Irish Volunteer Seán Hogan gazed out the window of the train toward the distant Galtee Mountains to the south. It was early evening on May 13, 1919. The train had just pulled out of Emly, County Tipperary, headed toward the small town of Knocklong, just over the County Limerick line. He saw that the earlier golden, late-day sunshine that had been illuminating the beautiful west Tipperary countryside as it flashed by had given way to showers, and the Galtee Mountains had disappeared in the haze. He was on his way to Cork City where he would almost certainly be executed. It was not how he had ever envisioned “celebrating” his 18th birthday.
(Below, the Galtee Mountains)
Hogan was seated facing the front of the train. On his right was RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary) Sgt. Peter Wallace, a powerful man who weighed more than 250 lbs., and to Hogan’s left was Constable Michael Enright, both armed with revolvers. Sitting opposite them were Constables Jeremiah Ring and John Reilly, armed with carbines.
What Hogan didn’t know was that while the train was at the Emly station, four Volunteers of the 6th (Galtee) Battalion based at Galbally, Limerick -- John Joe O’Brien, Seán Lynch, James Scanlon, and Edmund Foley -- had boarded the train. Another Volunteer from Thurles, James “Goorty” McCarthy, had also boarded the train when Hogan was originally loaded onto it there. The Galbally men had been charged by Hogan’s Tipperary comrades, Seán Treacy, Dan Breen, and Séumus Robinson, with discovering the compartment where Hogan was being held.
As Treacy, Breen, and Robinson, along with Galbally Volunteer Ned O’Brien, brother of John Joe, waited for the train to arrive at the Knocklong station, tensions were rising. That was caused by two circumstances: the impending arrival of the Cork-bound train, and the train sitting at the station on the eastbound tracks, carrying a fully armed company of British soldiers. Suddenly, they were startled by the sound of the westbound train’s whistle. In the distance, they could see the smoke of the approaching engine. At nearly the same moment, the eastbound engine blew its whistle and began to pull out. Treacy breathed a sigh of relief.
As the westbound train pulled into the station, two of the Galbally Volunteers got off and one made a quick hand gesture showing Treacy the compartment where Hogan was being held, in the second car from the front. Treacy did not hesitate. Removing his glasses, he folded them and put them in the case as casually as any prospective passenger might have done. “Come on, lads!” He quickly entered the car, drawing his pistol as he entered.
Ned O’Brien followed him with his pistol in hand, followed by James Scanlon, Seán Lynch, John Joe O’Brien, and Edmund Foley. They were all unarmed except for John Joe, who had a tiny .25 automatic. On the platform, Breen and Robinson had their hands on their pistols beneath their coats, guarding against any threat from outside the train.
Moving along the corridor, Treacy and O’Brien rapidly approached the target compartment. Peeking around the corner, Treacy saw Hogan and the RIC men. He rapidly slid the door open, shouting, “HANDS UP!” and “LET’S GO, SEÁN!” Wallace looked up at them, “NOT BLOODY LIKELY!” he yelled, as he jumped to his feet. All hell then broke loose in the cramped quarters of that compartment.
As one of the Volunteers who took part in the Soloheadbeg ambush of January 1919, Hogan had been one of the most wanted men in Ireland in the two months since then.
Seán Hogan (left) was born in Greenane, County Tipperary, on May 13, 1901. He was the eldest of two sons of Matthew Hogan and Johanna Corbett. Hogan joined the Irish Volunteers in 1918. One of the biggest influences during Hogan’s early life was one of his teachers, Cormac Breathnach. Breathnach may have had more influence on the events of the Irish Civil War in Tipperary, and perhaps all of Ireland, than any other non-participant on the island. He also taught Seán Treacy, Dan Breen, and several other future Irish Volunteers.
Born Charlie Walshe in County Kerry, Breathnach changed his name when he became involved with the Gaelic League. He would be the president of the League in the late 1920s and later would serve in the Dáin Éireann as a member of de Valera’s Fianna Fáil party. From 1949 to 1950 he was the Lord Mayor of Dublin.
In his post-war book, “My Fight for Irish Freedom,” Breen would later say of Breathnach: He did not confine his history lesson to the official textbook. He gave us the naked facts about the English conquest of Ireland and the manner in which our country was held in bondage. We learned about the Penal Laws, the systematic ruining of Irish trade, the elimination of our native language. He told us also of the ruthless manner in which Irish rebellions had been crushed. By the time we had passed from his class, we were no longer content to grow up ‘happy English children’ as envisaged by the Board of Education. To the end of his days, Charlie was in the habit of boasting of his rebel past pupils.
Breathnach inculcated a deep Irish nationalism into an untold number of young Tipperary boys. Three of them -- Hogan, Treacy, and Breen, along with Séumus Robinson -- would come to be known as the “Big Four" of the war in Tipperary.
Breen (right) was born on August 11, 1894, in his parent’s cottage at Grange, one mile south of Donohill, County Tipperary. His mother was born Honora Moore, in Reenavana, Doon, County Limerick. His father, also Daniel, died when Dan was just 6 years old, leaving behind a widow with six children. Honora, who worked as a midwife, struggled to maintain her family after Daniel's death. In addition to absorbing the nationalist perspectives of Breathnach, Breen recalled the last eviction in his area. It was Michael Dwyer Ban, a relative of the Breens, who later died on the roadside. Breen recalled that this also left “an indelible impression on my mind.” He also said his mother passed on militant Republicanism, buying him paperback books about Wolfe Tone, Emmet, and other Republican heroes. Breen was sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in 1912 and the Irish Volunteers in 1914.
Seán Allis Treacy was born on February 14, 1895, in Soloheadbeg County Tipperary. His father was Denis and his mother was Bridget Allis. Denis died when Seán was only 3 years old, causing Seán to leave school at just 14 to help the family make ends meet, running their small farm. In 1911, he also became a member of the Gaelic League, which then was often a sign of nationalist support. He joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood later that year and the Irish Volunteers in 1913. He also subscribed to “Sinn Féin,” “Irish Freedom,” and “The Irish Peasant.”
Hogan’s friend, Tadgh Dwyer, recalled that Treacy (left) would pass these publications around to his friends. His aunt, who was living with Treacy’s mother on the farm, tried very hard to talk him out of his Republican principles, but to no effect. He was intelligent and a natural leader and became president of the Tipperary Gaelic League and the head centre of the IRB in Tipperary.
By 1916 he was so deeply involved in the revolutionary movement that he was swept up in the round-up of Volunteers after the Easter Rising. Treacy was in and out of British prisons during the succeeding two years. In October 1918, he was appointed the vice commander of the 3rd Tipperary Brigade of the Irish Volunteers.
Séumus Robinson, born January 6, 1888, at 22 Sevastapol St. in Belfast, was the oldest of the “Big Four.” His father, James, was an insurance agent. His mother was born Sarah Jane Black. Séumus' grandfather was a Fenian who was forced into exile in France for a time, where his father was born. At age 14, he joined the first Fianna Éireann under Bulmer Hobson. A year later he moved to Glasgow, Scotland, and attended the Marist Brothers school, St. Michael's College. He joined the Gaelic League then, continuing his interest in the Irish Republican movement in spite of being out of the country. After school, he got a job at Montcalm & Moncoeurs in Edinburgh.
Séumus (right) and his brother, Joseph, joined the Irish Volunteers in Glasgow. During the Easter Rising, Séumus fought under George Plunkett as part of the Kimmage Garrison in Dublin. He was given command of a section that he led in the capture of the Hopkins and Hopkins jewelers on the corner of Sackville Street, near the GPO. After the surrender, Robinson was under a sentence of death for a time, which was commuted after the execution of the leaders of the rising.
Robinson was eventually moved to Frongoch in Wales, which became a virtual university of guerrilla war. While there he met Eamon O'Dwyer, from South Tipperary, who invited Séumus to return there with him to help organize their Volunteer unit. He was released at Christmas 1916 and moved to Ballagh, Tipperary, in 1917. There he met Seán Treacy and, through his influence, became the C/O of the 3rd Tipperary Brigade in October 1918.
Thus it was that the Tipperary “Big Four” Seán Treacy, Dan Breen, Séumus Robinson, and Seán Hogan came together in the 3rd Tipperary Brigade. It seems that Treacy, as the native Tipp-man, was more influential in the Brigade than the “outsider” Robinson.
The January 21, 1919 ambush at Soloheadbeg is accepted by many as the start of the Irish War of Independence. The attack was more the plan of Treacy and Breen than of Robinson, though Robinson was there. Robinson and Breen, who never got along, either during or after the war, disagreed on how much Robinson knew or was involved in the plan, and Treacy was not around to resolve that dispute post-war. In addition to the “Big Four,” 3rd Brigade members Paddy O’Dwyer, Tadgh Crowe, Michael Ryan, and Paddy McCormack participated. All of them were armed with pistols except Treacy, who had a small-caliber rifle.
Both Treacy, by the testimony of other Volunteers after the war, and Breen, by his own, thought that stealing the gelignite that day was secondary to the goal of starting a shooting war with the Crown Forces. And in that, they were successful. The next day the British declared Martial Law in Tipperary. From that day on, the “Big Four” were on the run.
(Left: Wanted poster offering a reward for the Soloheadbeg attackers.)
While they were on the run, the British were scouring the countryside and pressuring their families for information. The home of Dan Breen’s mother was raided and ransacked several times. Hogan’s family seems to have suffered the most, as his 15-year-old brother, Matthew, was arrested and held for three months, as were one of his friends, John Connors, and John’s little brother, Tim, who was just 11 years old. His mother was also imprisoned for a time. None of them gave any information to “the peelers,” and in truth, they probably had none to give, as the “Big Four” had not been in the Tipperary area for some time.
While they were on the run, they enraged the government even more by issuing a proclamation calling on all Crown Forces to leave south Tipperary on penalty of death. Meanwhile, unnamed “leaders” in either the Volunteers organization or Sinn Féin, related to them by Mick Collins, came up with a plan to send the four rebels to “safety” in the United States, but the men rejected that plan. As Breen later wrote, “We declared that our place was in Ireland; Ireland’s fight would have to be made by Irishmen on the hills and on the highways of Ireland, not with printers ink in America or any other country.”
They finally convinced the leadership to rescind the order to leave, on the condition that they stay out of Tipperary. They honored that for a few months, but they were frustrated that their actions at Soloheadbeg had as yet led to no further actions around the island. By early May they were back in Tipperary, brazenly moving around within miles of the location of the attack that had put a price on their heads.
Back among their friends and family, the rebels felt relaxed enough to attend a dance at Éamon O’Duibhir’s house in Ballagh. The following morning, Hogan was at the family home of his girlfriend, Bridie O’Keefe, in Glenough. Treacy had given his friend Mick Daven the job of keeping tabs on the exuberant young comrade, but Hogan had grabbed a bike and ditched his “shadow” calling out that, “Two is company, three is a crowd,” as he sped away.
(Right: Robinson, Treacy, and Breen, left to right.)
The following morning, as Hogan ate his breakfast, the warning went up that an RIC raiding party was coming. Hogan went out the back door and cut through a field, but when he jumped over a wall to the road, he found himself in the middle of that raiding party. The RIC had not been tipped off. They were making a routine sweep of the area and had no idea who Hogan was until later, while they were holding him in Thurles. The squad that captured Hogan was led by the same Sgt. Wallace who would later be in charge of the guards on the train.
Treacy and Breen were awakened out of a thoroughly exhausted sleep on the morning of the 12th with news of Hogan’s capture. They knew he faced certain death for Soloheadbeg. They also knew that the government always transferred important political prisoners quickly out of local RIC barracks to a large prison by train. Cork was the most likely destination for them to take Hogan, so they began formulating a plan to rescue him along that route.
Treacy, Breen, and Robinson cycled to Lackelly, near Emly, in the early morning hours of the 13th and set up a headquarters there at the Malony home. May Malony was sent into Thurles to discover if Hogan was being held there, as they were not sure if he might have been taken to Tipperary. She returned with word that he was in Thurles. Later in the war, the Black and Tans would burn down the Malony’s house.
(Left: The center of Thurles around 1900.)
They debated whether to attempt the rescue at Emly station or the next station down the line, Knocklong, over the line in Limerick. The first version or the rescue planned on Emly, but they realized the three of them could not pull this off on their own.
The first cooperation came from the Cumann na mBan in Thurles. Bridget Ryan and two other women kept a watch on the barracks, waiting for Hogan's transfer. It was arranged that if Hogan was taken from the barracks and brought to the station, Mixie O'Connell would send a telegram to Shanahan, Coal Stores, Knocklong, worded "Greyhound on train," giving the train's departure time. Volunteer "Goorty" MacCarthy, from Thurles, was to travel on the train to identify Hogan's carriage.
To bolster their rescue attempt, they sent for help. They sent word to Tipperary, but when the first train from Thurles pulled into the station at Emly, no help had arrived. Not sure if Hogan was on the train or how many guards there might be if he was, all three of them entered the train with their hands on their pistols under their coats. But Hogan was not on the train.
Having been disappointed by their Tipperary comrades, they sent a message to the East Limerick Brigade Volunteers in Galbally. The “Big Four” had been aided by Volunteers from around Galbally during their time on the run, and knew some of them well. The next train from Thurles was due in Emly at 7 p.m.
To their great relief, around 5 p.m., they were joined by five Volunteers, Eamonn “Ned” O'Brien, his brother, John Joe, Edmund Foley, Jim Scanlon, and Sean Lynch, all from the local 6th (Galtee) Battalion. After some discussion, they changed their plan. Treacy, Breen, Robinson and Ned O’Brien, all armed with pistols, would bike to the next station, Knocklong and wait at the station. John Joe O'Brien, Edmund Foley, Jim Scanlon, and Sean Lynch would board the train at Emly and discover if Hogan was aboard and if so, what his exact location was. They would then join in on the rescue.
(Right: John Joe O'Brien of the 6th Galtee Battalion.)
During the short jump from Emly to Knocklong, Jimmy Scanlon called John Joe O’Brien and tried to convince him to let him have his .25 automatic to take part in whatever shooting might take place. Scanlon said to him: "One of your family [Ned who was waiting with his pistol at Knocklong] is enough to be on this. Give me the gun.” But John Joe refused the offer.
(Below: Knocklong Railroad Station.)
At Knocklong, Treacy and his crew looked on tensely as a group of Galbally RIC constables came off the Dublin-bound train. They had taken some prisoners to Cork that morning. The Volunteers put their hands on their pistols in their pockets as the unsuspecting constables went innocently on their way home.
Just before the train pulled into Knocklong, Tom Shanahan showed up with the “Greyhound on the train” telegram from Thurles and handed it to Ned O’Brien. O’Brien stuffed it into his pocket, unread, as the train was pulling in. An earlier telegram had said “Greyhound in Thurles still.” Thus the men at Knocklong Station now believed there would be no rescue that day.
Thus, as John Joe walked up to Treacy, Treacy said, “There’s nothing doing,” expecting O’Brien to confirm Hogan was not on the train. But John Joe excitedly said, “There is, there is. He’s on the train; he’s in the second car from the right.” The dice were about to be rolled.
As Treacy and Ned O’Brien entered the compartment yelling, “HANDS UP!” Sgt. Wallace yelled back at them, Constable Enright pulled his pistol and brought it up toward Hogan’s head. Treacy and O’Brien immediately fired at Enright, killing him. Hogan jumped up and smashed his cuffs into Constable Ring’s face, while Wallace and Treacy began wrestling each other in the close quarters, as did O’Brien and Constable Reilly.
Wallace knocked the gun from Treacy’s hand and tried to pull his own, but Treacy grabbed his wrist. The two men struggled mightily, but the powerfully built sergeant was gaining leverage, slowly raising it. As the Galbally men pressed into the room, Scanlon got Reilly’s rifle and slammed the butt into his head, knocking him to the floor, seemingly unconscious. Ring, meanwhile, had gone out the window and was not seen again that day. Treacy yelled at Hogan to “Get out!” and he went down the corridor to freedom.
(Right: Constable Jeremiah Ring)
Now Wallace had gotten his pistol aimed point-blank at Treacy’s head, but Treacy had his finger wedged behind the trigger, saving his life for the moment. Ned O’Brien leaped on Wallace’s back just as Wallace wrenched his pistol away from Treacy and fired at him, but the effort to free it moved it away from Treacy’s head, and the bullet passed through his throat. The three men then hit the floor with Treacy’s blood spilling everywhere and one of Wallace’s huge hands around O’Brien’s throat.
(Below: Ned O'Brien)
John Joe O’Brien put his small pistol to Wallace’s neck and told him to surrender or he’d shoot. When he didn’t, O’Brien pulled the trigger, but nothing happened. He then slammed the pistol against Wallace’s head until it broke. With Wallace’s blood now mixing with Tracey’s, the big man’s strength finally began to wane. Treacy, whose strength was also rapidly waning, either yanked away Wallace’s pistol or picked up his own from the floor and fired into the big man’s chest, finally ending the battle inside the car.
Outside the car, however, it resumed. While everyone in the compartment was trying to subdue the mountainous Wallace, Constable Reilly had slipped out the window with Ring’s carbine. Just as the struggle with Wallace ended, Reilly opened fire into the compartment, wounding Scanlon in the neck and Ned O’Brien in the side.
Dan Breen then opened fire on Reilly with his pistol from the far end of the platform. He was unlikely to hit him from that distance but hoped to distract Reilly from his close-range targets on the train. As Breen later wrote, “I succeeded too well.” Reilly turned on Breen and replied very effectively, hitting him once in the chest and again in the right arm. Breen collapsed to the ground and picked up his pistol with his left hand. At this point, Reilly was in a position to possibly thwart the entire plan if he pinned down the rescuers until help arrived, but as Breen shakily lifted his left arm, Reilly retreated and took cover. When the train pulled out shortly after that, with all his comrades dead, dying, or simply gone, he got on it and left the area alive.
Hogan was free, but at a horrific cost for the Volunteers. Though Enright was dead and Wallace was mortally wounded, four of the Volunteers were wounded, Treacy and Breen seriously. John Joe O’Brien found Foley and Hogan across the tracks at O’Byrne’s Butcher Shop, breaking Hogan’s manacles with a cleaver.
(Below: O'Byrne's now abandoned butcher shop)
Escape was now on everyone’s mind as pandemonium reigned at the station, with people running in every direction. Breen, incredibly, found himself lifted by a man in a British army uniform. It was Michael Murphy, from Knocklong, a soldier, but a Republican. Murphy managed to get Breen to Scanlon, Lynch, Ned O’Brien, and Treacy as they left the area of the station. That group started out across the fields to Tom Shanahan’s in Glenlara, their agreed-upon meeting place. Foley, Hogan, and John Joe O’Brien were together and headed that way separately. Séumus Robinson had become separated from everyone and traveled by himself. Eventually, they all reached Shanahan’s safely.
By the time they got to Shanahan’s, they were carrying Treacy, and Breen was barely walking. Lying in bed there, Breen asked for a priest, certain he was dying. He was given Last Rites, and the doctor who attended to him thought he had no more than 24 hours to live, but he recovered. Treacy did, as well, as the bullet had barely missed his jugular vein. The wounds to O’Brien and Scanlon proved to be minor.
Though they all evaded the RIC dragnet that followed, in September Edmund Foley and Patrick Maher, who was a member of the Volunteers but had not been at Knocklong, were arrested and charged with the murder of Wallace and Enright. After civilian trials twice failed to convict them, they were given a military court-martial, which not surprisingly yielded convictions. They were hanged at Mountjoy Prison on June 7, 1921. They issued a last statement that ended, “Our blood shall not be shed in vain for Ireland and we have a strong presentiment, going to our God, that Ireland will soon be free."
(Left: Patrick Maher, on the left, and Edmund Foley.)
After the “Big Four” regained their health, they spent a good part of their time operating with Michael Collins’ “Squad” in Dublin, as Tipperary became too “hot” for them. Treacy would die there on October 14, 1920, during one of the most famous gunfights of the war on Talbot Street.
The other three would survive the war, with Breen becoming by far the best-known after publication of his autobiography, “My Fight for Irish Freedom,” first published in 1924. He was a Fianna Fáil member of the Dáil for over 30 years. He died in 1969.
Séumus Robinson went on to be one of the founding members of Fianna Fáil. He was elected to Seanad Éireann for Fianna Fáil in 1928 and served until 1936. He was also one of the founding members of the Bureau of Military History. He died in 1961.
(Right: Treacy's body being carried away on Talbot Street Dublin on October 14, 1920.)
While the actions of the "Big Four" at Soloheadbeg had been controversial at the time, and remain so to this day, the rescue of Seán Hogan at Knocklong was much less so. It was seen as a bold action against the authority of the Crown in Ireland, which it certainly was, and was an inspiration for advocates of the Republican movement.
(Below: Plaque commemorating the rescue near where the station used to stand.)
Perhaps more importantly, for those Irishmen and women who were not necessarily supporters of the Republican cause, Hogan was seen as the dashing young hero who cheated death at the last minute thanks to the daring and courageous actions of his comrades. It was an adventure worthy of Fionn mac Cumhaill and the Fianna or Cú Chulainn and created a sensation around the island. It also showed that the Crown Forces in Ireland, which seemed to many to be nearly invincible, could be beaten. So many Irish rebels had been executed by the Crown over the centuries, including the Easter Rising leaders just a few years earlier, but this time British vengeance had been thwarted. It increased support around the island by making the Irish dream of freeing their country from British rule seem finally within reach. Months of bloody conflict would follow, though, before that would be accomplished.
The news has spread through Ireland and spread from shore to shore
Of such a deed, no living man has ever heard before
From out a guarded carriage mid a panic-stricken throng
Sean Hogan, he was rescued at the station of Knocklong
From “The Station at Knocklong”
RELATED LINKS & Bibliography:
"My Fight For Irish Freedom" by Dan Breen
"Limerick's Fighting Story 1916-21: Told by the Men Who Made It" by Ruan O'Donnell
“Who's Who in the Irish War of Independence & Civil War” by Padraic O'Farrell
"John Joe's Story: Commandant John Joe O'Brien" Told by Stan D. O'Brien
"Seán Hogan, His Life: A Troubled Journey" by John Connors
(Right: Dan Breen's gravestone at Donohill Graveyard, Donohill, County Tipperary, Ireland.)
“Sean Treacy and the Tan War” by Joe Ambrose
Sean Treacy - The Wolfe Tones (song – video)
Station of Knocklong by Johnny Donegan (song - video)
Knocklong Station Rescue (video)
Rescuing Knocklong (video)
Rescue at Knocklong | May 13th 1919 - Episode 11 (video)
MORE ON THE IRISH WAR OF INDEPENDENCE
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