History and a pair of trousers
An Irishman’s Diary: A bizarre stand-off in the War of Independence
Raids and searches by the Black and Tans in Thurles, North Tipperary, 1921. From the AE Bell Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
No door. Not an unlocked door; or an open door; there was never a front door on my neighbour’s house – just a gap in the stone wall which the three Maher brothers used to come and go.
Tommy worked on my grandfather’s (and subsequently my father’s) farm for many years, and in his later days would regale me with stories from his youth – his version of Irish and world history rarely tallying with that of the school books.
There was one story, however, that needed no embellishment – one that involved another of the brothers. Danny Maher was at the centre of one of the most bizarre stand-offs of the War of Independence.
In January 1919 the first shots of the War of Independence were fired at Soloheadbeg, Co Tipperary. By June, a massive force, made up of police and military personnel, were carrying out extensive and regular raids throughout the county.
The horse racing calendar, however, went ahead. This was still Ireland, after all.
Thurles racecourse must have provided a welcome – albeit brief – respite from the chaos, even if the spectators who attended on June 23rd, 1919, had to, literally, overlook the 60 soldiers with fixed bayonets standing on the course.
Even RIC District Inspector Michael Hunt – who had quickly earned a hardline reputation concerning any republican activity – was in attendance. It was a typical show of defiance from the 46-year-old, who had already survived several attempts on his life.
As the thousands flowed back into the town after the final race, the uniformed Hunt was shot as he reached Market Square (now Liberty Square), his military escort having briefly lost contact.
The shooter, “Big Jim” Stapleton from nearby Upperchurch (where the DI had, the previous weekend, broken up a republican meeting, tearing down a Tricolour from the makeshift platform), fired three shots through the pocket of his coat, before disappearing into the panicked crowd.
Two shots from the automatic pistol hit their mark, killing Hunt. The third struck young Danny Maher in the left kneecap. According to a local doctor’s statement to police, the injured 12-year-old was spotted soon after the initial mayhem subsided. He was taken to the doctor’s house, where he was treated, and then, remarkably, allowed to go on his way.
Alone late in the evening in a town now under police and military lockdown, and with a bullet still in his leg (because the doctor couldn’t retrieve it, the boy was told he needed to have his leg X-rayed at the Mater hospital in Dublin), Danny was an eight-mile country road walk from home.
Somehow, he managed it, and the following morning was taken four miles in the other direction – to catch the train from Templemore to Dublin.
Several police officers were waiting at the station when the boy, his father and several uncles arrived in good time for the train. Danny’s bloodied breeches – complete with bullet hole – were to be surrendered. It was demanded as evidence in the investigation into Hunt’s murder.
The adults in the travelling party, however, refused and, apparently unsure as to whether physical force was appropriate to secure possession of a boy’s short pants, the RIC members hesitated.
Amid the stand-off, an officer was dispatched to buy a new pair of breeches. He returned with two.
Neither group flinched.
Danny’s opinion was not sought by either side. Had he been, and considering the poverty of the time (as he was wearing a blood-stained, bullet-holed short pants, we can be certain he didn’t own another pair), it’s likely his opinion on two new breeches would have differed from that of the growing crowd.
Eventually, the unhappy boy, complete with one pair of old pants, was hurried on to a carriage, and the train was allowed to leave the station.
Danny would live well into his 80s, making him surely the oldest surviving person to have been shot during the War of Independence.
His abiding memory, however, was not lying in Thurles injured as gunshots rang out and thousands stumbled by.
It was the two pairs of new breeches he could see out the window as the train pulled slowly away from Templemore station.