Knocklong ambush, on May 13th, 1919 involved a 14-minute gun battle

Irishman's Diary: Action may have saved Seán Hogan from execution, but came at terrible price

The wedding photograph of Dan Breen shows him with his Luger pistol on his lap. With him is his wife, Bridget Malone. In background: Seán Hogan and Bridget’s sister, Áine Malone.

The wedding photograph of Dan Breen shows him with his Luger pistol on his lap. With him is his wife, Bridget Malone. In background: Seán Hogan and Bridget’s sister, Áine Malone.

 

One of the most famous photographs of the War of Independence was taken at Dan Breen’s wedding in June 1921.

Breen was already burnishing his reputation as the romantic guerilla campaigner three years before the publication of his bestselling autobiography My Fight for Irish Freedom.

On his lap there is a Luger pistol, an incongruity in a wedding photograph, but in keeping with Breen’s penchant for self-mythologising.

In the background on the left is the best man Seán Hogan who is dressed in the uniform of the Irish Volunteers. Unlike Breen, he looks shy and awkward, his body tilted as if to convey how ill at ease with himself he was.

Had Hogan shown the same diffidence in May 1919, he might have saved himself and his comrades a great deal of trouble. Hogan was the youngest of those involved in the Soloheadbeg ambush on January 21st, 1919, the event that is viewed in retrospect as the one that started the War of Independence.

Sgt Peter Wallace and Sean Treacy, another of those involved at Soloheadbeg, wrestled over Treacy’s gun

He was only 18, according to most reports, but to date no birth certificate has been found for him. Hogan is now the subject of an excellent biography by the Tipperary historian John Connors. Unusually for the time, Hogan had unmarried parents. Connors speculates that Hogan was born in June 1900 which would indicate that he was indeed 18 at the time of Soloheadbeg.

Hogan’s youth may also explain his lack of caution in early May 1919 when he slipped his minder after a dance in Kilshenane, Co Tipperary, and ended up, not in the arms of his sweetheart Bridie O’Keeffe, but in the embrace of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC).

Hogan escorted O’Keeffe back to her relative’s farmhouse where she was spending the night. He slept on the sofa. When he woke up, the house was surrounded. Hogan fled, but was picked up by the RIC in a laneway near the house.

He, along with the others involved in the Soloheadbeg ambush, were the most wanted men in Ireland. Hogan faced interrogation and possible execution.

The Knocklong ambush, which occurred on May 13th, 1919, saved Hogan from such a fate, but it came at a terrible price for all those involved.

Hogan was put on the 6pm train from Thurles to Cork where he was due to be interrogated in the military prison. Knocklong station, just over the border in Co Limerick, was chosen as the place for the escape attempt because of its distance from the nearest RIC barracks.

Shot dead

Four volunteers of the East Limerick Brigade got on the train at Emly in order to signal to the men waiting at Knocklong Station the carriage in which Hogan was being detained.

Hogan was being escorted to Cork by four RIC men. They faced five volunteers, three of whom were armed. A ferocious gun battle ensued, lasting 14 minutes. Constable Michael Enright (30), from Ballyneety, Co Limerick, was shot dead immediately.

Sgt Peter Wallace and Sean Treacy, another of those involved at Soloheadbeg, wrestled over Treacy’s gun. Wallace, who was a huge man, shot Treacy in the throat before the gun was turned on Wallace, who later died from his wounds.

'Well, but wasn’t that some waste of a life'

Hogan smashed his mangled chains in the head of another of his armed guard who was then thrown out of the window of the train. The last remaining guard picked up a rifle and opened fire on the IRA party through the carriage window wounding three volunteers waiting on the platform, including Breen.

Hogan was taken immediately to a butcher’s shop where his chains were smashed with a cleaver. He was free. Knocklong became an exalted event in the iconography of Irish Republicanism. At Soloheadbeg, eight armed and ready volunteers faced two unwary policemen. It was not a fair fight. Hogan’s rescue from the train at Knocklong demanded organisation, courage and daring of the highest order.

Armed combat

Hogan continued to serve in the War of Independence and on the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War. By the time hostilities ceased in 1923, he was only 23, but had spent the previous five years in armed combat.

The toll on his mind and body were huge.

In 1924, he was admitted to St Bricin’s Military Hospital suffering from “attacks of restlessness and depression – inability to concentrate his mind on anything”.

His then wife Christina ran a nursing home in Tipperary, where her patients included many shellshocked Irish veterans of the first World War. The couple would later separate.

Hogan’s fortunes changed with the change of government in 1932 bringing to power Fianna Fáil, a party which Hogan supported. He was given a job in the Board of Works, but his mental health continued to deteriorate.

He complained of the “nerves and all the ailments that go with them”. His circumstances were such that he spent two years living in the family home of Seumas Robinson, the officer commanding at Soloheadbeg.

Robinson’s daughter Dimphne Brennan told The Irish Times earlier this year: “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.”

Seán Hogan died on Christmas Eve 1968 from a cerebral haemorrhage and chronic bronchitis.

At the funeral reception, his estranged widow is supposed to have told a niece of Hogan, “Well, but wasn’t that some waste of a life”.

Sean and Christina are buried 50 paces from each other in St Michael’s Cemetery in Tipperary town, divided in death as they were in life. Seán Hogan: His Life: A Troubled Journey, by John Connors, is published by Tipp Revolution

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