Opinion Comment

Thursday 21 February 2019

Joe O'Toole: 'Why names of two RIC men shot at Soloheadbeg should be on memorial'

  

Not forgotten: Constable James McDonnell with his young family in a photo taken after the turn of the 20th century. Inset below, a plaque marks the scene of the Soloheadbeg abmush.
Photo: thurles.info
Not forgotten: Constable James McDonnell with his young family in a photo taken after the turn of the 20th century. Inset below, a plaque marks the scene of the Soloheadbeg abmush. Photo: thurles.info

Joe O'Toole

There is a blood-stained corner of a Tipperary field that even after a century can still test our tolerance and benchmark our attitude to parity of esteem and inclusiveness.

Two forgotten Irishmen were shot dead there on January 21, 1919, a fateful and formative day for the Irish State when we saw an early deployment of the "ballot paper in one hand and an Armalite in the other" campaigning strategy of Irish Nationalists.

On the one hand the gathering of the democratically elected first Dáil ratified and established the Republic of Ireland, and on the other hand at Soloheadbeg, Co Tipperary, rifle-carrying Volunteers launched the first military action in the War of Independence, resulting in the shooting dead of two Irishmen.

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The politicians in Dublin and the Volunteers of the Tipperary Third Brigade entered the pantheon of Irish luminaries that day.

Their names are engraved in stone, prominent in history and, to coin a phrase, "celebrated in song and story".

No plaques though for the two men who died. We don't talk about them and it's highly unlikely that they will be included in centenary commemorations.

They're inconvenient to the national narrative. Their uniforms were the wrong colour.

Because to our shame, the two Irishmen who died in the Soloheadbeg ambush and were the first casualties of the War of Independence have been airbrushed from history.

They were local RIC constables escorting and protecting two council workers who were delivering gelignite in a horse and cart to a nearby quarry when they were ambushed by a party of nine armed Volunteers.

The two RIC men, who never fired their guns, were shot dead.

They were unremarkable public servants, Irish Catholics loyal to the community they served, loyal to their country and loyal to their Gaelic culture.

The older man, James McDonnell, a Gaeilgeoir from Belmullet, was in his late 50s, a widower with young children.

The younger was Patrick O'Connell, from Coachford. Aged 30, he was engaged to be married.

These simple folk scraping a living in hard times were considered to be "legitimate targets", representative of the "brutal British Empire".

And after a century of independence it is pointless to pontificate on right and wrong in those troubled times.

Despite the variety of uniforms worn by Irishmen who soldiered in World War I, the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence or the Civil War, they were all doing their bit, as they saw it, for their country.

Undoubtedly, atrocities were committed in all four wars but we can also acknowledge that there were good people on all sides.

And that Constables McDonnell and O'Connell were two good men

As the blood of those two dying Irishmen seeped into the clay of Soloheadbeg, the reports of their deaths and the declaration from the Dáil sent shockwaves through the British Empire. Their deaths were the catalysts that set the course for a new independent Ireland.

A true republic would recognise that all of them, the TDs, the Volunteers and the policemen were, that day, serving their community in the way they believed best.

It is also time to demonstrate parity of esteem, time to include the two Irish victims in the commemorative plaque of the Soloheadbeg ambush. That would signal a new maturity.

There is a compelling coda to this proposal.

In 2009, on the 90th anniversary of the Soloheadbeg ambush, the distinguished journalist Máirtín McCormack, a well-informed, progressive and proud Irish republican, gave his perspective.

He understood it because his dad, Paddy McCormack, was one of the Soloheadbeg Volunteers who had shot dead the RIC men and he had attended commemorative events with his father over the years.

Ten years ago, he argued trenchantly that the two RIC men who died in the ambush should also be remembered at the commemoration.

His plea was ignored.

But as a nation, we must rise to the challenge and as genuine republicans commemorate the deaths of the two Irishmen who died that day in the first bloody action of the War of Independence.

This proposal may not resonate well in the echo chamber of extremist nationalism but those who commemorate the Soloheadbeg ambush, be they local or national, should listen to the voice of a man who was reared by a man who was there in 1919.

The families of Constables McDonnell and O'Connell are entitled to have the names of their martyred loved ones added to the Soloheadbeg commemorative stone.

Irish Independent

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