Soloheadbeg ambush: what really happened in January 1919?

Two RIC constables were shot dead as they escorted gelignite to a Tipperary quarry in 1919
One hundred years ago, on Monday January 21st, 1919  the first shots in Ireland's War of Independence were fired when two policemen were killed in an ambush at Soloheadbeg in Co Tipperary. The man who led the operation was SeumAs Robinson. Here his daughter speaks for the first time.

Now 85, Dimphne Brennan, in her own words, has disliked few people in her life. However, she makes an exception for Dan Breen, the man linked most frequently to the Soloheadbeg ambush a century ago this weekend.

“I have quite a degree of contempt for the way he has lied all the time about what went on then. He deliberately set out to do his best to make my father look bad. He didn’t care about how many lies he told,” she declares.

Breen and Seán Treacy are most famous for the ambush in Tipperary on January 21st, 1919, when two Irish Catholic Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) constables were shot dead as they escorted gelignite to a local quarry.

However, they did not lead the Soloheadbeg attack, which was not authorised by the First Dáil, but which is regarded as the opening shots of the War of Independence.

Instead, it was led by Dimphne Brennan’s father, Seumas Robinson, a native of Belfast, who had been elected by the members of the Third Tipperary Brigade to take command in October 1918.

So prominent are Breen and Treacy in the iconography of Irish republican history that many are surprised to find out that they were not the ones in charge at Soloheadbeg.

It did not stop Breen arguing that planning for Soloheadbeg had little to do with Robinson. Robinson had been a “yes man” and a “stooge”. His presence at Soloheadbeg was “accidental”.

Breen’s words rankle with Robinson’s daughter to this day. Now 85, she is the last surviving of Robinson’s seven children and has never before spoken in public about her father.

The man she knows as “Daddy” died in 1961 at the age of 72. He had been a TD and senator in the Free State and later set up the Bureau of Military History to record the memoirs of those who had been active in the revolutionary period.

The enmity shown to her father by some in Tipperary was down to his outsider status. Robinson was born into a republican family. His grandfather fled to France after the 1848 rebellion and his father and mother were both born in that country. They returned to Ireland.

Robinson joined the IRB in Glasgow and took part in the Easter Rising. He was sent to Tipperary to organise a group of men who were enthusiastic but not experienced in the ways of warfare.

“They were misbehaving and not doing things properly,” Mrs Brennan believes, “He was to go down and try to put some discipline on them so he was unpopular from the start.”

Her father, she argues, was a moral man – a trait stemming from his early days in a seminary in Scotland where he trained to be a monk. He left in 1913 intent on being an Irish revolutionary.

“He was the gentlest, kindest person you could ever meet. He never raised a hand to anyone of us ever. He was nothing but good. There was nothing judgmental about him. He was a moral man.”

Father's involvement

Questioned about her father’s involvement in the War of Independence, she replies: “I often thought about it and at some stage did think about how you can kill people that you don’t even know.

“I don’t know how I would behave if I was back then.

The site of the Soloheadbeg ambush: The ambush site is approximately 300 metres from Soloheadbeg quarry. Photograph: Ronan McGreevy
The site of the Soloheadbeg ambush: The ambush site is approximately 300 metres from Soloheadbeg quarry. Photograph: Ronan McGreevy

“Looking back with a moral judgment on it, you’d say, ‘Ooh, did they do that?’ But if you are in the midst of it, it is different.

“He was intellectually, morally and religiously convinced he was doing the right thing. He must have had a ferociously stubborn gene as well,” she told The Irish Times.

Later, he insisted that the gelignite seizure was legitimate and that the constables, James McDonnell and Patrick O’Connell had been killed when they refused to surrender and tried to fire back.

Robinson’s evidence is directly contradicted by Breen, who baldly stated that the aim was to “kill someone and we wanted to start a war”. Such a claim is an affront to her father’s memory, she insists.

“Daddy thought that was a bloody awful reason for doing it,” says Mrs Brennan, “I have heard my father say it so often from his mouth. It was accidental and should not have happened. There was never intention of killing them.”

Mrs Brennan will attend this Sunday’s Soloheadbeg centenary commemoration, where she will meet some of the relatives of the two constables. “Boy, do I think that’s right that they will be there,” she said.

Dimphne Brennan daughter of Seumas Robinson: Dan Breen deliberately set out to do his best to make my father look bad
Dimphne Brennan daughter of Seumas Robinson: Dan Breen deliberately set out to do his best to make my father look bad

Robinson was also involved in an incident at Knocklong in May 1919 in which members of the Third Tipperary Brigade rescued their comrade Séan Hogan from a train. Hogan had been arrested the previous evening and was being taken by armed guard to Cork Barracks for questioning over the Soloheadbeg incident. Two RIC officers escorting Hogan were shot dead in the ensuing gun battle.

Hogan fell on hard times afterwards , setting up a vegetable farm in Dublin which failed. He ended up living in Robinson’s house for two years: “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,” recalled Mrs Brennan

However, her father lived his later life with serenity: “My father was comfortable with himself that it had to be done and he did it. The biggest thing about him is that he went back into the monastery in his head.

“He retreated back into that and that is why he was such a kind and gentle man. You wouldn’t have been able to place that man as the military man that he was,” she remembers.

Coming up

Next Monday, January 21st, is the 100th anniversary of two defining events. That day in 1919, the first shots were fired in the War of Independence when two policemen were killed in an ambush at Soloheadbeg in Co Tipperary. In Dublin, meanwhile, Dáil Éireann met for the first time. Gathered in the Mansion House for a meeting that drew worldwide attention, members made a declaration of independence and adopted the Democratic Programme, a radical agenda for the republic.

On Monday, The Irish Times will publish “1919 – War and Peace”, a 48-page supplement covering the events of that year at home and abroad. From political manoeuvrings in Dublin and London to the aftermath of the first World War, and from the Amritsar massacre in India to the Paris Peace Conference, it covers all the major themes of the period, with special study guides for junior and senior cycle students.

To mark the anniversaries, The Irish Times has produced films on Soloheadbeg and the first Dáil. Produced by Ronan McGreevy and Enda O’Dowd, both films can be viewed at irishtimes.com

Among the pledges contained in the Democratic Programme adopted by the first Dáil was that the Irish republic would be judged by its ability to offer dignity and security for its children. On Saturday, The Irish Times will launch “No Child 2020”, a nine-month project that looks at how that ambition can be fulfilled 100 years on.