Stories of the Revolution: Dan Breen’s battle with bureaucracy

Following War of Independence and Civil War, Breen fought for decades for pension

Dan Breen

Dan Breen


Following the War of Independence and the Civil War, Dan Breen, the man who fired the first shots at Soloheadbeg, fought a decades-long battle to win the pension rights he believed to be his due.

His bestselling book My Fight for Irish Freedom, first published in 1924 less than a year after the guns went silent, is still in print and is a compelling account of the revolutionary period. However, he could have written another volume entitled My Fight for a Military Pension, given the voluminous files on him which have been released from the Military Service Pensions Collection.

Easily the biggest file in the whole collection, numbering some 800 pages, its first pages date back to 1923, with the final ones coming in 1985, a year after his widow Bridget died.

Breen died in Dublin in 1969. Brought back to Tipperary for burial, he was buried in Donohill, near his birthplace. Ten thousand people gathered to mourn him, the largest crowd, it was believed, since Breen’s comrade Seán Treacy was buried in Kilfeacle in October 1920.

Throughout the files, Breen’s irritation with bureaucracy seeps through, where he displays again and again with degrees of intolerance with the whole process from the beginning and with the form filling and bureaucracy required.

In particular, he chafed at the demands for proofs of his involvement in the Independence struggle, particular since his books had already begun to sell in numbers.

“I should imagine my case would not require months to investigate as the back numbers of the Daily Independent would give the proofs needed,” he wrote to the pensions board in 1924.

One of the most wanted man in Ireland during the War of Independence with a £1,000 bounty on his head, Breen revelled in the notoriety created after Soloheadbeg. He had quickly acquired a reputation for ruthlessness.

He and Treacy had ambushed an RIC patrol escorting a load of gelignite to a quarry near the Tipperary hamlet on January 21st, 1919.

The pair shot dead RIC constables Patrick MacDonnell and James O’Connell. Years later, Breen stated that he was only sorry that there had not been more RIC officers. He had expected six. If there was not going to be a war, he was going to start one. He got his wish.

In his pension file, Breen gives a long list of wounds he incurred during the War of Independence. In May 1919 he was shot through the right side and arm during the Knocklong ambush in which he and three others rescued another volunteer Seán Hogan from a train. Two RIC men guarding Breen were killed in the attack.

In December 1919, he was wounded in the left leg and head at Ashtown in the Phoenix Park when he and other volunteers attempted to assassinate the lord lieutenant of Ireland Field Marshal Sir John French. While recovering from his wounds, he met his future wife Bridget Malone, the sister of Volunteer Michael Malone who had been involved in the Battle of Mount Street Bridge during the Easter Rising.

In his original application, Breen also listed a shrapnel wound incurred in May 1920 in Tipperary and one incurred during a failed ambush on British military tenders in Whitehall, Dublin, on October 12th, 1920, when he was hit through the left leg, right thigh and right hand.

He was not shy in reminding the pensions board of his contribution to the struggle, writing at one stage: “How many men were wounded and suffered as much as I did? How many were wounded six times and still came back for more?”

His claims were corroborated in later life by his surgeon Dr John F Fleetwood who found that Breen’s right hand was severely handicapped as a result of bullet wounds and blood vessels had been damaged. He suffered from chronic bronchitis and had a severe degree of coronary arteriosclerosis. His wounds contributed to his death at the age of 75, the doctor concluded.

He was originally deemed by the pensions board to have 60 per cent disability and was awarded a pension of £120 a year. On re-examination it was deemed that his wounds were much less severe, amounting to a 20 per cent disability and his annual payment was reduced to £60 per annum with a £75 gratuity.

He appealed this decision on multiple occasions and for many years. He argued with the board that his condition was getting worse and that the original designation should stand. In 1932 a change of government brought a change of fortune. It was agreed that Breen should receive a wound pension of £150 per annum and treatment in St Bricin’s Hospital in Dublin.

At that stage Breen had spent several years in the United States after losing his seat in the 1927 general election. He ran a speakeasy during the prohibition period in Chicago and received medical treatment there for his wounds. He returned to Ireland in 1932 and was re-elected to the Dáil.

Breen was not satisfied with his award and wrote to the minister for defence Frank Aiken in 1933. “What use is £150 to me? What I want to get and I claim for is my doctor’s expenses. I am told by the best doctors in the world that I may not live another year and at the outside two years.

“ What use is £150 to me when I won’t live to draw it? Do you think it is fair that I should spend my hard earnings and not be repaid?” Breen stated that he wanted something for his wife and two children. “When I pass on, I don’t want to leave them to starve.” He lived for another 37 years.

In 1937 he was assessed as having a disability of 100 per cent and was granted a pension of £200 per annum. In June 1939 Breen submitted expenses for the time that he was in the United States between July 1929 and January 1932. He claimed for receipted expenses of $12,208 (€182,000) an enormous sum for the time. He also included references from the doctors who treated him in New York.

Aiken concluded that Breen had been badly treated by the pensions board previously and that it had underestimated the extent of his injuries. An amending bill was due to be introduced in the Army Pensions Act which covered Breen’s American expenses and those of others who had private medical treatment arising out of their service in the War of Independence. However, it was found that it could not be accommodated in the act.

In 1940 Breen was given a pension of £160 a year for wounds. In addition, he was awarded a military service pension at the highest grade possible, an A grade, for nine years of service at £225 per annum. At the time he was also drawing a TD’s salary, having represented Tipperary from 1932 to 1965. He was unimpressed with the refusal of the state to fund his treatment in the United States. However, some £3,000 in expenses was refunded to him in 1948.

Breen died on December 27th, 1969. His widow Bridget was awarded a pension of £322 per annum. Mrs Breen died in 1984.

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