A section of the 3rd Tipperary Brigade had instigated the military side of the War of Independence with the Soloheadbeg ambush. There would be other incidents, and deaths, in the weeks and months that followed, but the next spectacular moment of the conflict was once again with the Tipperary IRA, and many of the same men who had been involved at Soloheadbeg.
The main figures of Soloheadbeg – Seamus Robinson, Sean Treacy, Dan Breen and Sean Hogan – had been on the run since the 21st January, evading British attempts to bring them to heel through the institution of a “Special Military Area” edict in Tipperary. For three months, the four moved from safehouse to safehouse, sometimes sleeping out in the open, in a variety of locations across rural Tipperary and neighboring Limerick.
They maintained communication with their units and Brigade, and even visited Dublin in this time to hold a brief meeting with Michael Collins; Robinson claims Collins gave a subtle, but unstated, approval to their actions, and to their refusal to leave the country, intent instead as they were on maintaining the armed struggle. Indeed, their living “on the run” as their own unit and with the support of the units in places they visited, can be seen as a progenitor of the flying columns that would come soon enough, though Robinson himself disapproved of the columns, thinking them too close to a regular force.
On the 12th May, the four men had based themselves near Clonoulty, roughly half way between Tipperary Town and Thurles. That night, the four of them elected to attend a dance in nearby Ballagh, held as part of a fundraising effort for the local IRA, which was badly in need of money to buy arms. Hogan would end up attending another dance in the area, with “a pretty girl” as Robinson put it; in his account, the O/C rather gleefully takes the time to quote Hogan’s own thoughts on such matters, that “Ireland will never be free until she can produce a Robert Emmet who doesn’t give a damn about women”. Treacy would be furious when he heard that Hogan had given a minder the slip, but it must be remembered that he was only 18, and enjoyed a reputation as something of a playboy. The other three went back to their chosen safehouse.
Hogan would eventually spend the night sleeping on a sofa in the home of said “pretty girl”, a Cumann na mBan member named Bridie O’Keefe. In the early hours of the morning, the house was the subject of an RIC raid. Hogan went out the back, gun in hand, and scaled the rear wall of the property, only to stumble into a different group of RIC. He was subdued, arrested and taken to the nearest RIC barracks, before being transferred to more secure environs in Thurles.
The other three men, upon being informed of Hogan’s arrest, knew that they had limited options. Abandoning their comrade was apparently not thought of. An immediate attack on the Thurles barracks was considered, but would have been extraordinarily difficult, and once Hogan was transferred to one of the larger prisons, rescue would became almost impossible. But, the authorities would have to move Hogan, and therein lied an opportunity. Having learned from operatives in Thurles that Hogan was to be moved to Cork by train the very next day, the three men determined to rescue their comrade while he was in transit.
Knowing the route that the train would have to take, the three initially fixed on Emly station, non-existent today, as the place where they would board the train. This was later changed to the next station on the line, Knocklong (also no longer existing), just inside the Limerick border. Robinson, Breen and Treacy sent messages out to nearby units asking for volunteers to help them in their endeavour, and got a few from the Galtee Battalion of the East Limerick Brigade. These men were to board the train at Emly, and meet with another volunteer who had been on-board since Thurles, with the job of identifying the carriage Hogan was being kept in. When the train stopped at Knocklong, the waiting Robinson, Treacy and Breen would enact their attack and rescue.
Up to the launch of the attack, everything went to plan. Hogan was identified as being held, under guard by four members of the RIC, in the train’s first carriage, and the Limerick men boarded at Emly without impediment. When the train pulled into Knocklong, the waiting men received the signal as to what carriage Hogan was in. The group of IRA moved into the carriage.
From there, things break down a little. Robinson claims Treacy disobeyed orders to wait for he and Breen, at the platform still, to also board. In the carriage, a gunfight ensued. Two RIC, a Constable Michael Enright and Sergeant Peter Wallace, were shot dead, Wallace after a hand-to-hand scuffle with Treacy, that resulted in Treacy receiving a bullet wound to the neck. Another RIC constable, Jeremiah Ring, was thrown through a carriage window while another, John O’Reilly, dazed from an attack, stumbled onto the platform and proceeded to fire wildly on the train and on Dan Breen, who engaged him in a brief gunfight on the platform. Breen took a bullet to the chest that pierced his lung, but drove O’Reilly off.
With the RIC accounted for, Hogan was moved to a local butcher to cut his handcuffs with a meat cleaver, before the wounded were spirited away to a doctor for their wounds to be treated. Treacy and Breen both survived, and the “Big Four” soon fled to the relative safety of West Limerick, avoiding the response of the British authorities, which rounded up many in the area of Knocklong in the immediate aftermath of the rescue, but none of the actual rescue party. The killings were condemned by many, not least local clergy, but the heavy-handed response of the authorities, who again resorted to the collective punishment of the community instead of focusing on the actual attackers, ensured that the IRA’s actions would be perceived in a different light as time went on.
One member would be captured eventually however. Ed Foley, of the Galtee Battalion, would be arrested in September 1919, alongside another IRA member, who had had nothing to do with the Knocklong rescue, named Patrick Maher. The two were tried twice in civilian courts, which failed to reach a verdict, before being found guilty of the murder of the two RIC men by a military court. Sentenced to death, they were hung in June 1921.
The “Rescue at Knocklong” was another incident, like that at Soloheadbeg, which galvanised the movement and accelerated the militant nature of what was now occurring in Ireland. Having already carried out a successful ambush with lots of pre-planning, units of the IRA had now carried out a successful ad-hoc attack on the spur of the moment, fulfilling the objective of rescuing Hogan, inflicting two casualties on the enemy, with no fatalities to themselves. They were thus marking themselves out as a serious threat, and providing plenty of inspiration to other IRA units throughout the country. It must be remembered that, at this point, their actions were not being condoned by any of those in GHQ, Sinn Fein or the Dail. 1919 would actually be rather quiet in comparison to the next year in terms of ambushes and attacks. Though plenty took place elsewhere, none had the same notoriety or impact as the Soloheadbeg and Knocklong incidents. As the Dail continued to talk and GHQ dithered, the Tipperary IRA were making the War of Independence a reality.
After a period recuperating in Limerick, the Tipperary men took another trip to Dublin, there to meet again with the higher-ups in GHQ like Collins and Richard Mulcahy. Those men had a mind to start their own “Active Service Unit” in the capital, and sought the assistance and participation of Robinson, Breen, Hogan and Treacy. The subject of that unit, better known to us today as “the Squad”, will be the topic of the next entry.
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