The Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) raid a cottage near Ballinalee, County Longford, on January 7, 1921 looking for Seán Mac Eoin. Mac Eoin opens fire from the cottage, killing District Inspector Thomas McGrath, wounding a constable, and escaping.
Mac Eoin is a soldier and eventual politician of the Fine Gael party. He is commonly referred to as the “Blacksmith of Ballinalee.” He is born John Joseph McKeon on September 30, 1893 at Bunlahy, Granard, County Longford, the eldest son of Andrew McKeon and Catherine Treacy. He joins the United Irish League in 1908. His Irish nationalist activities begin in earnest in 1913, when he joins the Clonbroney Company of the Irish Volunteers. Late that year he is sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood and joins the Granard circle of the organization.
Mac Eoin comes to prominence in the Irish War of Independence as leader of an Irish Republican Army (IRA) flying column. On November 4, 1920, his column holds the village of Ballinalee situated on the Longford Road between Longford and Granard. They stand against superior British forces, forcing them to retreat and abandon their ammunition. In a separate attack on November 8, he leads his men against the RIC at Ballinalee. An eighteen-year-old Constable Taylor is killed. Constable E. Shateford and two others are wounded. The story is that the small garrison sings “God Save the King” as they take up positions to return fire.
On the afternoon of January 7, 1921, a joint RIC and British Army patrol consisting of ten policemen led by an Inspector, with a security detachment of nine soldiers, appears on Anne Martin’s street. Mac Eoin’s own testimony at his trial, which is not contested by any parties present, states, “I was at the table writing when I was informed of the advance of the party. My account books were left in this house for safety. I was in partial uniform, wearing Sam Browne belt and revolver with two Mills No. 4 bombs in my pocket. Owing to some females being in the house, I had to get out as I could not endanger them by putting up a defence in the house, and as this Officer and Police Force had already signified to my sister and mother their intention to shoot me on sight, I decided to give them a run for their money. I stepped out on the street, about three paces directly in front of the oncoming force, and opened fire with my revolver. The leading file fell, and then the second file in the gateway brought their rifles to the ready. I then threw a bomb, and jumped back behind the porch to let it burst. When it had burst and the smoke had lifted, I saw that the whole force had cleared away, save the officer who was dead or dying on the street.” The casualties from this incident are District Inspector Thomas McGrath killed and a police constable wounded.
Mac Eoin is captured at Mullingar railway station in March 1921, imprisoned and sentenced to death for the murder of RIC District Inspector McGrath in the shooting at Anne Martin’s street in January 1921. Michael Collins organises a rescue attempt in June 1921. Six IRA Volunteers, led by Paddy Daly and Emmet Dalton, capture a British armoured car and, wearing British Army uniforms, gain access to Mountjoy Prison. However, Mac Eoin is not in the part of the jail they believed and, after some shooting, the party retreats.
Within days, Mac Eoin is elected to Dáil Éireann at the 1921 Irish general election, as a TD for Longford–Westmeath. He is eventually released from prison, along with all other members of the Dáil, after Collins threatens to break off treaty negotiations with the British government unless he is freed. It is rumoured that Sean Mac Eoin serves as the best man at Collins’ wedding.