Saturday 23 February 2019

'The shots from the 1919 Soloheadbeg ambush were heard around the world'

Descendants of IRA and RIC men come together for war commemoration, writes Ralph Riegel

Solemn ceremony: Minister Josepha Madigan lays a wreath at the Soloheadbeg Ambush Centenary in Co Tipperary. Photo: Tony Gavin
Solemn ceremony: Minister Josepha Madigan lays a wreath at the Soloheadbeg Ambush Centenary in Co Tipperary. Photo: Tony Gavin

Ralph Riegel

The shots from the 1919 Soloheadbeg ambush were "heard around the world".

One hundred years later, the echoes of those same shots which sparked Ireland's War of Independence are still heard but by a proud, modern nation determined to look at its past through a prism of respect and inclusiveness.

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Today, it is hard to credit that a quiet, narrow Tipperary roadway, framed by ditches and rolling farmland, was the site of an event so shocking it helped sparked the War of Independence.

More than 1,500 people gathered yesterday in dry, cold conditions at Solohead to mark the centenary of an ambush that claimed the lives of two Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) officers and set Ireland on the path to four years of bloodshed but ultimate independence.

The ceremony was reflective of a very different Ireland to that of 100 years ago.

"We are no longer at war with our past," Heritage Minister Josepha Madigan told the large crowd by the Soloheadbeg memorial.

Together: Relatives of RIC member James McDonnell, Vera McDonnell Gleeson, Phil Manion and Vincent McGrath joined the gathering.
Together: Relatives of RIC member James McDonnell, Vera McDonnell Gleeson, Phil Manion and Vincent McGrath joined the gathering.

"If we truly value our past, we will commemorate it with respect and honesty. Those shots were heard around the world - but history is never simple.

"So we remember all those who died because the nation cherishes all of its citizens - with reciprocal compassion and reconciliation."

Ms Madigan stressed that she was taken by the remarkable inclusiveness of the Soloheadbeg programme of events, with the families of all 12 individuals involved in the ambush - RIC officers, IRA volunteers and council quarry workers alike - specially invited.

Relatives of the two RIC officers yesterday mingled with those of IRA volunteers and Tipperary council workers, one quarry worker being so shocked by what he witnessed that January 21 day he suffered a complete nervous breakdown.

Treacy Hogan, grandson of Sean Hogan with his son Robert. Photo: Tony Gavin
Treacy Hogan, grandson of Sean Hogan with his son Robert. Photo: Tony Gavin

The first shots of the war were fired by Dan Breen, Sean Treacy, Seamus Robinson, Séan Hogan and other members of an eight-strong IRA Third Tipperary Brigade unit.

Their ambush was planned to seize a cartload of gelignite explosives as it was transported to a local quarry from an RIC base in Tipperary town.

However, a plan to disarm and capture the RIC guard went badly wrong and two constables were killed in a hail of bullets.

Constables Jim McDonnell and Paddy O'Connell, who were both Catholic, died after apparently trying to shoulder their rifles when suddenly confronted by the IRA volunteers on a stretch of road just six metres wide by the gate to Cranitch's field.

Ollie Henderson (7) from Cashel and Conor Gilvary (9) from Dublin at the centenary ceremony yesterday. Photo: Tony Gavin
Ollie Henderson (7) from Cashel and Conor Gilvary (9) from Dublin at the centenary ceremony yesterday. Photo: Tony Gavin

Two council quarry workers, Ned Godfrey and Paddy Flynn, assisting with the explosives were unharmed but deeply traumatised.

Constable McDonnell, a native of Mayo, was a widower and a father of 10.

Constable O'Connell, who was from Cork, was highly respected in Tipperary after having ignored his own health concerns to help nurse a colleague during a flu outbreak the previous year.

The ambush took place on the very day the republican Dáil met for the first time and declared Irish independence from Britain.

More than 2,000 people were killed by 1922.

Grand nieces of Dan Breen, Deirdre Myers, Saoirse McArdle and Notreen. Photo: Tony Gavin
Grand nieces of Dan Breen, Deirdre Myers, Saoirse McArdle and Notreen. Photo: Tony Gavin

The significance of the ambush and its implications for Irish history was marked by Solohead Parish Centenary Committee, led by Oliver Coffey, Michael Ryan, Tim Hanley and Tim Ryan.

In one of the day's most poignant moments, the daughter of Seamus Robinson, Dimphne Brennan (85), met relatives of the two RIC constables.

Relatives of the other seven IRA volunteers also met those of the two policemen.

Ms Brennan said her father maintained until his dying day that the fatal shootings were accidental with the intention from the outset of disarming and capturing the two policemen. "He was a gentle and kind man. There was never any intention to kill them," she said.

Jack and Josephine O'Connell represented their grand-uncle, Constable O'Connell, while Constable McDonnell was represented by his descendants Vincent McGrath and Philip and James McDonnell.

Former Irish Independent news editor Treacy Hogan and his son Robert were present to represent their grandfather and great-grandfather, Sean Hogan, who is now the focus of an upcoming book.

"It is important that today is all about inclusion. What happened 100 years ago happened. But it is very important that we remember all those involved," he said.

Séan Hogan would later be the focus of a dramatic IRA rescue from the Tipperary-Cork train several months after Soloheadbeg.

The special series of events planned to mark the centenary ranged from a Tipperary history conference last Saturday through to a special Mass at Solohead parish church led by the Archbishop of Cashel and Emly, Dr Kieran O'Reilly.

That was followed by orations at the village memorial including an address by the Heritage Minister.

She paid tribute to the commemoration organisers.

"This is an approach which focuses on reconciliation and the respectful remembrance of all who suffered and lost their lives.

"The events of January 21, 1919, were defining moments on our journey towards nationhood. This ambush set the pattern for the independence struggle which followed."

She stressed the event was another significant landmark in Ireland's decade of centenaries.

A wreath-laying ceremony followed at the ambush site, just a few hundred metres from the old Soloheadbeg quarry.

Former minister and central negotiator in the Northern Ireland peace process, Dr Martin Mansergh, unveiled special historical information boards to mark the centenary while Galway TD Éamon Ó Cuiv, a grandson of Éamon de Valera, delivered a special oration.

Tipperary County Council will today hold their monthly meeting in nearby Ballykisteen Hotel to mark the centenary of the first Dáil.

Irish Independent

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