Following the 1916 Easter Rising and in the lead up to the Soloheadbeag ambush, the re-organised Irish Volunteers and Na Fianna Éireann were involved in some isolated armed incidents.
In June 1917, RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary) Inspector John Mills was fatally struck with a hurley at a public meeting outside the burnt-out shell of Liberty Hall by Na Fianna Éireann member Edward Murray (MSP34REF12204). Mills became the first member of the crown forces to be killed by Republicans since the 1916 Easter Rising.
The military service application of Diarmuid O’Driscoll (24SP7112) includes statements regarding his involvement in a raid on the RIC barracks at Eyeries, County Cork (17 March 1918) during which four rifles were captured and an ambush of crown forces at Beal na Cappa, County Cork (June 1918) when two soldiers were disarmed. In April of that year, two Irish Volunteers John Browne (1D239) and Richard Laide (1D427) were shot dead during a failed attack on Gortatlea Barracks, County Kerry.
But it is the Soloheadbeg ambush of 21 January 1919 in County Tipperary that has traditionally been considered the opening action of the War of Independence.
In December 1918, local IRA Volunteers of the 3 Tipperary Brigade became aware that a consignment of gelignite was going to be delivered to Soloheadbeg Quarry. IRA men did not know the exact delivery date and so were in position for a number of days.
On 21 January 1919, a horse-drawn cart left Tipperary Military Barracks with 160 pounds of gelignite. It was led by two council workmen and two RIC officers armed with rifles.
The 3 Tipperary Brigade had eight IRA men in position, two Volunteers on bicycles and a number of Cumann na mBan women on scout duty.
As the horse-drawn cart made its way to the quarry, the IRA unit emerged from a ditch and took the RIC men by complete surprise. IRA accounts assert that the policemen went for their guns but the full details of that day will never be known. RIC Constables Patrick O’Connell and James MacDonnell were shot and killed and their weapons and the consignment of gelignite were seized.
The Military Service Pensions Collection holds a number of first-hand accounts from the key players and the supporting cast of that day’s events.
Lena Burke (née Shanahan) (MSP34REF30317) gave evidence in front of an interviewing officer of the Advisory Committee on 18 June 1943 that she catered for IRA men including Dan Breen, Seán Hogan and her brother Brian Shanahan in the days leading up to the Soloheadbeg ambush. She further claims that she saved her brother from arrest afterwards by distracting the RIC who raided her house, while he hid in a ceiling space.
Thomas Allen (MSP34REF434) informed the Advisory Committee on 21 December 1933 that he was engaged in scout-duty of the local RIC Barracks on the morning of the ambush, with Timothy Hogan and that his home was raided that night by crown forces.
Katie Coffey (MSP34REF5164) informed the Advisory Committee on 9 March 1939 that she provided intelligence in the run up to the ambush and did scout-work 500 yards from the scene of the shooting. Lena Crowe (MSP34REF19095) claims similar service on the day of the ambush.
May Clair (MSP34REF46908) claims in her application form dated 29 December 1935, that she catered for IRA members who stayed in her home for up to three weeks following the ambush.
Marian Tobin (MSP34REF61176) took in at least three IRA members after the ambush and helped to find them further safe houses. Dan Breen wrote in a hand-written letter of reference dates 26 March 1950 that Tobin was:
… our most trusted person in Tipperary. Sean Treacy, Sean Hogan and myself went to her home after Soloheadbeg incident and it was Mrs. Tobin who made contact for us and houses for us for several days when the area was very hot. Mrs Tobin was well known to E. O’Malley, Denis Lacey, S. Robinson and her pet was Sean Treacy
Both the files of Dan Breen (MSP34REF171) and Seán Hogan (MSP34REF375) reveal some aspects of the ambush that are perhaps less widely known. The operation that day was carried out by 3 Tipperary Brigade without any authorisation by General Headquarters (GHQ) and it was suggested to some of the leading figures that they should make their way to the United States as a result of the negative public reaction.
Sean Hogan in a typed letter to the Department of Defence dated 16 February 1938 references this as does Dan Breen’s evidence in front of the Advisory Committee on 7 January 1935:
…we were all together in the SBI Hall in Great George’s Street and Dick Mulcahy, then Chief of staff, addressed us and told us neither GHQ nor the Government would take responsibility for our actions. He wanted myself, Hogan, Treacy and Robinson to go to America. I was spokesman at that meeting. I told him we would not go to America, that we had done nothing of which were ashamed. He said that if we carried on as we were and were killed in action we would be classified as murderers. I said I did not care what we were called.