Flashpoints imminent in Ireland’s decade of centenaries

Soloheadbeg ambush in January 1919 among most controversial episodes in period

There has been something of a lull in the decade of centenaries since 2016 but that tranquillity is likely to be disturbed in coming months.

November 11th will mark the centenary of the armistice which ended the first World War. On December 14th it will be 100 years since the 1918 general election which saw the rise to dominance of Sinn Féin. On January 21st next there's the centenary of the opening of First Dáil and the Soloheadbeg ambush in Co Tipperary, which took place on the same day.

Soloheadbeg is likely to prove the most contentious.

Already there have been protests about the inclusion on the commemorative wall in Glasnevin Cemetery of the names of those British soldiers who were killed in Dublin during the 1916 Rising. What of those Royal Irish Constabulary men killed during the War of Independence? Should they be included on that commemorative wall? Or, even more controversially, what of those killed among the so-called Black and Tans?


These questions are likely to come into sharp focus when the centenary of the Soloheadbeg ambush is commemorated, marking what many believe was the start of the War of Independence.

Gelignite consignment

It involved Dan Breen and was planned from the previous month, when Breen's brother Lars told him a consignment of gelignite was to be transferred from Tipperary barracks to the quarry at Soloheadbeg, where Lars Breen worked.

Another of the ambush party, Seán Treacy, saw it as an opportunity to begin hostilities with British forces. He believed a military confrontation with the RIC and the British army was the only way to establish the Irish republic proclaimed in 1916. It was also, he believed, what the Irish people had voted for in December 1918.

Every day from January 16th to January 21st, 1919, men chosen to stage the ambush took up positions at Soloheadbeg.

The RIC at the time numbered about 17,000, of whom about 70 per cent were Irish Catholics. The RIC was the eyes and ears of British administration in Ireland, and 513 of its members were killed between 1919-21.

Two RIC men were escorting the gelignite when ambushed at Soloheadbeg. Both were shot dead. It was claimed later that when they realised they were being ambushed both took up firing positions and the volunteers immediately fired at them. Other versions dispute this.

The two RIC men were Patrick O'Connell from Coachford in Co Cork, aged about 30 and unmarried, and James McDonnell who was about 50 and from Belmullet, Co Mayo. He was a native Irish speaker and a widower with five children. Both men were Catholics.

Even at the time the Soloheadbeg ambush was controversial. In its defence some reached back to the resounding victory of Sinn Féin the previous month.

Sinn Féin's manifesto for that election promised abstention from Westminster; the establishment of Dáil Éireann; an appeal to the Versailles peace conference in Paris, scheduled to begin that January; and finally to use "any and every means available to render impotent the power of England to hold Ireland in subjection by military force or otherwise".

What was meant by “any and every means available”? It has to be realised that the prospect of a war with Britain was not even a consideration in the 1918 election campaign. The electorate was not given a choice between war and peace.

As understood in that election campaign the independence of Ireland was to be pursued by democratic means. This is a critically important factor when considering the morality of the War of Independence.

In fairness, that war evolved mainly in response to the failure of democratic means in carrying out the wishes of the Irish people as expressed in December 1918.

An example was the failure of the Irish delegation to get a hearing at Versailles, a repudiation of the rights and liberties of small nations as set out by US president Woodrow Wilson when the United States entered the first World War in April 1917.

More broadly, the December 1918 election proved critical to Britain realising it did not have the consent of the governed in the greater part of Ireland, which is now this State.

Democratic mandate

Rightly or wrongly, the democratic mandate the election provided would be deemed to underpin the morality of the War of Independence and to confer on it a legitimacy which the more recent Provisional IRA campaign in Northern Ireland never had.

The British toughed out that more recent conflict because they could. They had significant majority support. That was not the case in the 26 counties area, at least, 100 years ago. In the December 1918 election Sinn Féin won 73 of 105 seats available. The expanded franchise included all men over the age of 21 and women over the age of 30 who met a property qualification.

Numbers eligible to vote in Ireland went from 683,000 to almost two million. These were primarily young voters who were more radical than the previous generation and, for the first time, women who had not forgotten how the Irish Party at Westminster had vigorously opposed giving them the vote.

Just over half of all Irish women were eligible to vote in 1918 and they made up 36 per cent of the electorate.

As we progress through this decade of centenaries it is the commemorations ahead which are likely to be the most contentious, not least as we approach the centenary of various murders by both sides during the War of Independence, of the Treaty in 1921 and of the Civil War in 1922-1923.

There will be much to discuss and a lot of discomfort.