Some War of Independence leaders were just a bloody nuisance later

TODAY the Whyte’s history and literature auction of memorabilia is being held in Dublin. Ian Whyte, the managing director of the auctioneering firm, mentioned that the material had been forgotten after the Civil War.

It would probably have been more correct to say those involved in the War of Independence and subsequent Civil War wished to forget about the material. They stopped talking about the events because they were essentially embarrassed by what happened during the Civil War.

Growing up in the 1950s I heard a lot of talk about the Black and Tans, but those who were doing the most of the talking were too young to have been involved. Those who were involved weren’t talking for the most part.

During the first nine days of November 1920, Tralee was shut down by the Black and Tans, but this was ignored in Kerry’s Fighting Story and Dorothy MacArdle covered the whole thing in less than a sentence in her mammoth book, The Irish Republic. The events in Tralee actually made the front page of the New York Times three times and the front page of the Montreal Gazette four times during those nine days. Tralee has not been on the front pages of those newspapers that many times in 88 years since.

People never forgot what happened that week, but those involved did not want to talk about it, possibly because of subsequent events.

During the Civil War, some of the greatest outrages occurred in Kerry. For instance, nine IRA prisoners were taken from the jail in Tralee and brought to Ballyseedy, tied around a mine and blown up. By an explosive freak, one of them, Stephen Fuller, managed to escape. The same thing happened in a similar incident involving five men in Killarney later the same day.

When five prisoners were taken from Caherciveen the following week, the Free State soldiers shot them in the legs to make sure nobody escaped. Then they blew them up by detonating a mine.

If Black and Tans had behaved that way, we would never have heard the end of it. But that was how our own people behaved.

When the Civil War ended, Stephen Fuller decided there were wrongs on both sides and it would be best if he just stopped talking about it. It was only on his veritable deathbed that he recalled what happened for Robert Kee’s Television History of Ireland. By then he felt it was safe to leave the verdict to history.

That is essentially what most of the survivors did. They gave interviews to the Bureau of Military History on the understanding that their stories would not be published until after they were dead. In effect, those were like deathbed statements.

Earlier this year there was a low-key commemoration of the 90th anniversary of the foundation of Dáil Eireann. On January 21, 1919, when the Dáil was first set up, Richard Mulcahy formally moved the adoption of the Democratic Programme. The events of that day were to have enormous symbolic significance for the future.

But as the Dáil was being established at the Mansion House, Dublin, what was happening was overshadowed by events that occurred elsewhere. A group of nine Irish Volunteers attacked and killed two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary escorting a consignment of explosives being carried to a mine at Soloheadbeg, Co Tipperary. These were the first fatalities of the War of Independence.

Who were they? They were not Black and Tans. The Black and Tans were not even formed until more than a year later.

The two were Irishmen. Constables Patrick O’Connell, 20, was from Clonmoyle near Coachford, Co Cork, while 56-year-old Constable James McDonnell, a native of Belmullet, Co Mayo, was a widower with five children.

“We must show our abhorrence of this inhuman act,” Monsignor Ryan, the parish priest, told the congregation in St Michael’s Church in Tipperary.

“We must denounce it and the cowardly miscreants who are guilty of it — aye, and all who try to excuse or justify it.”

Have we not as a nation sought to justify it since then?

The monsignor continued: “It used to be said ‘where Tipperary leads, Ireland follows’. “God help poor Ireland if she follows this lead of blood! But let us give her the lead in our indignant denunciation of this crime against our Catholic civilisation, against Ireland, against Tipperary.”

The establishment of the Dáil was not the big news of the day but the murders in Tipperary. Breen later wrote that his “only regret” was that there were only two policemen to kill that day. “Six would have created a bigger impression than a mere two,” he explained. “We felt bigger game was needed.”

Murder was just a game to him. In the security files released in recent years there was a report of Breen threatening to shoot a garda at the polling in Dundrum, Co Tipperary, on polling day, January 24, 1933. Breen had become involved in an altercation outside the polling and when Garda Sergeant Patrick Reilly went to see what was happening, Breen was standing with a long service revolver in his hand.

“Raise your hands,” Breen told the sergeant. “I shot better men than you.”

As Breen was obviously “under the influence of drink,” the sergeant decided that discretion was the better part of valour. If Sgt Reilly had tried to arrest Breen, he could have ended up being shot just as dead as Constable Stephen Carroll of the PSNI this week.

IN the security files recently released Cork barrister Paul O’Sullivan stated that Tom Barry threatened him in April 1936 because he had written references for three local people who wished to join the Royal Navy. “Let it not occur again or you’ll get the lead,” Barry said.

“He put his index finger over my heart as he made those remarks,” Sullivan noted. “I gave him an undertaking that I would not furnish such references in future qualifying it with the remark, ‘you were a British soldier yourself. ’ ”

At that point somebody came in, and the conversation ended. The next time O’Sullivan met Barry he offered his hand but O’Sullivan never knew what hit him.

Gardaí were convinced Barry was behind the murder of Admiral Henry Boyle Somerville, 73, a month earlier because Somerville had provided references for local people wishing to join the Royal Navy. Meda Ryan, Barry’s biographer, wrote to the Irish Examiner recently that Barry “was certainly infuriated with Fianna Fáil policy and it is believed that it was he who gave the order to have Somerville kidnapped and used in a type of deal/bargaining ploy with the government”.

Barry confirmed for Meda Ryan that this was his intention, but things did not go according to plan and Somerville was shot dead instead. Even if Barry had only ordered that Somerville should be kidnapped and held hostage, he was just as guilty of that reprehensible murder as if he had pulled the trigger himself.

Dan Breen and Tom Barry may have been the kind of men you would like to have on your side during a fight, but each of them was bloody nuisance in times of peace.

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