Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Soloheadbeg and later incidents in the War of Independence

Polling in the General Election of 1918 took place on 14th December and the count and the declaration of the result occurred two weeks later. Twenty-five of the seventy-three successful Sinn Fein candidates were returned unopposed. Arrangements were made for the first meeting of Dáil Éireann to be held on 21st January 1919. That meeting would adopt a provisional constitution for the Dáil and make a formal Declaration of Independence for the Irish Republic. On the same day eight men, members of the south Tipperary Volunteers, waited at Soloheadbeg to ambush a convoy consisting of two workmen conveying gelignite in a horse and cart, accompanied by two local RIC men. The ambushers were led by Seamus Robinson, but subsequent accounts relegated Robinson to a minor role, while promoting both Dan Breen and Sean Treacy to more prominent positions. The first written account of the ambush was published in 1924 under Dan Breen’s name where he claimed: ‘again and again we called on them to put up their hands ….. their fingers were on the triggers ….. another appeal on our side would be useless ….. quick and sure our volleys rang out ….. the two policemen were dead.’ The two R.I.C. men, the first killed since the 1916 Rising, were county Mayo born James McDonnell, a 57-year-old widower with five children and 36-year-old Patrick O’Connell, a single man from Cork. They were Irish men, whose killing marked what is generally claimed to be the start of the Irish War of Independence. It is a claim which is difficult to sustain, given that it did not result in the start of any sustained military activity over the following months. Indeed, the Kerry volunteers could well claim that their attack on the R.I.C. barracks at Gortatlea, Co. Kerry on 13th April 1918 when two of the volunteers, John Browne and Richard Laide, died could well claim to be the start of the War of Independence. Whatever the merits of the often-repeated claim that the Soloheadbeg ambush marked the start of the War of Independence, the action of the Tipperary men certainly upstaged the first Dáil sitting of 21st January. It was according to Todd Andrews ‘an operation that went wrong’ while the Volunteers Chief of Staff Richard Mulcahy would claim ‘this episode has on the one hand being outrageously propagandised as a leading episode in waking up the country ….. it had many regrettable and unwarranted features ….. bloodshed should have been unnecessary in the light of the type of episode it was.’ The maverick nature of the Soloheadbeg action was not to the liking of the Volunteer’s headquarters staff and indeed was condemned by church dignatories of the time. The War of Independence would eventually end with the truce of 11th July 1921 by which time 432 R.I.C. men, for the most part Irishmen, had died at the hands of the Volunteers. By the time the R.I.C. was disbanded a further 65 constables would be killed. As students of Irish history, we have grown up on stories of the Black and Tans. Less well known are the actions of the Volunteers, many of whom fought the good fight, while others sadly tarnished the good name of freedom fighters by actions which even after the elapse of almost 100 years cannot be justified or condoned. The assassinations of unarmed constables as they attended church services were appalling actions. The killing of two R.I.C. sergeants in Galway on 15th March 1922, long after the truce was in place, was particularly repugnant. The two men were patients in St. Bridget’s Hospital, Galway, Tobius Gibbons, a 44-year-old single man from County Mayo having been admitted three weeks previously, while John Gilmartin, a 50-year-old married man from County Leitrim had been admitted on 9th March. Four masked men entered the hospital and shot the two bedridden R.I.C. men. This coming week the community of Soloheadbeg will commemorate the centenary of the ambush and in doing so will honour not only the ambush party but also the two Irish R.I.C. men who lost their lives on that fateful day. The commemoration will be in keeping with the views of the expert advisory group set up by the Government to advise on commemorating the decade of centenaries. The expert group stated: ‘the State’s task is to encourage an effective and conciliatory tone that recognises that neither side has the monopoly of either atrocity or virtue.’ Many of the events of the Irish War of Independence require detailed critical reflection if we are to have a better understanding of how our country achieved its long-sought independence.

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