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Dublin: 8 °C Thursday 21 November, 2019
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Minister to lay wreath at ceremony to mark centenary of Soloheadbeg Ambush

The Soloheadbeg Ambush is 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

MINISTER FOR CULTURE, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Josepha Madigan will today lay a wreath at a ceremony to mark the centenary of the Soloheadbeg Ambush, which is widely cited as the start of the War of Independence

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.

Today’s commemorative programme opens with a Mass of Remembrance in Solohead Church, celebrated by the Archbishop of Cashel and Emly, Kieran O’Reilly. 

Minister Madigan will then lay a wreath on behalf of the government at the site of the Soloheadbeg Ambush Memorial, in remembrance of all who suffered and who lost their lives during the struggle. 

“It is very fitting that the significance of what happened in Soloheadbeg a century ago is remembered with a respectful, community-led commemoration, supported by Tipperary County Council and the State,” Madigan said. 

“I commend the efforts and the commitment of the Solohead Parish Centenary Commemoration Committee and the Third Tipperary Brigade Old IRA Commemoration Committee who have ensured that today’s ceremony is authentic, appropriate, inclusive and meaningful,” she said. 

This thoughtful and sensitive approach to the remembrance of the events that took place here, a century ago, will undoubtedly help to promote a mature and considerate reflection on their significance and legacy. 

What happened in Solohead 100 years ago?

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.

There is some controversy surrounding the ambush because there is a debate as to the motives of the volunteers. Furthermore, UCC Irish history John Borgonovo argues that the ambush could better be classified as a raid gone wrong, and that the War of Independence really started in January 2020. 

A further look at these arguments can be read here

‘Difficult legacies of our past’

Minister Madigan has said that “one of the most significant learnings from the Decade of Centenaries is the extraordinary capacity of local communities to mobilise for the greater good, when the right structures and supports are put in place to assist them”. 

“By approaching the difficult legacies of our past with understanding, empathy and a generosity of spirit, and by acknowledging and remembering all of the lives lost during this period, we have revisited painful memories, creating the possibility of reciprocal compassion and reconciliation,” Madigan said. 

“In remembering this period in our history, we acknowledge both the military campaign of the Independence Struggle as well as the constitutional parliamentary traditions and the democratic processes underpinning all the traditions on this island,” she said. 

“Tomorrow, we will mark the centenary of the convening of Dáil Éireann for the first time and we are reminded that the democratic parliamentary tradition ultimately prevailed and that, today, we have one of the oldest surviving democracies in Europe.” 

With reporting by Ronan Duffy

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