Soloheadbeg ambush, 21st Jan 1919

On this day in history: 21st Jan 1919
The Soloheadbeg ambush took place , when members of the Irish Volunteers ambushed Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) officers who were escorting a consignment of gelignite explosives to a local mine at Soloheadbeg, Co. Tipperary. As it happened on the same day that the revolutionary Irish parliament declared Ireland’s independence, it is often seen as the first engagement of the Irish War of Independence. However the volunteers acted on their own initiative and had not sought or received authorisation for their action. Two RIC officers were killed and their weapons and the explosives captured

The ambush was carried out by Seán Treacy, Dan Breen, Seán Hogan, Séamus Robinson, Tadhg Crowe, Patrick McCormack, Patrick O’Dwyer, Michael Ryan and Seán O’Meara who were in the 3rd Tipperary Brigade of the Irish Volunteers. Robinson (who fought in the 1916 Rising) was the commander of the group and Treacy was the main the planner of the attack. Treacy and Breen were keen to begin hostilities with British forces and believed a military confrontation with the RIC and the British Army was the only way to establish the Irish Republic proclaimed in 1916 and voted for in 1918.

Each day from 16 to 21 January, the men took up their positions from early in the morning to late afternoon and waited for the consignment of explosives. On 21 January, around noon, Patrick O’Dwyer saw the transport leaving the barracks and cycled to where the Volunteers were lying in wait to ambush the consignment. The consignment was on a horse-drawn wagon, led by two council men and guarded by two RIC officers armed with rifles, and not the six RIC officers that the Volunteers were expecting. After the wagon reached the position where the main ambush party was hiding, masked volunteers appeared in front of them with their guns drawn and called on them to surrender. The two officers took up firing positions and the volunteers immediately fired upon them. Both RIC officers, James McDonnell and Patrick O’Connell, were outnumbered and killed immediately in the gunfire that followed. McDonnell from Belmullet Co Mayo, aged about 50, was a widower with five children and was a native Irish speaker. O’Connell was from Coachford Co Cork, aged about 30 and was unmarried. Both men were Catholics and were popular in the community in which they lived.

As planned, Hogan, Breen and Treacy captured the horse and wagon with the explosives and sped off. The explosives were hid in a field in Greenane but and were moved several times later and eventually divided up between the battalions of the brigade. Tadhg Crowe and Patrick O’Dwyer took the guns and ammunition from the dead officers, while Robinson, McCormack and Ryan guarded the two council workers, James Godfrey and Patrick Flynn, before releasing them once the explosives was far enough away.

Dan Breen later gave apparently conflicting accounts of their intentions that day. One account implies that their intention was merely to capture explosives being escorted to a nearby quarry. The other was that the group intended killing the police escort to provoke a military response. “Treacy had stated to me 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…. The only regret that we had following the ambush was that there were only two policemen in it, instead of the six we had expected.”

There was strong condemnation from Catholic churchmen, as both of the dead were their parishioners. Arthur, Canon Ryan, of Tipperary declared them to be “martyrs to duty”, and the “Curse of Cain” was upon the parish. In order to avoid capture, Breen, Treacy, Hogan and the other participants were forced to stay on the move for the following months, often hiding in the barns and attics of sympathisers.

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