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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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The Soloheadbeg Ambush

The Soloheadbeg ambush takes place on January 21, 1919, when members of the Irish Volunteers, which becomes the Irish Republican Army (IRA) later that year, ambush Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) officers who are escorting a consignment of gelignite explosives at Soloheadbeg, County Tipperary. Two RIC officers are killed and their weapons and the explosives are seized. As it happens on the same day that the revolutionary Irish parliament first meets and declares Ireland’s independence, it is often seen as the first engagement of the Irish War of Independence.

In April 1916, during World War I, Irish republicans launch an uprising against British rule in Ireland, called the Easter Rising. They proclaim an Irish Republic. After a week of heavy fighting, mostly in Dublin, the rising is put down by British forces. About 3,500 people are taken prisoner by the British, many of whom had played no part in the Rising. Most of the Rising’s leaders are executed. The rising, the British response, and the British attempt to introduce conscription in Ireland, leads to an even greater public support for Irish republicanism.

In the 1918 Irish general election, the Irish republican party Sinn Féin wins a landslide victory in Ireland, gaining 73 out of 105 seats in the British Parliament. However, in its election manifesto, the party has vowed to set up a separate government in Ireland rather than sit in the British Parliament. At a meeting in Dublin on January 21, 1919, Sinn Féin establishes an independent parliament called Dáil Éireann and declares independence from the United Kingdom.

That same day, an ambush is carried out by Irish Volunteers from the 3rd Tipperary Brigade. It involves Seán Treacy, Dan Breen, Seán Hogan, Séumas Robinson, Tadhg Crowe, Patrick McCormack, Patrick O’Dwyer and Michael Ryan. Robinson is the commander of the group that carries out the attack and Treacy coordinates the planning of the attack. The unit involved acts on its own initiative as had they had to wait for a response, even if it is affirmative, it might come too late.

In December 1918, they receive information that there are plans to move a consignment of gelignite from Tipperary British Army barracks to the Soloheadbeg quarry. They begin plans to intercept the consignment and Dan Breen’s brother Lars, who works at the quarry, receives information that the consignment is to be moved around January 16, 1919. They anticipate that there would be between two and six armed escorts, and they discuss different plans. If the escort is small, they believe they can overpower the RIC officers without firing a shot. Gags and ropes are hidden in the quarry, so that should officers surrender they can be bound and gagged. The planning for the ambush takes place in the ‘Tin Hut,’ a deserted semi-derelict house at Greenane.

Each day from January 16 to 21, the men chosen for the ambush take up their positions from early in the morning to late afternoon and then spend the night at the deserted house. Seven of the Volunteers are armed with revolvers while Treacy is armed with a small automatic rifle. On a rainy January 21, around noon, Patrick O’Dwyer sees the transport leaving the barracks. The consignment of 160 lbs. of gelignite is on a horse-drawn cart, led by two council men and guarded by two RIC officers armed with carbine rifles. O’Dwyer cycles quickly to where the ambush party is waiting and informs them. Robinson and O’Dwyer hide about 20 yards in front of the main ambush party of six, in case they rush through the main ambush position.

When the transport reaches the position where the main ambush party is hiding, masked Volunteers step out in front of them with their guns drawn and call on the RIC to surrender. The officers can see at least three of the ambushers. One officer gets down behind the cart and the other apparently fumbles with his rifle. According to the Volunteers, the officers raise their rifles to fire at them but the rifles do not fire. The Volunteers immediately fire at the officers, and it is believed that Treacy fires the first shot. Both officers, James McDonnell and Patrick O’Connell, native Roman Catholics, are killed. MacDonnell (50) of Belmullet, County Mayo, is a widower with five children. O’Connell is unmarried and a native of Coachford, County Cork.

As planned, Hogan, Breen and Treacy take the horse and cart with the explosives and speed off. Tadhg Crowe and Patrick O’Dwyer take the guns and ammunition from the dead officers, while Robinson, McCormack and Ryan guard the two council workers, Ned Godfrey and Patrick Flynn, before releasing them once the gelignite is far enough away. Initially the explosives are hidden in a field in Greenane. They are moved several times and are later divided up between the battalions of the brigade.

The ambush is later seen as the beginning of the Irish War of Independence. The British government declares South Tipperary a Special Military Area under the Defence of the Realm Act two days later. There is strong condemnation from the Catholic Church in Ireland. The parish priest of Tipperary calls the dead officers “martyrs to duty.”

A meeting of the Executive of the Irish Volunteers takes place shortly thereafter. On January 31, An t-Óglach, the official publication of the Irish Volunteers, states that the formation of Dáil Éireann “justifies Irish Volunteers in treating the armed forces of the enemy – whether soldiers or policemen – exactly as a National Army would treat the members of an invading army.”

In February 1919 at a Brigade meeting in Nodstown, Tipperary, Brigade officers draft a proclamation, signed by Séumas Robinson as OC, ordering all British military and police forces out of South Tipperary and, should they stay they will be held to have “forfeited their lives.” GHQ refuses to sanction the proclamation and demands it not be publicly displayed. Despite this it is still posted in several places in Tipperary.

In order to avoid capture, Breen, Treacy, Hogan and the other participants are forced to stay on the move for the following months, often hiding in the barns and attics of sympathisers.

A monument (pictured) has been erected at the site of the ambush, and each year a ceremony of remembrance is held there.


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The Teebane Bombing

The Teebane bombing takes place on January 17, 1992 at a rural crossroads between Omagh and Cookstown in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland. A roadside bomb destroys a van carrying 14 construction workers who had been repairing a British Army base in Omagh. Eight of the men are killed and the rest are wounded. The Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) claims responsibility, saying that the workers were killed because they were “collaborating” with the “forces of occupation.”

Since the beginning of its campaign in 1969, the Provisional IRA has launched frequent attacks on British Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) bases in Northern Ireland. In August 1985 it begins targeting civilians who offer services to the security forces, particularly those employed by the security forces to maintain and repair its bases. Between August 1985 and January 1992, the IRA kills 23 people who had been working for (or offering services to) the security forces. The IRA also alleges that some of those targeted had links with Ulster loyalist paramilitaries.

On the evening of January 17, 1992, the 14 construction workers leave work at Lisanelly British Army base in Omagh. They are employees of Karl Construction, based in Antrim. They travel eastward in a Ford Transit van towards Cookstown. When the van reaches the rural Teebane Crossroads, just after 5:00 PM, IRA volunteers detonate a roadside bomb containing an estimated 600 pounds (270 kg) of homemade explosives in two plastic barrels. Later estimates report a 1,500 pound (680 kg) device. The blast is heard from at least ten miles away. It rips through one side of the van, instantly killing the row of passengers seated there. The vehicle’s upper part is torn asunder, and its momentum keeps it tumbling along the road for 30 yards. Some of the bodies of the dead and injured are blown into the adjacent field and ditch. IRA volunteers had detonated the bomb from about 100 yards away using a command wire. A car travelling behind the van is damaged in the explosion but the driver is not seriously injured. Witnesses report hearing automatic fire immediately prior to the explosion.

Seven of the men are killed outright. They are William Gary Bleeks (25), Cecil James Caldwell (37), Robert Dunseath (25), David Harkness (23), John Richard McConnell (38), Nigel McKee (22) and Robert Irons (61). The van’s driver, Oswald Gilchrist (44), dies of his wounds in hospital four days later. Robert Dunseath is a British soldier serving with the Royal Irish Rangers. The other six workers are badly injured; two of them are members of the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR). It is the highest death toll from one incident in Northern Ireland since 1988.

The IRA’s East Tyrone Brigade claims responsibility for the bombing soon afterward. It argues that the men were legitimate targets because they were “collaborators engaged in rebuilding Lisanelly barracks” and vowed that attacks on “collaborators” would continue.

Both unionist and Irish nationalist politicians condemn the attack. Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams, however, describes the bombing as “a horrific reminder of the failure of British policy in Ireland.” He adds that it highlights “the urgent need for an inclusive dialogue which can create a genuine peace process.” British Prime Minister John Major visits Northern Ireland within days and promises more troops, pledging that the IRA will not change government policy.

As all of those killed are Protestant, some interpret the bombing as a sectarian attack against their community. Less than three weeks later, the Ulster loyalist Ulster Defence Association (UDA) launches a ‘retaliation’ for the bombing. On February 5, two masked men armed with an automatic rifle and revolver enter Sean Graham’s betting shop on Ormeau Road in an Irish nationalist area of Belfast. The shop is packed with customers at the time. The men fire indiscriminately at the customers, killing five Irish Catholic civilians, before fleeing to a getaway car. The UDA claims responsibility using the cover name “Ulster Freedom Fighters,” ending its statement with “Remember Teebane.” After the shootings, a cousin of one of those killed at Teebane visits the betting shop and says, “I just don’t know what to say but I know one thing – this is the best thing that’s happened for the Provos [Provisional IRA] in this area in years. This is the best recruitment campaign they could wish for.”

The Historical Enquiries Team (HET) conducts an investigation into the bombing and releases its report to the families of the victims. It finds that the IRA unit had initially planned to carry out the attack on the morning of January 17 as the workers made their way to work but, due to fog, it was put off until the afternoon. Although suspects were rounded up and there were arrests in the wake of the attack, nobody has ever been charged or convicted of the bombing.

Karl Construction erects a granite memorial at the site of the attack and a memorial service is held there each year. In January 2012, on the 20th anniversary of the attack, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MLA, Trevor Clarke, whose brother-in-law Nigel McKee at age 22 was the youngest person killed in the bombing, demands that republicans provide the names of the IRA bombers.