A brief explanation of this critical Tipperary ambush in 1919.
The Aftermath of the Rising
In the immediate aftermath of the Rising the British authorities moved swiftly to round-up those involved or suspected of being sympathisers. Some 3,400 people were arrested across Ireland, with most transported to Britain for imprisonment.
A grimmer fate awaited others. The executions began on 3 May 1916 with Pearse, Clarke and MacDonagh in Dublin and continued until 12 May with the deaths of Sean MacDiarmada and the wounded James Connolly, shot while strapped to a chair. By this stage 15 men had been executed and public sympathy was rapidly transferring to the rebels. In the British House of Commons John Dillon MP warned the Government on 10 May that they were “letting loose rivers of blood.” By the summer of 1916, those who took part in the Rising were now being hailed as patriots: ballads were being written about them and funds were being raised to help support their families.
When the prisoners were released, many before the end of 1916, they returned to an Ireland where public opinion had been transformed and which now welcomed them as heroes. Many of those imprisoned had not been involved in the Rising at all but had been exposed to Republican thought during their time in camps like Frongoch and were now ready to play their part.
In the years after the 1916 Rising, public support continued to grow. The anger created by the executions was fostered by memorial masses and commemorations, while the families and their relatives met with cheers from the crowds attending. The formation of the “Irish National Aid Association” and the “Irish Volunteers Dependents’ Fund” gave a focus not just to people who wanted to help the families of those killed or injured, but to those who felt resentment and hostility towards the British establishment in Ireland. Delay in delivering Home Rule frustrated even those who had opposed the Rising, while the constant threat of conscription was unsettling.
As the prospect of a general election in 1918 approached, Sinn Fein emerged as a power to be reckoned with on the political front.
The 1918 General Election
One hundred years ago in December 1918, Irish men and women went to the polls for the first time since the Easter Rising. In a landmark victory, Sinn Féin – setting themselves up in direct opposition to the dominant Irish Party, won 73 of 105 Irish seats in the House of Commons. The Irish Party, the political voice of Irish constitutional nationalism for a generation, was wiped out holding onto just 6 seats. The remaining 26 seats were won by Unionist candidates, predominantly in northeast Ulster. The rest of Ireland had effectively voted with the men of 1916.
As promised, the elected Sinn Féin MPs refused to take their seats at Westminster and, instead, formed an independent parliament – Dáil Éireann – in Dublin.
An unexpected outcome of the 1918 Election was a halt to the rise of the Labour Party in Ireland. Founded in Clonmel in 1912, the Labour Party stood to benefit from its success in opposing conscription but decided not to contest the 1918 election in order to allow a clear vote on self-determination for Ireland. This effectively transformed the election into a referendum on independence but ultimately at enormous cost to the Labour Party itself.
Votes for Women
In 1918, for the first time ever, Irish women received the right under law to vote and stand in parliamentary elections. This marked a sea-change in Irish politics and a reward for the efforts of an increasingly militant suffragist movement in Ireland. Delayed by the outbreak of the First World War, women’s rights were eventually secured in the Representation of the People Act, 1918 which gave the vote to virtually all men over twenty one and women over thirty who were householders.
The General Election of 1918 provided the first opportunity to exercise that vote, which also witnessed the election of the first woman to the British Parliament, Countess Markievicz, representing a Dublin constituency. The Countess never took her seat at Westminster. Instead, she joined the revolutionary first Dáil, becoming the first female TD.
The First Dáil
Following Sinn Féin’s landslide victory in the 1918 general election, elected members met in public session in Dublin’s Mansion House to proclaim Dáil Éireann as the legitimate Irish Parliament. While all elected Irish MPs had been invited to attend, only Sinn Féin representatives appeared. Even then, only 28 of those elected were able to attend that first assembly. In response to the Roll Call at the start of proceedings, most of the others were declared to be “imprisoned by the foreigner.”
The Dáil’s first meeting commenced at 3.30pm and closed two hours later. In this brief session, the Dáil managed to approve a provisional Constitution, appoint three Delegates to the post-war Peace Conference, issue a Declaration of Independence, issue a message to “The Free Nations of the World” and release a Democratic Programme setting out core principles to inform a socio-economic policy. The session was attended by upwards of a hundred journalists, most from overseas.
Most members of the first Dáil had been participants in the Easter Rising, or were long-serving nationalists. Among them were Irish Volunteers founder Eoin MacNeill, Richard Mulcahy (future IRA Chief of Staff and Defence Minister) and future President of Ireland Seán T. O’Kelly. Absent members included Arthur Griffith, Constance Markievicz and Eamon de Valera, all of whom were in prison in England. Michael Collins and Harry Boland were also in England, but not in prison – they were organising De Valera’s escape!
“We solemnly declare foreign government in Ireland to be an invasion of our national right which we will never tolerate, and we demand the evacuation of our country by the English Garrison.”
Extract from the Declaration of Independence issued by the first Dáil, 21 January 1919.
In the general election of 1918, Sinn Féin had swept all before it in what was widely seen as a referendum on independence. In the field, the IRA was at varying states of readiness for war, but inadequate arms and munitions remained a major obstacle.
In late 1918, the 3rd Tipperary Brigade received intelligence that a quantity of gelignite was to be delivered to Soloheadbeg Quarry early in the New Year under armed RIC escort. An ambush team was assembled, including Seán Treacy, Dan Breen, Seán Hogan, Séamus Robinson, Tadhg Crowe, Mick McCormack, Paddy O'Dwyer, Michael Ryan and Seán O'Meara (the latter two being cycle scouts). Unclear when exactly the consignment was to be moved, the men lay in wait from 16 January.
On 21 January, 1919 – the same day that the first Dáil met in Dublin - word came that the consignment was finally on the move. Two RIC men, Constables James MacDonnell and Patrick O’Connell, were escorting the load, accompanied by two Council workers James Godfrey and Patrick Flynn. The constables walked behind the cart with their rifles slung over their shoulders.
The whole ambush lasted only a matter of minutes and accounts remain confused. Challenged, it seems the RIC men went for their guns and were both shot dead. Neither of the constable’s weapons was discharged.
More questions than answers exist about the sequence of events and even the intention of the ambushers. Did they panic or misread the situation? Or did they intentionally set out to kill the constables to provoke a war?
Dan Breen subsequently said:
‘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…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…”
Whatever the intention, a ruthless war had begun.