New Years Raid

World War II brought change to Northern Ireland as Loyalists and Nationalists who shared the same bomb shelters broke down the barriers of prejudice erected by the Unionist Ascendancy to keep them divided.  The war also created jobs, and the small measure of prosperity experienced by the nationalists satisfied many grievances.  After the war, England rebuilt the barriers to maintain control of the north.  Churchill publicly blasted the Irish Free State for neutrality during the war despite the cooperation extended to the allies by the Irish, and the tens of thousands of Irish volunteers in the British military – all of which was well known to the government though not to the general public.  Anger grew in Ireland in an era of post-war high taxes, and unemployment.

In 1948, the Irish Free State abolished its Commonwealth status and passed the Republic of Ireland Act.  The date for it to go into effect was not announced, but it was signed on December 21.  On January 20, 1949, northern P.M. Basil Brooke, called a general election for February 10.  Southern Prime Minister Costello urged support for anti-partition candidates in the upcoming northern election, and pamphlets describing the discrimination and the gerrymandering in the north were published.  Unionists retaliated with a torrent of anti-Republic, and anti-Catholic propaganda that worked on sectarian fears declaring that if the border went, loyalists would be victims of IRA gunmen, urged on by Catholic clergy in an effort to establish the Pope as the ruler of Ireland. The propaganda, as well as years of conditioning by the Orange Order, had the desired effect as record numbers went to the polls to return the Unionists to power!

In the south; Dail Eireann brought the Republic of Ireland Act into effect on Easter Monday, April 18, 1949 – 33 years after Pearse’s declaration on the steps of the GPO.  On May 3, British Prime Minister, Clement Atlee declared “Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom and it is hereby affirmed that in no event will Northern Ireland or any part thereof cease to be part of Her Majesty’s Dominions without the consent of the Parliament of Northern Ireland.”  The new Republic of Ireland protested Britain’s continuation of partition, and mass meetings  urged action, but the new Republic was not prepared for anything stronger than a protest.  With tempers at a fever pitch, a call for action was heard, and the rebirth of the IRA was underway.

Depleted in numbers and finances after the war, the IRA began reorganizing by attacking unemployment and high taxes. They gathered support by standing against the mistreatment of Republican prisoners, and emerged in their traditional role of spokesmen for the Irish people with the rallying cry: ‘The Border Must Go!’  On June 5, 1951, the Derry unit of the new IRA raided Ebrington Barracks and captured a quantity of guns and ammunition.  As raids continued, the situation in the north became more tense, and nervous B-Special patrols became more violent.  The Irish Times urged the northern government to curb its patrols noting that, “para-military forces are an anachronism in a democratic society“, but it was to no avail.  On August 15, 1955, four men attacked a Royal Artillery Training Camp, but fled as a sentry gave the alarm.  Citing the attack, the Minister of War made a special report to the Cabinet, and P.M. Anthony Eden ordered mobilization to deal with the new IRA campaign.  It was later abandoned when four British Officers confessed to the ‘raid’ to “make things hotter for the IRA.”  An embarrassed War Office sent a communique to the police apologizing for the trouble caused and the matter was dropped.

Then, on the night of December 12, 1956, IRA volunteers assembled in 10 different areas along the border in an arc from Antrim to Derry.  On a signal from the campaign center in Monaghan, the morning quiet of December 13 was broken by numerous explosions.  The border campaign to retake the six counties had begun.  Reaction was swift.  By December 15, the Special Powers Act was revived allowing arrest and internment without warrant or trial, a curfew was imposed, and police forces strengthened.  On December 22, the RUC spiked or blew up every border crossing road and bridge that had no customs post.  By the end of the year 3,000 RUC and 12,000 B-Specials were called into action, and the north was an armed camp.

On the morning of January 1, 1957, an IRA raiding party set out for the RUC barracks in Brookborough, Co. Fermanagh.  They parked their truck in front of the barracks in the center of town and opened fire on the barracks with rifles and a Bren gun while an assault group attempted to set off a land mine against the building.  The mine did not explode and the assault group returned, through a hail of bullets, for another one.  This too misfired.  The raiders began to run out of ammunition as guns from the barracks returned a deadly rain of fire.  Misfortune continued to plague them as one of the raiders threw a grenade toward a barrack window to cover their retreat.  The grenade bounced off the building, and rolled under the truck where it exploded, blowing the tires, and damaging the gears.  Somehow the raiders made it back to the crippled truck and the truck limped away.  At Baxter’s Cross, near the town of Roslea, the truck gave out, and the badly shot up raiding party sought refuge in an abandoned barn.  Six members of the party were wounded, two of whom were unable to travel – 19-year old Fergal O’Hanlon of Monaghan and 27-year old Sean South of Limerick.  Both were unconscious.  One of the party, volunteered to stay behind and hold off the pursuing RUC so the others might escape, but it was felt that such an action would endanger the lives of their unconscious comrades.  It was decided to leave South and O’Hanlon to be captured so they would at least get the medical attention they needed.  The rest of the raiding party retreated toward the border.

The RUC arrived just after the IRA had left, and opened fire on the abandoned truck.  After finding it empty, they approached the barn.  The retreating IRA men heard another burst of fire. They prayed it was just the warning shots associated with assaulting a military target, but they later learned it was the murder of their two unconscious comrades.  This was a source of unforgiving bitterness in IRA circles for years to come.  Author Tim Pat Coogan wrote, “In a sense the Brookborough ambush explains everything about the IRA, and its hold on Irish tradition.  It shows all the courage, the self-sacrifice, the blundering, and the emotional appeal that have characterized and kept alive the IRA spirit for centuries.  The two young men who lost their lives in the Brookborough affair were given two of the biggest funerals in living memory – but during their lives there was never sufficient public support for their aims for them to receive proper military training or even or even to be correctly briefed on the target that claimed their lives.”  The two men killed in the raid, took their place among the martyrs to Ireland’s cause, and their memories were kept alive in songs which have become part of the Nationalist tradition – Sean South of Garryowen and The Patriot’s Game.

The Countess of Irish Freedom

She was called the Countess of Irish Freedom by playwright Sean O’Casey and though born with a silver spoon in her mouth, she spat it out and risked her life for the common people of Ireland that she loved so much.

Constance Gore-Booth was born into a well-to-do Anglo-Irish family on Feb. 4, 1868 in London. Her father had a large estate in Co. Sligo where she moved in the circles of the Ascendancy growing up as a noted horsewoman and a crack shot as well as a beautiful young woman. She couldn’t help comparing her life to the lives of the poor dispossessed Irish families. Even when she later married into wealth and privilege, she never forgot the plight of the common Irish. She studied art and in 1898, attend the Julian School in Paris. It was there she met Count Casimir Markievicz, from a wealthy Polish family. Though he was Catholic, they were married on Sept. 29, 1901. Constance Gore-Booth was now the Countess Markievicz.

In 1903 they moved to Dublin where she began to make an impression as a landscape artist. She and Casimir founded the United Arts Club in 1905 but she soon tired of this life. Nature should provide me with something to live for, something to die for, she said. Then in 1906 she found that ‘something. She rented a cottage in the Dublin hills from formerly rented by poet, Pádraic Colum. He left old copies of the revolutionary publications The Peasant and Sinn Féin there. Reading these, Constance found the cause to inspire her life.

In 1908 she became active in nationalist politics, joining Sinn Féin and Maud Gonne’s women’s group, Inghinidhe na hÉereann. She went to England in 1908 and stood for election against a young man named Winston Churchill. She lost and returned to Ireland where she founded Fianna Éireann in 1909, an organization similar to the boy scouts, but focusing on military drill and the use of firearms. Pádraic Pearse would later say that without Fianna Éireann, the Volunteers of 1913 would not have arisen.

By 1911 she was an executive member of both Inghinidhe and Sinn Féin. She was jailed for the first time for demonstrating against the visit of King George V. She also involved herself in the labor unrest of the time, running a soup kitchen during the lockout of union workers in 1913 and supporting labor leaders James Larkin and James Connolly. Her activity took a toll on her marriage and Casimir left for the Balkans, where he served as a war correspondent and then joined the Imperial Russian cavalry during World War I.

As the war began, Constance was in the center of the nationalist activity in Dublin which exploded on the 24th of April, 1916 in the Easter Rising. Most women in the movement participated as nurses or by running messages through the streets. Not the Countess. As part of Connolly’s Citizen Army, she was second in command to Michael Mallin at St. Stephen’s Green. She supervised the erection of barricades and was in the middle of the fighting. Moved by the faith of the men around her and its connection to the long struggle for Irish independence, she promised herself she would become a Catholic.

Mallin, Markievicz and their men held Stephen’s Green for six days, finally giving up only when the Brits showed them a copy of Pearse’s surrender order. The English officer who took their surrender was a distant relative of Markievicz and he offered to drive her to jail. No offence, old feller, she said, but I much prefer to tag along with my own. She was taken to Kilmainham jail where she was the only one of 70 women prisoners who was put into solitary confinement. Expecting to be executed, she sat in her cell listening to the volleys of the firing squads as her comrades were murdered. As prepared as she was to die, alone in her cell the sounds must have been frightening. At her court martial she had told the court, I did what was right and I stand by it. She was sentenced to death, but General Maxwell commuted this to life in prison on ‘account of the prisoner’s sex.’ She told the officer who brought her the news, I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me.

Released in the General Amnesty of 1917, she kept her promise and became a Catholic. The fire within her had not been extinguished by the tragic events of 1916, and she continued the struggle. In 1918 she was jailed by the Brits during a phony ‘German Plot,’ aimed at breaking anti-conscription forces in Ireland. While in prison, she became the first woman elected to the British Parliament, running as a Sinn Féin candidate. She refused to take the oath of allegiance to the King and was denied her seat, but when the first Dáil Éireann was formed two months later, she was appointed the first Minister of Labor and went on the run. She was jailed twice during the War of Independence and was released to attend the Treaty debates.

When the Irish Civil War broke out Constance was once more involved in the fighting, helping to defend Moran’s Hotel in Dublin. Later she toured the US raising funds for the Republican cause. After the Civil War she regained her seat in the Dáil, but her politics ran her afoul of the Free State government and she was jailed again. Along with 92 other women prisoners, she went on hunger strike and was released after a month. She joined Eamon de Valera’s Fianna Fáil party in 1926 and was elected as one of it’s candidates in 1927. However, a month later she became sick and died in a public ward at Sir Patrick Dunn’s Hospital. It may have been appendicitis or cancer, many said it was simply overwork.

She could have lived a life of leisure, insulated from the trials and tribulations of the common man, but the Countess gave it all up and intentionally risked her life for them. When her body was taken to the Republican plot at Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, for burial, as many as 300,000 people turned out on the streets to bid her farewell. At her graveside, Eamon de Valera gave the eulogy. When young people are searching for history’s heroes, they should be told the story of Constance Gore-Booth, she was truly the Countess of Irish freedom.

The Patriot Game

World War II brought change to Northern Ireland as Loyalists and Nationalists who shared the same bomb shelters broke down the barriers of prejudice erected by the Unionist Ascendancy to keep them divided. The war also created jobs, and the small measure of prosperity experienced by the nationalists satisfied many grievances. After the war, England rebuilt the barriers to maintain control of the north. Churchill publicly blasted the Irish Free State for neutrality during the war despite the cooperation extended to the allies by the Irish, and the tens of thousands of Irish volunteers in the British military – all of which was well known to the government though not to the general public. Anger grew in Ireland in an era of post-war high taxes, and unemployment.

In 1948, the Irish Free State abolished its Commonwealth status and passed the Republic of Ireland Act. The date for it to go into effect was not announced, but it was signed on December 21. On January 20, 1949, northern P.M. Basil Brooke, called a general election for February 10. Southern Prime Minister Costello urged support for anti-partition candidates in the upcoming northern election, and pamphlets describing the discrimination and the gerrymandering in the north were published. Unionists retaliated with a torrent of anti-Republic, and anti-Catholic propaganda that worked on sectarian fears declaring that if the border went, loyalists would be victims of IRA gunmen, urged on by Catholic clergy, in an effort to establish the Pope as the ruler of Ireland. The propaganda, as well as years of conditioning by the Orange Order, had the desired effect as record numbers went to the polls to return the Unionists to power!

In the south; Dail Eireann brought the Republic of Ireland Act into effect on Easter Monday, April 18, 1949 – 33 years after Pearse’s declaration on the steps of the GPO. On May 3, British Prime Minister, Clement Atlee declared Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom and it is hereby affirmed that in no event will Northern Ireland or any part thereof cease to be part of Her Majesty’s Dominions without the consent of the Parliament of Northern Ireland. The new Republic of Ireland protested Britain’s continuation of partition, and mass meetings urged action, but the new Republic was not prepared for anything stronger than a protest. With tempers at a fever pitch, a call for action was heard, and the rebirth of the IRA was underway.

Depleted in numbers and finances after the war, the IRA began reorganizing by attacking unemployment and high taxes. They gathered support by standing against the mistreatment of Republican prisoners, and emerged in their traditional role of spokesmen for the Irish people with the rallying cry: ‘The Border Must Go!’ On June 5, 1951, the Derry unit of the new IRA raided Ebrington Barracks and captured a quantity of guns and ammunition. As raids continued, the situation in the north became more tense, and nervous B-Special patrols became more violent. The Irish Times urged the northern government to curb its patrols noting that, “para-military forces are an anachronism in a democratic society”, but it was to no avail. On August 15, 1955, four men attacked a Royal Artillery Training Camp, but fled as a sentry gave the alarm. Citing the attack, the Minister of War made a special report to the Cabinet, and P.M. Anthony Eden ordered mobilization to deal with the new IRA campaign. It was later abandoned when four British Officers confessed to the ‘raid’ to make things hotter for the IRA. An embarrassed War Office sent a communique to the police apologizing for the trouble caused and the matter was dropped.

Then, on the night of December 12, 1956, IRA volunteers assembled in 10 different areas along the border in an arc from Antrim to Derry. On a signal from the campaign center in Monaghan, the morning quiet of December 13 was broken by numerous explosions. The border campaign to retake the six counties had begun. Reaction was swift. By December 15, the Special Powers Act was revived allowing arrest and internment without warrant or trial, a curfew was imposed, and police forces strengthened. On December 22, the RUC spiked or blew up every border crossing road and bridge that had no customs post. By the end of the year 3,000 RUC and 12,000 B-Specials were called into action, and the north was an armed camp.

On the morning of January 1, 1957, an IRA raiding party set out for the RUC barracks in Brookborough, Co. Fermanagh. They parked their truck in front of the barracks in the center of town and opened fire on the barracks with rifles and a Bren gun while an assault group attempted to set off a land mine against the building. The mine did not explode and the assault group returned, through a hail of bullets, for another one. This too misfired. The raiders began to run out of ammunition as guns from the barracks returned a deadly rain of fire. Misfortune continued to plague them as one of the raiders threw a grenade toward a barrack window to cover their retreat. The grenade bounced off the building, and rolled under the truck where it exploded, blowing the tires, and damaging the gears. Somehow the raiders made it back to the crippled truck and the truck limped away. At Baxter’s Cross, near the town of Roslea, the truck gave out, and the badly shot up raiding party sought refuge in an abandoned barn. Six members of the party were wounded, two of whom were unable to travel – 19-year old Fergal O’Hanlon of Monaghan and 27-year old Sean South of Limerick. Both were unconscious. One of the party, volunteered to stay behind and hold off the pursuing RUC so the others might escape, but it was felt that such an action would endanger the lives of their unconscious comrades. It was decided to leave South and O’Hanlon to be captured so they would at least get the medical attention they needed. The rest of the raiding party retreated toward the border.

The RUC arrived just after the IRA had left, and opened fire on the abandoned truck. After finding it empty, they approached the barn. The retreating IRA men heard another burst of fire. They prayed it was just the warning shots associated with assaulting a military target, but they later learned it was the murder of their two unconscious comrades. This was a source of unforgiving bitterness in IRA circles for years to come. Author Tim Pat Coogan wrote, In a sense the Brookborough ambush explains everything about the IRA, and its hold on Irish tradition. It shows all the courage, the self-sacrifice, the blundering, and the emotional appeal that have characterized and kept alive the IRA spirit for centuries. The two young men who lost their lives in the Brookborough affair were given two of the biggest funerals in living memory – but during their lives there was never sufficient public support for their aims for them to receive proper military training or even or even to be correctly briefed on the target that claimed their lives.

The courage of the poorly trained, ill equipped and inexperienced ‘lads’, in going up against the superior RUC and British, caught the Irish imagination and re-ignited the nationalist spirit. As the cortege of Sean South made its way south towards Limerick, it was met with thronged crowds and blazing bonfires, in inspirational procession. At midnight on Jan 5, 1957, 50,000 people, including the mayor and local politicians, stood in the freezing rain to welcome Sean South back home. On the following day, 20,000 people attended his funeral.

In later years, a memorial was erected at Moane Cross in Fermanagh using stone from the abandoned barn in which South and O’Hanlon were killed. Sean South and Fergal O’Hanlon took their place among the martyrs to Ireland’s cause, and their memories were kept alive in songs which have become part of the Nationalist tradition – Sean South of Garryowen and The Patriot Game.