The Ambush that Ignited the Irish War of Independence
WARS | July 4, 2019
3rd Tipperary Brigade, IRA. Source: (Wikipedia)
A singular incident considered criminal by some and patriotic by others began the process of creating an independent, Ireland. But the cost was great.
On January 21, 1919, Patrick Flynn walked in the rain beside a horse-drawn cart. He was rambling down an old dirt road that wound almost three miles from the town of Tipperary, Ireland to the Soloheadbeg Quarry. Farms and cottages predominated in the Irish plains lands, except for the quarry itself that sat on a hill. Some miles southward loomed Galteemore, the highest of the Galty Mountains between the counties of Limerick and Tipperary.
Flynn was not alone. He, being an employee of the Tipperary County Council, was in general charge of the cargo on the cart, but he also worked with a driver named James Godfrey. There were also James McDonnell and Patrick O’Connell, officers of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). They bore loaded rifles and trailed behind the cart as rearguard.
There was a good cause for the police guard since the cargo was 160 pounds of gelignite from the military barracks in Tipperary. The explosive was generally safe from accidental explosion, but that offered no protection from other problems in those dangerous times.
There had been a long history of suppression and disenfranchisement of Ireland’s Catholic majority in what could only be characterized as bigotry. In the years preceding the First World War, there had been a growing movement for home rule, in which Ireland would govern itself within the framework of the British Empire, like Canada or Australia. It was only the northern province of Ulster with its nine counties that did not support home rule since the province only had a very slight Catholic majority. While there were a few Protestants who might have supported home rule or independence and a few Catholics who wished to remain in the union with Britain, these were few and far between. One’s political stance on the issue of Irish home rule correlated almost completely with one’s denomination.
A law providing for home rule was put on the statute books in September 1914, just as the First World War began. The war crisis resulted in delaying the implementation of the new governmental structure. This, in turn, radicalized many Irish partisans who coalesced about the political party Sinn Féin or paramilitary groups. These partisans concluded that the only way forward for their country was total independence, not home rule. Throughout World War I, Ireland was a pressure cooker that at times exploded. During Easter week in 1916, the British army suppressed an insurrection by Irish Nationalists in the so-called Easter Rising.
In December 1918, the first post-war general elections in Ireland took place. Sinn Féin won a landslide victory and ousted moderate Irish political parties that supported home rule. These newly elected members of Parliament refused to go to London, but instead formed their own separate Parliament in Dublin and declared independence.
This declaration took place on the same day that Patrick Flynn was transporting the gelignite. The constables that were with him represented the crown, but neither of the RIC officers seemed to have any inclination to involve themselves in the political troubles. McDonnell was a 50-year old widower who took care of up to six children (sources give various accounts as to how many children he had) while O’Connell was a 30-year old bachelor. Both were popular in the district and there was no reason to think that the transport of the gelignite would prove problematic.
At around noon, they neared the end of the journey. Ahead lay the quarry some 150 yards distant. It was a narrow way, as the road was flanked by high banks, fences, and clumps of hedges.
Just at that moment, two men jumped out from the left side of the road. Masked and brandishing revolvers they shouted, “Hands up!” Simultaneously, behind a fence on the right, another group of seven, masked men appeared.
These were members of the Irish Republican Army’s (IRA) 3rd Tipperary Brigade, a paramilitary force that was operating independently of the breakaway Dublin government. The brigade was led by Dan Breen, Seán Treacy, Séumas Robinson, and Seán Hogan. They had obtained inside information of the gelignite and planned to ambush the shipment to further arm their forces. In later years some of them contended that they had planned the ambush to start a war. Dan Breen recalled, “…that the only way of starting a war was to kill someone, and we wanted to start a war, so we intended to kill some of the police whom we looked upon as the foremost and most important branch of the enemy forces.”
However, when the moment came there was hesitation on the part of Breen and that he demanded them to surrender twice. He claimed that the constables, “…were Irishmen too and would die rather than surrender. We renewed the demand for surrender. We would have preferred to avoid bloodshed, but they were inflexible. A further appeal was useless. It was a matter of our lives or theirs. We took aim.”
Patrick Flynn never recalled a second appeal to surrender. Rather, he instinctively ran to the side of the cart to take cover. A moment later gunfire erupted – he was not sure how many shots.
Seamus Robinson recalled that the RIC constables attempted to shoot at the ambushers, but their rifles failed since they had overlooked their weapons’ cut-offs.
The IRA commandeered the cart, gelignite and all. Flynn saw on the ground, dead and stripped of their weapons, McDonnell and O’Connell. McDonnell was shot through the left side of his head and arm. O’Connell was shot through his left side – probably from behind. Shortly, the Irish Republican Army with the cart disappeared down the road, leaving Flynn and Godfrey to flee back to Tipperary. Dan Breen later recalled, “The only regret that we had following the ambush was that there were two policemen in it, instead of the six we expected.”
The ambush at Soloheadbeg was later acknowledged as the starting point of the Irish War of Independence, but at the time was generally denounced by most newspapers, the Church, and politicians as a crime. Tipperary was declared a Special Military Area by the British government and for a time, the leaders of the IRA’s 3rd Tipperary Brigade became the most wanted men in Ireland. The two deaths at Soloheadbeg were the first in a conflict that would claim more than 2,000 by 1921.
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Joseph A. Williams