hefty rewards were offered for information leading in their capture, including £1’000 pounds for Dan Breen: posters for this reward have become some of the most well-known of the era, describing Breen as “looking like a blacksmith coming from work”. Breen and the others were forced to go on the run, and would remain on the run for some time. GHQ, and the Dail in the coming days and weeks, were notably silent on the matter.
However, as was becoming typical, the British were proving themselves adept at throwing away advantages. Within a few days Tipperary was declared a “Special Military Area” – essentially under martial rule – and a force was assembled to hunt down the ambushers, that included armoured cars and aeroplanes. The repression that followed turned public opinion once more against the British authorities. The idea of collective punishment is often attractive to leaders fighting an insurgency war, but invariably backfires. Eventually, such escalation would become a clear goal for GHQ and the IRA at large.
The manner in which the ambushers took their action, without any kind of authorisation from nominal superiors, spoke to an evident disconnect between the military men of the movement, and the politicians who wanted to exert control. GHQ had no part to play, and may possibly have spoken against the plan if informed. Too many people had a foot in both camps, and too many of the IRA’s members had little time or respect for the TD’s, or GHQ staff, in Dublin, preferring to fight their own war their own way. Many commanders at various levels encouraged such mindsets, placing the creed of thinking “militarily” over anything else.
The official publication of the IRA, An tOglac, openly stated that the armed forces it represented were committed only to the Irish Republic they themselves had established in 1916, and offered only cooperation, not subservience to “those bodies and institutions…in other departments of National life…striving to make our Irish Republic a reality”. Opinions of “the people” from the IRA could be similarly low, and plenty considered their local commands tantamount to an authority of martial law proportions.
Later in 1919 the Dail would implement some controls, but it never amounted to much practically. In time to come, the mindset of men like Dan Breen, and many others besides, would help to contribute to the schism between those willing to compromise with Britain, and those who preferred to fight to the death for the Republic.
But for now we must swing back to the political side of things, and to the efforts to gain international recognition for the nascent Republic. In Paris, the great powers of the world were coming together to try and construct a new order, and the Irish would be trying to join the table too.
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