Alban Maginness: Why murder of two policemen in January 1919 still haunts political establishment in Irish Republic
Soloheadbeg ambush is toxic for Fianna Fail and Fine Gael even a century after the brutal killings, says Alban Maginness
Next Monday, January 21, sees the 100th anniversary of the sitting of the first Dail in the Mansion House in Dublin. Having triumphed over the Home Rulers of the Irish Parliamentary Party in the famous 1918 General Election, Sinn Fein, as promised, boycotted the Westminster parliament and set up a new Irish parliament, the first such parliament since the abolition of the old Irish parliament by the Act of Union in 1800.
It was undoubtedly a day of great political drama, the climax being the formal declaration of independence from Britain. They had received an indisputable mandate for the establishment of an Irish republic from the Irish electorate and they were in the process of fulfilling that democratic mandate, despite the active opposition of the British authorities.
But, on that same day and about the same time as the fledgling parliamentary institution met in Dublin, at an obscure quarry called Soloheadbeg, in Co Tipperary, a group of eight Irish Volunteers lay in wait to seize a cartload of gelignite destined for the quarry. The explosives were guarded by two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary.
As the consignment approached the quarry, the policemen were challenged by the Volunteers. As the policemen went for the rifles that were slung over their shoulders, one of the Volunteers, Sean Treacy, who was armed with an automatic rifle, opened fire. At the same time, the other Volunteers opened fire with revolvers.
The two policemen, who did not return fire, were killed outright in the volley of shots fired in their direction. The Volunteers then seized the gelignite to make bombs with which to engage the police and the British Army in future attacks.
This was the first action in what was to become known as the Irish War of Independence, which ended with the signing of the Treaty and the setting up of the Irish Free State in 1922.
There was an immediate, hostile reaction to the killing of the two RIC men by politicians and clergy alike. The local newspaper, The Nationalist, described the killings as "a very deplorable affair".
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The two RIC men were called James McDonnell and Patrick O'Connell. McDonnell was a widower with seven children and O'Connell was unmarried and a native of Co Cork.
Both were well-known and popular in Tipperary town and were Catholics. McDonnell was about to retire back to his home county of Mayo.
Without doubt, this armed action at Soloheadbeg was not authorised by the new Dail Eireann, nor indeed by the leadership of Sinn Fein, but was the initiative of local Volunteers in Tipperary under the leadership of Seamus Robinson, Sean Treacy and Dan Breen.
There has been much debate over the years by historians as to whether the killing of the RIC men was premeditated, or simply a spontaneous reaction in response to the policemen going for their rifles. It has even been suggested that there was a plan by the leaders of the group to take the two policemen hostage.
However, there is strong evidence to the contrary, if the testimony of Dan Breen is to be judged true and accurate. He said that Sean Treacy had told him: "The only way of starting a war is to kill somebody, so we intended to kill some of the policemen ... The only regret that we had following the ambush was that there were only two policemen killed instead of the six we expected."
Dan Breen, who became an anti-Treaty IRA activist in the subsequent civil war, later became a Fianna Fail TD for Tipperary in the Dail for many years up to 1965.
Right up to what he referred to as the "winter" of his life, he did not regret his use of violence. He defended the killings and even expressed his regret that some combatants had escaped.
He justified his "murders" (as he literally described them himself in an RTE interview) and added: "And I am not one bit sorry for it, to any man, or God."
The Soloheadbeg incident makes uncomfortable reading for many contemporary politicians, especially those in Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, whose parties are direct descendants from those who fought in the War of Independence.
But although Soloheadbeg was initially disowned by the republican leadership, as the armed conflict with the British developed, retrospective approval was given to this unauthorised action by a band of men who were fanatically determined to use ruthless force to achieve their cherished ideal of an Irish republic.
Only last week, it was reported that President Michael D Higgins declined, without explanation, an invitation to commemorate Soloheadbeg.
Maybe he was troubled at associating his presidency too closely with this disturbing event that initiated a ferocious period of violence in Ireland.