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.

Michael Collins

One of the most controversial figures in Irish history is Michael Collins. To those who loved him, he was The Big Fellow, Ireland’s greatest hero. Yet some believe that in settling for the Irish Free State, he betrayed the Republican cause. You be the judge.

Born at Sam’s Cross, Co Cork, on Oct 16, 1890 – (120 years ago this month), he was the youngest of 8 children. His father, 75 at the time, was a farmer with an enviable command of Greek, Latin, and French, who also excelled in math. He gave his youngest son his name, and a love of reading. As Michael grew to manhood, he read the prose and poetry of Nationalism, listened to patriotic discussions about O’Connell, Davis, and Emmet, and heard first hand accounts from his grandmother Johanna O’Brien of people starving on the roads during the Great Hunger. He started school at the age of 4-1/2, and was taught by an old Fenian named Denis Lyons. By the time his father died in 1897, the 6-year old well understood his father’s last words: I shall not see Ireland free, but in my children’s time it will come, please God. Michael finished school and left for London in 1906 as an apprentice clerk in the Post Office Savings Bank. In London, he joined the Gaelic League, the GAA, and the Geraldine Football and Hurling Club. He was sworn into the IRB in 1909, and later, the Volunteers. In 1915, he got a job as a clerk in the London office of the Guarantee Trust Company of New York. Then, on a trip to Dublin he met Tom Clarke and Sean MacDermott who convinced him that something big was about to happen. He returned to London, quit his job, and sailed for Ireland the next day. The something big was the Easter Rising, and Collins was a part of that historic event as a soldier in the GPO.

When the Rising failed, Irish prisoners were rounded up and marched to a grassy knoll opposite the Rotunda Hospital where they were surrounded by British Officers. The officer in Charge, Capt Lee Wilson, recognized 58-year old Tom Clarke as one of the leaders, and pulled him from the ranks; he publicly stripped him nude to the taunts and jeers of soldiers and passers-by. Collins was unable to stop the brutality, but years later he found Capt Wilson serving as an RIC inspector in Wexford, and had him shot. Collins and his comrades were bundled off to a prison camp at Frongoch in Wales where his natural ability as a leader emerged. When all were released in a general amnesty at Christmas, 1916, Tom Clarke’s widow, Kattie, gave Collins the funds and information entrusted to her by the IRB Supreme Council before the Rising. Collins reorganized the Irish Volunteer and gave financial aid to the returning men. He made valuable contacts with Republicans all over Ireland, and they in turn knew that if they or their families ever needed anything, all they had to do was to see Mick. The reorganized IRB and its political party Sinn Fein renewed the struggle for independence. Sinn Fein members were elected to Parliamentary seats and, instead of going to Westminster, they met in Dublin calling themselves Dail Eireann – the Assembly of Ireland. England tried to disband them and Ireland’s war of independence was on, with Collins leading the resistance. Hunted day and night, he led a guerrilla war with many close encounters and daring escapes. In July, 1919, he formed a squad of trusted men for special assignments who were known as the Twelve Apostles. They were an intelligence unit built to infiltrate British agencies and execute special assignments. Collins was Minister of Finance in the new Dail as well as Director of Intelligence, Director of Organization, and Adjutant General of the Army. He was the most hunted man in Ireland.

His intelligence network was extremely effective, and his masterful stroke of identifying 14 top British secret service men operating undercover in Dublin, and eliminating them all at the same time on Sunday morning, Nov 21 1920, displayed a daring and organizational ability that shook the Empire to its very foundation. It also boosted sagging Irish morale for the war had been particularly brutal and demoralizing. Then in mid 1921, Dail President Eamon deValera was invited to London to confer with Lloyd George. On July 9, a truce was announced to explore the possibility of a peace. However, the British had made it absolutely clear that no treaty would entertain an Irish Republic. Dev knew that when he returned to Ireland to select a delegation to negotiate terms. He startled his comrades by refusing to lead the delegation himself; instead he chose Arthur Griffith. Griffith, a journalist and economist, was not a militant republican, and would have been happy with any reasonable offer as long as the fighting was over. The delegation included Erskine Childers, a former member of British Intelligence who had converted to the cause; Childers cousin, Robert Barton; George Gavan Duffy and Eamon Duggan – two lawyers; John Chartres, another former member of British Intelligence; Emmet Dalton, another ex-British Officer; and Michael Collins. The selection of so many men of English background to negotiate Irish freedom leaves many questions to this day, but one thing is certain: Michael Collins as the lone militant would have little voice in establishing terms. The Irish delegation was no match for the English delegation which included such trained statesmen as Lloyd George, Lord Birkenhead, Sir Austin Chamberlain, and Winston Churchill. The British offered an Irish Free State – a 26-county self-governing dominion within the British Commonwealth of Nations. The question of the other 6 counties would be resolved by a border commission after the Brits were able to pull their interests out. The Irish refused, but the English, with a seasoned army just returned from World War I, offered no alternative but total war. Collins know that the Republican movement was almost broke and out of ammunition. They had bluffed their way to the negotiating table and now would have to bluff their way to any concessions. After months of negotiation the treaty was accepted. Collins considered it a stepping stone to full freedom, but realized many would not accept the fact that Ireland, though a self-governing dominion, was still under the Crown.

In Ireland, deValera, as President, repudiated the treaty after learning that a new election was one of the conditions. He claimed it was not the Republic that they fought for, but Dail Eireann put it to the people for a vote. In a general election, a war-weary people accepted it and elected Arthur Griffith President. DeValera and the anti-treaty Republican forces took up arms in protest, and in June 1922 a civil war began. Anti-treaty forces steadily lost ground, and by August, most cities and towns were in Free State hands. On August 12, President Griffith died, leaving Collins responsible for bringing the war to an end. On August 20, Collins headed for Cork to meet and negotiate a peace with his dissident former comrades – not as a conqueror, but as a fellow Irishman. He would offer positions in the Free State Army to those who wished them and give their leaders positions of importance in Free State service. Those who chose to continue fighting could go up north and fight the Orangemen who, at that time, were killing Irish Nationalists and burning them out of their homes. In a few years, when the new army was trained and equipped, Collins would dismantle the treaty bit by bit. It was a compromise none but the British could oppose – but they would not know. Unfortunately they did. According to a 1982 book THE SHOOTING OF MICHAEL COLLINS by John Feehan, when the Irish took over Dublin Castle, documents were found naming a British spy – code name Thorpe – who had been placed among the Irish. Just before going south, Collins learned Thorpe’s identity, and said he would deal with him when he returned. Sadly, he never did for in his own native county, he was the victim of an ambush by Republican forces. The invincible man was dead. In Kilmainham Jail hundreds of Republicans prisoners dropped to their knees in prayer for the man who had led them for so long, though now on the opposing side. The saddest part of the entire story is that one of the finest leaders Ireland ever produced was killed by an Irish hand – a hand that he would rather have held in friendship.

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.