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


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Birth of Dan Breen, IRA Volunteer & Fianna Fáil Politician

Irish republican Dan Breen (1967)Daniel “Dan” Breen, volunteer in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War, is born in Grange, Donohill parish, County Tipperary, on August 11, 1894. In later years, he is a Fianna Fáil politician.

Breen’s father dies when he is six, leaving the family very poor. He is educated locally before becoming a plasterer and later a linesman on the Great Southern Railways.

Breen is sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1912 and the Irish Volunteers in 1914. On January 21, 1919, the day the First Dáil meets in Dublin, Breen takes part in the Soloheadbeg Ambush. The ambush party of eight men, led by Seán Treacy, attacks two Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) men who are escorting explosives to a quarry. The two policemen, James McDonnell and Patrick O’Connell, are fatally shot during the incident. The ambush is considered to be the first incident of the Irish War of Independence.

During the conflict, the British put a £1,000 price on Breen’s head, which is later increased to £10,000. He quickly establishes himself as a leader within the Irish Republican Army. He is known for his courage. On May 13, 1919 he helps rescue his comrade Seán Hogan at gunpoint from a heavily guarded train at Knocklong station in County Limerick. Breen, who is wounded, remembers how the battalion is “vehemently denounced as a cold-blooded assassins” and roundly condemned by the Catholic Church. After the fight, Treacy, Séumas Robinson, and Breen meet Michael Collins in Dublin, where they are told to make themselves scarce although they do not necessarily agree.

Breen and Sean Treacy shoot their way out through a British military cordon in the northern suburb of Drumcondra (Fernside). They escape, only for Treacy to be killed the next day. Breen is shot at least four times, twice in the lung.

The British reaction is to make Tipperary a “Special Military Area,” with curfews and travel permits. Volunteer GHQ authorises entrerprising attacks on barracks. The British policy forces Breen and Treacy to retreat to Dublin. They join Michael Collins’ Squad of assassins, later known as the Dublin Guard, and Dublin becomes the centre of the war.

Breen is present in December 1919 at the ambush in Ashtown beside Phoenix Park in Dublin where Martin Savage is killed while trying to assassinate the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Viscount John French. The IRA hides behind hedges and a dungheap as the convoy of vehicles drives past. They have been instructed to ignore the first car but this contains their target, Lord French. Their roadblock fails as a policeman removes the horse and cart intended to stop the car.

Breen utterly rejects the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which makes him, like many others, angry and embittered. In the June 1922 elections Breen is nominated as a candidate by both the pro- and anti-Treaty sides, but is not elected.

Breen is elected to Dáil Éireann at the 1923 general election as a Republican anti-Treaty Teachta Dála (TD) for the Tipperary constituency. Following the Anglo-Irish Treaty, Breen joins the Anti-Treaty IRA in the civil war, fighting against those of his former comrades in arms who support the Treaty. He is arrested by the National Army of the Irish Free State and interned at Limerick Prison. He spends two months there before going on hunger strike for six days followed by a thirst strike of six days, prompting his release.

Breen writes a best-selling account of his guerrilla days, My Fight for Irish Freedom, in 1924. He represents Tipperary from the fourth Dáil in 1923 as a Republican with Éamon de Valera and Frank Aiken. He is defeated in the June 1927 general election and travels to the United States where he opens a prohibition speakeasy. In 1932 he returns to Ireland and regains his seat as a member of Fianna Fáil in the Dáil at that year’s general election. During World War II he is said to hold largely pro-Axis views. He represents his Tipperary constituency without a break until his retirement at the 1965 election.

Breen dies in Dublin on December 27, 1969 and is buried in Donohill, near his birthplace. His funeral is the largest seen in west Tipperary since that of his close friend and comrade-in-arms Seán Treacy at Kilfeacle in October 1920. An estimated attendance of 10,000 mourners assemble in the tiny hamlet, giving ample testimony to the esteem in which he was held.

Breen is the subject of a 2007 biography Dan Breen and the IRA by Joe Ambrose.

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Birth of Field Marshal Sir Henry Hughes Wilson

henry-hughes-wilsonField Marshal Sir Henry Hughes Wilson, 1st Baronet, GCB, DSO, one of the most senior British Army staff officers of World War I and briefly an Irish unionist politician, is born at Currygrane in Ballinalee, County Longford on May 5, 1864.

Wilson attends Marlborough public school between September 1877 and Easter 1880, before leaving for a crammer to prepare for the Army.

Wilson serves as Commandant of the Staff College, Camberley, and then as Director of Military Operations at the War Office, in which post he plays a vital role in drawing up plans to deploy an Expeditionary Force to France in the event of war. During these years he acquires a reputation as a political intriguer for his role in agitating for the introduction of conscription and in the Curragh incident of 1914, when he encourages senior officers to resign rather than move against the Ulster Volunteers.

As Sub Chief of Staff to the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), Wilson is John French‘s most important adviser during the 1914 campaign, but his poor relations with Douglas Haig and William Robertson see him sidelined from top decision-making in the middle years of the war. He plays an important role in Anglo-French military relations in 1915 and, after his only experience of field command as a corps commander in 1916, again as an ally of the controversial French General Robert Nivelle in early 1917. Later in 1917 he is informal military advisor to British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, and then British Permanent Military Representative at the Supreme War Council at Versailles.

In 1918 Wilson serves as Chief of the Imperial General Staff, the professional head of the British Army. He continues to hold this position after the war, a time when the Army is being sharply reduced in size whilst attempting to contain industrial unrest in the UK and nationalist unrest in Mesopotamia, Iraq and Egypt. He also plays an important role in the Irish War of Independence.

After retiring from the army Wilson serves briefly as a Member of Parliament, and also as security advisor to the Government of Northern Ireland. He is assassinated on his own doorstep by two Irish Republican Army (IRA) gunmen on June 22, 1922 while returning home from unveiling the Great Eastern Railway War Memorial at Liverpool Street station.


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The Assassination of Tomás Mac Curtain

Tomas-mac-curtainTomás Mac Curtain, Sinn Féin Lord Mayor of Cork, is assassinated in Cork, County Cork on March 20, 1920, which is also his 36th birthday.

Thomas Curtin is born at Ballyknockane, Mourne Abbey, County Cork, on March 20, 1884, the son of Patrick Curtin, a farmer, and Julia Sheehan. He attends Burnfort National School. In 1897 the family moves to Cork City, where he attends the North Monastery school.

Mac Curtain, as he later becomes known, is active in a number of cultural and political movements beginning around the turn of the 20th century. He joins the Blackpool, Cork branch of Conradh na Gaeilge, becoming its secretary in 1902. He has interests in music, poetry, history, archaeology and Irish history. He works in his early career as a clerk, and in his free time teaches Irish. In 1911 he joins Fianna Éireann, and is a member of the Irish Volunteers.

He meets Elizabeth Walsh (Eibhlís Breathnach) at a Gaelic League meeting and they marry on June 28, 1908. They have six children, five of whom survive into adulthood. The family lives over 40 Thomas Davis Street, where Mac Curtain runs a small clothing and rainwear factory.

In April 1916, at the outset of the Easter Rising, Mac Curtain commands a force of up to 1,000 men of the Irish Volunteers who assemble at various locations around County Cork. From the volunteers headquarters at Sheares Street in the city, Mac Curtain and his officers await orders from the volunteer leadership in Dublin but conflicting instructions and confusion prevail and as a result the Cork volunteers never enter the fray. A tense stand-off develops when British forces surround the volunteer hall and continued for a week until a negotiated agreement leads to the surrender of the volunteers’ arms to the then Lord Mayor of Cork Thomas Butterfield on the understanding that they will be returned at a later date. This does not happen however and Mac Curtain is jailed in Wakefield Prison, in the Frongoch internment camp in Wales, and in Reading Gaol. After the general amnesty of participants in the Rising 18 months later, Mac Curtain returns to active duty as a Commandant of what is now the Irish Republican Army.

By 1918 Mac Curtain is a brigade commander, the highest and most important rank in the IRA. During the Conscription Crisis of 1918, he actively encourages the hiring of the women of Cumann na mBan to cater for Volunteers. He is personally involved with Michael CollinsThe Squad that, along with a Cork battalion, attempt to assassinate Lord John French, whose car is missed as the convoy passes through the ambush positions. Despite the setback he remains brigadier of No.1 Cork when he is elected Lord Mayor. He is elected in the January 1920 council elections as the Sinn Féin councillor for NW Ward No. 3 of Cork, and is chosen by his fellow councillors to be the Lord Mayor. He begins a process of political reform within the city.

In January 1919, the Irish War of Independence starts and Mac Curtain becomes an officer in the IRA. On March 20, 1920, his 36th birthday, Mac Curtain is shot dead in front of his wife and son by a group of men with blackened faces, who are found to be members of the Auxilaries along with unknown members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) by the official inquest into the event. In the wake of the killing, which is in revenge for the shooting of a policeman, Mac Curtain’s house in Blackpool is ransacked.

The killing causes widespread public outrage. The coroner’s inquest passes a verdict of willful murder against British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and against certain members of the RIC. Michael Collins later orders his squad of assassins to uncover and assassinate the police officers involved in the attack. RIC District Inspector Oswald Swanzy, who had ordered the attack, is fatally shot, with Mac Curtain’s own revolver, while leaving a Protestant church in Lisburn, County Antrim on August 22, 1920, sparking what is described by Tim Pat Coogan as a “pogrom” against the Catholic residents of the town.

Tomás Mac Curtain is buried in St. Finbarr’s Cemetery, Cork.


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Assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Hughes Wilson

Field Marshal Sir Henry Hughes Wilson is shot and killed by two Irish Republican Army (IRA) men in London on June 22, 1922.

Wilson is born in County Longford and a long-time opponent of the Irish Home Rule movement. He joins the British army in 1884 and sees action during the Boer War. He is assigned to British army headquarters during the infamous Curragh incident and supports the near-mutiny of British officers who refuse to lead troops against Ulster opponents of home rule. He serves in France during the World War I and, when the war ends, continues his staunch support of the Unionist cause while serving as Chief of General Staff. He is a strong supporter of the coercion tactics of the British in Ireland during the Irish War of Independence, even suggesting that the leaders of Sinn Féin be executed. He leaves the army when David Lloyd George decides not to renew his term as chief of staff and is elected Member of Parliament (MP) for North Down as a Conservative in 1922. In Parliament, he urges even stronger coercion methods than those then being carried out by the Black and Tans.

On June 22, 1922, two London-based volunteers of the Irish Republican Army, Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan, assassinate Wilson outside his house at 36 Eaton Place at approximately 2:20 PM. He is in full uniform as he is returning from unveiling the Great Eastern Railway War Memorial at Liverpool Street station at 1:00 PM. He has six wounds, two of them fatal wounds to the chest.

Stories later circulate that the first shot misses but rather than taking shelter in the house, he draws his sword and advances on his attackers, who are able to shoot and kill him. These stories often stress that he dies a martyr. His housemaid testifies that she found his drawn sword lying by his side. These details do not feature in the witness accounts by Reginald Dunne, which is smuggled out of prison, the inquest testimony of one of two road menders working nearby, and the taxi driver who had just dropped Wilson off. One of the road mender’s accounts, as published in the Daily Mail, mentions Wilson turning on his attackers with the words “you cowardly swine!” but this is believed to be a possible embellishment by the newspaper.

Two police officers and a chauffeur are also shot as the men attempt to avoid capture. They are then surrounded by a crowd and arrested by other policemen after a struggle. Dunne and O’Sullivan are convicted of murder and hanged on August 10, 1922. On the day Wilson’s killers were hanged, Currygrane, the family homesite in Ballinalee, County Longford is burned to the ground, possibly as a reprisal although possibly as an unrelated part of the unrest in that county.

Wilson’s widow blames the government for his death and is only persuaded to allow government representation at the funeral on the grounds that not to do so would be disrespectful to the King. Wilson’s funeral is a public affair attended by David Lloyd George and the cabinet, Ferdinand Foch, Robert Nivelle and Maxime Weygand from France as well as many of his former army colleagues including John French, Nevil Macready, Douglas Haig and William Robertson. He is buried in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.


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The Curragh Incident

curragh-incidentThe Curragh Incident occurs in the Curragh, County Kildare, on March 20, 1914. The Curragh Camp is the main base for the British Army in Ireland, which at the time forms part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Ireland was about to receive a measure of devolved government, which included Ulster.

In early 1912, the Liberal British government of H. H. Asquith introduces the Third Home Rule Bill for Ireland, which proposes the creation of an autonomous Irish Parliament in Dublin. Unionists have objected to being under the jurisdiction of the proposed Dublin Parliament. Ulster Unionists found the Ulster Volunteers (UVF) paramilitary group in 1912, aided by a number of senior retired British officers, to fight against the British government and/or against a future Irish Home Rule government proposed by the Bill.

In September 1913, with Irish Home Rule due to become law in 1914, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) Sir John French expresses his concerns to the government and to the King that the British Army, if ordered to act against the UVF, might split. The British Cabinet contemplates some kind of military action against the Ulster Volunteers who threaten to rebel against Home Rule. Many officers, especially those with Irish Protestant connections, of whom the most prominent is Hubert Gough, threaten to resign rather than obey, privately encouraged from London by senior officers including Major-General Henry Hughes Wilson.

Although the Cabinet issues a document claiming that the issue has been a misunderstanding, the Secretary of State for War J.E.B. Seely and French are forced to resign after amending it to promise that the British Army will not be used against the Ulster loyalists.

The event contributes both to unionist confidence and to the growing Irish separatist movement, convincing Irish nationalists that they can not expect support from the British army in Ireland. In turn, this increases renewed nationalist support for paramilitary forces. The Home Rule Bill is passed but postponed, and the growing fear of civil war in Ireland leads on to the British government considering some form of partition of Ireland instead, which eventually takes place.

The event is also notable in being one of the few incidents since the English Civil Wars in which elements of the British military openly intervene, as it turns out successfully, in politics.