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Dublin: 2 °C Wednesday 23 January, 2019
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The Soloheadbeg Ambush and the shots heard around the world

It’s widely seen as the event which sparked the War of Independence.

A wanted poster for Dan Breen released after the ambush.
A wanted poster for Dan Breen released after the ambush.
Image: Wikimedia

WIDELY CITED AS the start of the War of Independence, the centenary of the Soloheadbeg Ambush is a week away.

The events of 21 January 1919 in Tipperary were not connected to the first meeting of the Dáil, taking place in Dublin on the same day, but are no less significant for it.

The tactics used by the volunteers, in using an exposed rural location to their advantage, were identical to those throughout the two-year War of Independence.

It also mirrored the complicated nature of the conflict, with two Irish Catholic RIC policemen shot dead during the ambush, and echoed the moral questions thrown up by the unauthorised use of violence. 

The source for much of the detail of what happened comes from Irish Volunteer Dan Breen in his autobiography My Fight for Irish Freedom, but there remains debate about exactly what his intentions were ahead of the ambush.

Breen was a member of the Third Tipperary Brigade of the Irish Volunteers which carried out the operation.

According to multiple accounts of what happened, Breen and other members of the brigade received information that a quantity of the explosive gelignite was to be transported from an army barracks to a local quarry.

The exact timing of the shipment was unknown so the volunteers began preparing for a raid on the convey after Christmas 1918 and into early January 1919.

Writing in the History Ireland magazine, lecturer Kevin Haddick Flynn explains that the team was also unaware exactly how many policemen would be guarding shipment, with estimates ranging from two to six.

On the day of the ambush, the cart carrying the explosives was guarded by two RIC men and two council workers.

The policemen were Patrick O’Connell from Cork and James McDonnell from Mayo, the latter of whom was a widower with four children.

According to Flynn’s article, this is what happened during the struggle that led to their shooting dead:

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 two dead policemen are therefore seen as the first two people to have been killed during the War of Independence, but others dispute exactly when the is said to have begun.

The Soloheadbeg Ambush is also controversial because there is debate as to the motives of the volunteers, with some suggestions that the men had planned to kill the officers to spark a wider conflict.

The operation itself was not directly ordered by the leadership of the Irish Volunteers, but a number of weeks after it happened the official publication of the Irish Volunteers, An tÓglach, declared that volunteers were entitled told 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.

1918

UCC Irish history John Borgonovo argues that the ambush could better be classified as a raid gone wrong.

“The episode doesn’t seem to be have been planned with the intention of killing anyone and because of the fatalities and the fact that it coincides with the Dáil, it becomes an easy starting point for the War of Independence,” he says.

“I’d argue that War of Independence really started in January 1920 when there was a more organised and systematic attack on the crown forces.”

The Soloheadbeg Ambush occurring on the same day as the first Dáil is also seen as another reason by it is considered the start of the War of Independence but Borgonovo says that candidates in the 1918 election did not run on a threat of violence.

During the 1918 general election, the republicans did not argue that there was going to be an armed insurrection. They did not get approval from the voters for an armed insurrection should they not achieve independence. That being said, they also campaigned with Irish Volunteers, and the Irish Volunteers were at the forefront, or were very much a visible part of the republican election machinery.

“The acted as stewards, they appeared in uniform, some of the candidates spoke in uniform, so there was an implied threat of insurrection, but it wasn’t explicit.”

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About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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