Dan Breen and Seán Treacy rescue their comrade Seán Hogan from a Dublin-Cork train at Knocklong, County Limerick, on May 13, 1919, in what becomes known as the Knocklong Ambush. Two policemen guarding Hogan are killed.
One of the most famous photographs (left) of the Irish War of Independence (1919-21) is taken at Breen’s wedding in June 1921. Breen is already burnishing his reputation as the romantic guerilla campaigner three years before the publication of his bestselling autobiography My Fight for Irish Freedom. On his lap there is a Luger pistol, an incongruity in a wedding photograph, but in keeping with his penchant for self-mythologising. In the background on the left is his best man Hogan who is dressed in the uniform of the Irish Volunteers. Unlike Breen, he looks shy and awkward, his body tilted as if to convey how ill at ease with himself he is.
Had Hogan shown the same diffidence in May 1919, he might have saved himself and his comrades a great deal of trouble. He is the youngest of those involved in the Soloheadbeg ambush on January 21, 1919, the event that is viewed in retrospect as the event that starts the Irish War of Independence.
Hogan is only 18, according to most reports, but to date no birth certificate has been found for him. His youth may explain his lack of caution in early May 1919 when he slips his minder after a dance in Kilshenane, County Tipperary, and ends up, not in the arms of his sweetheart Bridie O’Keeffe, but in the embrace of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). He escorts O’Keeffe back to her relative’s farmhouse where she is spending the night. He sleeps on the sofa. When he wakes up, the house is surrounded. He flees, but is picked up by the RIC in a laneway near the house. He, along with the others involved in the Soloheadbeg ambush, are the most wanted men in Ireland. He faces interrogation and possible execution.
The Knocklong ambush, which occurs on May 13, 1919, saves Hogan from such a fate, but it comes at a terrible price for all those involved. He is put on the 6:00 p.m. train from Thurles to Cork where he is due to be interrogated in the military prison. Knocklong Station, just over the border in County Limerick, is chosen as the place for the escape attempt because of its distance from the nearest RIC barracks.
Four volunteers of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) East Limerick Brigade get on the train at Emly in order to signal to the men waiting at Knocklong Station the carriage in which Hogan is being detained. He is being escorted to Cork by four RIC men. They face five volunteers, three of whom are armed. A ferocious gun battle ensues, lasting 14 minutes. Constable Michael Enright (30), from Ballyneety, County Limerick, is shot dead immediately.
Sgt. Peter Wallace and Treacy, another of those involved at Soloheadbeg, wrestle over Treacy’s gun. Wallace, who is a huge man, shoots Treacy in the throat before the gun is turned on Wallace, who later dies from his wounds. Hogan smashes his mangled chains in the head of another of his armed guards who is then thrown out of the window of the train. The last remaining guard picks up a rifle and opens fire on the IRA party through the carriage window wounding three volunteers waiting on the platform, including Breen. Hogan is taken immediately to a butcher’s shop where his chains are smashed with a cleaver, setting him free.
Knocklong becomes an exalted event in the iconography of Irish republicanism. At Soloheadbeg, eight armed and ready volunteers faced two unwary policemen. It was not a fair fight. Hogan’s rescue from the train at Knocklong demands organisation, courage and daring of the highest order.
Hogan continues to serve in the Irish War of Independence and on the anti-Treaty side in the Irish Civil War (1922-23). By the time hostilities cease in 1923, he is only 23, but has spent the previous five years in armed combat. The toll on his mind and body are huge. In 1924, he is admitted to St. Bricin’s Military Hospital suffering from “attacks of restlessness and depression – inability to concentrate his mind on anything.” His wife at the time, Christina, runs a nursing home in Tipperary, where her patients include many shellshocked Irish veterans of World War I. The couple later separates.
Hogan’s fortunes change with the change of government in 1932 bringing to power Fianna Fáil, a party which Hogan supports. He is given a job in the Board of Works, but his mental health continues to deteriorate. He complains of the “nerves and all the ailments that go with them.” His circumstances are such that he spends two years living in the family home of Séumas Robinson, the officer commanding at Soloheadbeg.
In early 2019, Robinson’s daughter, Dimphne Brennan, tells The Irish Times, “He had nowhere else to go. He never got over what happened. His nerves were shattered. We were all just kids and we didn’t disturb him in his room. He didn’t talk to us.”
Hogan dies on Christmas Eve 1968 from a cerebral hemorrhage and chronic bronchitis. At the funeral reception, his estranged widow supposedly tells a niece of Hogan, “Well, but wasn’t that some waste of a life.”
Hogan and Christina are buried 50 paces from each other in St. Michael’s Cemetery in Tipperary, divided in death as they were in life. Seán Hogan: His Life: A Troubled Journey, by John Connors, is published by Tipp Revolution.
(From: “Knocklong ambush, on May 13th, 1919 involved a 14-minute gun battle” by Ronan McGreevy, The Irish Times, http://www.irishtimes.com, May 20, 2019)