Softly, gently, "Comrade", he cried
"No longer on earth can I stay
I will never more roam through my own native home
Tipperary so far away"
It was shortly after 4:15 PM on October 14, 1920, when Dick McKee, Commandant of the Dublin Brigade of the Irish Volunteers, opened the door of the “Republican Outfitters” shop on Talbot Street in Dublin and shouted, “They’re coming – get out!” Inside was one of the most wanted rebels in Ireland, Seán Treacy (left). McKee and two other Volunteers near the door, Leo Henderson and Joe Vize, all members of Michael Collins “Squad,” began to flee in different directions. Another member of “The Squad”, Seán Brunswick, was coming down the street and saw the British approaching in an armored car and two lorries and his friends rushing away.
Treacy, who was deeper inside the shop, rushed out the door and tried to jump on a bike he had left outside the door. But in his haste, he grabbed the wrong bike, probably McKee’s. Because McKee was taller than Treacy, he could not pump the pedals. He tried to get on his own bike, but it was too late. There was no real chance he could escape now. Two plainclothes detectives closed in, knocking him off his bike, and soldiers jumped off the two lorries and closed in.
Treacy’s only option to save his life was to surrender. Resistance at this point meant certain death but he had vowed to never return to a British prison again. British intelligence agent Francis Christian, whom several members of the Squad had seen hanging around Talbot Street that day, and a man who was thought to know Treacy by sight, was one of the first to reach Treacy and grapple with him. Treacy managed to pull his long-barreled German parabellum pistol and open fire.
(Below: For many years this that thought to be a photo of British Lt. Price
taken during the shootout with Treacy. It's actually from a 1926 film.)
All Treacy could do now was take as many of his enemies with him as possible now, and in the process help his comrade escape capture. Accounts of the short, violent gunfight vary as to who shot whom and when. It seems that Christian was hit first, probably by Treacy. Christian would survive and later get a pension for a serious arm wound.
Just behind Christian came another intelligence officer, Lt. Gilbert Price. Around this same time, the soldiers from the lorries began to fire as well. Price fell to the ground dead, hit either by Treacy or by the “friendly fire” of his soldier comrades. Two civilians, Joseph Corringham and 15-year-old Patrick Carroll were also killed by the fusillade of British fire that ended the firefight on the crowded street.
Also lying dead on the ground when the firing finally ceased was 25-year-old Seán Treacy, with a bullet through his head. No one will ever know if the bullet came from one of the intelligence officers or the soldiers. One of the fiercest foes of British rule in Ireland, who had been so near to death at Knocklong and again just two days earlier at Fernside, Treacy had given the last full measure of devotion to the cause of Irish freedom.
Seán Allis Treacy was born on February 14, 1895, in Soloheadbeg, County Tipperary. His father was Denis and his mother was Bridget Allis. On his mother's side, there was a rebel tradition. One of his Allis ancestors had gone out with the Fenians and then was active with Parnell and Davitt’s Irish National Land League.
Like his friend and comrade, Dan Breen, Treacy lost his father while very young. Breen was 6 when his father died, and Treacy even earlier, at just 3. Young Seán and his mother left to live in Hollyford with his mother’s brother, Jim. They lived there until Seán was 11 when his uncle got married and they moved back to Soloheadbeg along with his mother’s sister, Mary Anne.
By all accounts, Seán was an avid reader and much of it was Irish history from the Republican point of view. He also subscribed to the magazines “Sinn Féin,” “Irish Freedom,” and “The Irish Peasant.” He would share those publications and books with his friends.
(Left: Seán Treacy as a teenager.)
Seán’s Aunt Mary and his mother were both dead set against his Republican politics once they became apparent to them, but it was Mary who vocalized that opposition most adamantly. She was sure his problem was the “bad company” of other local boys and would take them to task about it whenever she had a chance. They would silently take it while later laughing about how it was Seán who the “bad influence” on them when it came to Republican indoctrination.
(Below: Dan Breen)
In that time back in Soloheadbeg, Treacy had a teacher named Cormac Breathnach, also known as Charlie Walsh. For boys who lost their fathers early, he probably became something of a father figure and he taught them the Irish accounting of Irish history, not the British version. Breathnach also taught many other eventual Tipp rebels like Dinny Lacey, Dan Breen, and Seán Hogan. Breathnach 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. He was said to always remember and be proud of the boys he taught in those years.
With no real father around, Seán was forced to leave school at 14 to help the family make ends meet by running their small farm. In 1911, he became a member of the Gaelic League, which then was often a sign of nationalist support. He attended Irish classes religiously and became well-versed in the language. He also joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) later that year. Treacy later recruited Dan Breen into the IRB. Breen would fight by his side nearly to the end,.
Treacy was intelligent and a natural leader and became president of the Tipperary Gaelic League and the head center of the IRB in Tipperary. And in 1913 he joined the Irish Volunteers as soon as they formed a unit in the area. The 18-year-old was now 5 feet 10 inches tall with piercing blue eyes, usually behind a pair of eyeglasses to correct his poor eyesight.
From the start of his involvement in the republican movement, Treacy’s leadership qualities shone through. Though not overly talkative, when he talked, people listened. He was quickly recognized as a leader by other members of the Volunteers. He didn’t drink and was so averse to foul language that it was said he made Mick Collins apologize for swearing in the company of Treacy’s fiancée.
According to one of his early Tipperary comrades, Willie Myles, “even at that time which was long before his fame had begun, I say we all felt that he was an exceptional leader and a great soldier and a man who, if he had not come to such an untimely end, would have risen to very great heights in military life.”
During the Easter Rising, IRB leadership sent Treacy out moving through south Tipperary, east Limerick, and northern Cork, trying to get the Volunteer organizations to come out for the Rising. Like most of the island, however, they were standing down due to the announcement from Eoin MacNeill calling off the Rising. He ended up in Doon, County Limerick, during the last part of the week of the Rising, frustrated by his inability to get involved in any way.
The failure of the Easter Rising did not break Treacy’s commitment to the goal of an Irish republic. He dedicated himself to the building of the Irish Volunteer organization in Tipperary. And while some may have been dreaming of a quick victory, Treacy was ready to fight the “long war.” Seán Horan, who would later be an officer in the 3rd Tipperary Brigade, recalled a discussion with him shortly after the Rising about how long the struggle for Irish freedom might last. Treacy took off his glasses and told him, “… the fight could last a hundred years, one hundred years!” His reading of Irish history had no doubt informed him on the subject, and yet he was not discouraged in the least.
In 1917, the IRB sent Séumas Robinson to south Tipperary to help organize there. Robinson was a veteran of the Easter Rising in Dublin, born in Belfast. Robinson was seven years older than Treacy and had seen considerable combat during the Rising, Treacy and Robinson formed a strong bond that was maintained until Treacy’s death. Through 1917, with the threat of the British imposing the draft in Ireland hanging in the air, Volunteer recruitment surged.
During the year of 1917, Treacy began a relationship with May Quigley (right). A music teacher from Dublin, May had a pair of aunts in Tipperary, Kate and Alice Ryan, whom she visited frequently. Though apparently not impressed with the reticent Treacy at first, romance soon blossomed for them. Neither this relationship nor anything else would ever take priority over his goal of freeing Ireland, however. As he wrote to his uncle in the spring of 1918, “I’d like you and all concerned to know, once and forever, that I’ve put Ireland over all long ago.”
On August 17, 1917, Treacy organized and led a guard of honor for the visiting Eamon de Valera, violating the British restrictions on wearing uniforms and marching in military formation. Two days later, Treacy was arrested at his home. He was sent to Cork and then to Mountjoy Jail in Dublin in September. There he participated in the famous hunger strike that ended when the British agreed to their demands following the death of Thomas Ashe. Treacy later said it was an honor, “to be walking the prison ring beside Thomas Ashe.”
In November, the British reneged on the deal, and Treacy, who had been transferred to Dundalk Jail in County Louth, participated in another hunger strike. He was released when his health deteriorated in the so-called “Cat and Mouse Act,” by which the British would release those they were afraid might die to go home and recuperate and then be rearrested. Treacy was rearrested on February 28, 1918, and returned to Dundalk Prison.
One of Treacy’s prison mates there was Mike Brennan, who would later command the East Clare Brigade. The two of them along with Séamus O’Neill, from Cashel, immediately began another hunger strike. The British gave in after 10 days. Later, Terence MacSwiney joined Treacy as a prisoner there.
Treacy was finally released in June 1918. In a 3rd Brigade meeting shortly after that, he was successful in pushing Séumas Robinson (left) as the commandant of the Brigade, with himself a vice commandant. As 1918 went on, with the threat of conscription waning and then the war ending, the enthusiasm of many in Ireland for the Irish Volunteer organization was waning as well. Many of the Volunteers began to believe that a blow must be struck to begin the war. In a meeting in late 1918, Volunteer Jerome Davis later reported that Treacy said, “We’ll have to kill someone, and make the bloody enemy organize us.” And Breen, though his accounts are considered somewhat suspect now by many historians, later recalled that “Treacy had stated to me that the only way of starting a war was to kill someone, and we wanted to start a war.”
The idea of stealing a shipment of gelatinate on the way to the Soloheadbeg quarry was proposed by Treacy in December 1918. Robinson’s version was that Treacy had discussed the action with him in December, asking his permission to do it, which he had granted. Breen and Robinson had a very contentious post-war relationship and far different memories of many aspects of the period. The planning of Soloheadbeg was one of them.
Breen’s story was that he and Treacy planned the ambush and that they left Robinson out of the planning. He claimed Treacy had gotten Robinson installed as commander of the 3rd Brigade because he would be an easily manipulated stooge. Whichever of those different versions was correct, it’s certain that none of them had asked permission for the operation from their superiors in the Volunteers GHQ in Dublin.
(Below: The location of the Sologheadbeg ambush.)
There is little question that the most controversial military action Treacy took part in was the killing of two RIC constables, James McDonnell and Patrick O’Connell, during an ambush of a shipment of gelignite at Soloheadbeg on January 21, 1919. Treacy, Breen, Robinson, Tadhg Crowe, Paddy Dwyer, Patrick MacCormack, Seán Hogan, and Michael Ryan, were the eight Volunteers at the ambush. All those who lived to tell the tale claimed that the two constables were told to put their “HANDS UP” and that they instead raised their rifles. It was all over very quickly and Treacy, Breen, and Hogan rode off on the wagon and later hid the 160 pounds of gelignite that were captured.
This all occurred on the same day as the first meeting of the Dáil Eireann in Dublin. Since then, many have considered it the opening salvo of the Irish War of Independence. Edward Godfrey, one of the civilians driving the wagon, knew many of the men who were there that day. Consequently, Treacy, Breen, and Hogan immediately went “on the run” as did Robinson shortly after that. The attack may have eventually had the effect Treacy and Breen hoped for, but it was not immediate. And much of the reaction from their side was less than positive, with many Sinn Féin leaders denouncing their actions. The Catholic Church hierarchy also condemned them.
The British declared martial law in Tipperary following the incident, which only served to give it more prominence. Treacy, Robinson, Breen, and Hogan, soon to become known as “The Big Four,” then released a proclamation calling on all Crown Forces to leave south Tipperary on penalty of death. The four rebels were on the run for several months through Limerick and East Clare.
Back in Tipperary, their families were being harassed by the RIC. 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.
((Left: Wanted poster offering a reward for the Soloheadbeg attackers.)
Some of the Volunteer leadership proposed, or perhaps ordered, “The Big Four” to be sent to “safety” in the United States. They were adamantly opposed and did not go. 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 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 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. On the morning of May 12th, the impetuous young Hogan, who had just turned 18, was captured by the RIC in Annfield, near Thurles.
What followed Hogan’s capture was one of the famous incidents of the Irish War of Independence, when they rescued him off the Cork-bound train at Knocklong, County Limerick. Knowing that the RIC usually transferred prisoners from Thurles, where Hogan was being held, to Cork by train, Treacy immediately formed a plan to intercept it and rescue him. The plan was very audacious, considering how little time they had to plan it.
(Right: Seán Hogan)
On May 13th they met the train at Knocklong. There, with the help of five volunteers from the East Limerick Brigade Volunteers in Galbally, brothers Ned and John Joe O’Brien, Seán Lynch, James Scanlon, and Edmund Foley, they freed Hogan. In a brutal hand-to-hand fight inside the railroad car where Hogan was being held, two RIC men, Sgt. Peter Wallace and Constable Enright lay dead when it was over, but the Volunteers also suffered. Treacy was wounded in the neck by Wallace and Breen was hit in the chest and right arm by Constable Reilly, who had exited the train with a carbine.
The group moved overland to Tom Shanahan’s in Glenlara, where Treacy and Breen were treated by Dr. William Hennessy from Galbally. Breen nearly died but both of them recovered. The story of the rescue was a sensation around Ireland and a massive embarrassment for the Crown. The pressure to capture the “Big Four” increased exponentially. The chances of being betrayed and exposed in Tipperary and the nearby counties was great, so after several months on the run, Michael Collins brought them to Dublin to be part of his “Squad” of clandestine operators in the city. One of the leaders of “The Squad,” Paddy Daly, praised the attitude of Treacy, which was, “What can we do to help? Here we are.”
(Below: Knocklong Railroad Station.)
While there they were involved in several attempts to ambush and kill or capture Sir John French, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Breen later claimed they tried and failed to intercept him a dozen times before they famously attacked his convoy on December 19, 1919. Though the attack failed, the near-death or capture of the general in charge of all Crown Forces in Ireland was another message to London that no one who was working to maintain the occupation of Ireland was safe.
In the spring of 1920, Treacy and the other members of the “Big Four” returned to Tipperary and they convinced Collins to let them take Ernie O’Malley with them. O’Malley would help organize Volunteer units all over the island during the war. This was the time when RIC barracks all over Ireland were being attacked and many abandoned. On May 10-11, O’Malley, Robinson, Treacy were present at the attack on Hollyford RIC barracks. It was not captured but was destroyed and abandoned.
On June 3rd, Treacy led a successful attack on Drangan RIC barracks, capturing guns and ammunition in addition to destroying the building. O’Malley suffered burns during the attack.
On July 11th, Treacy, O’Malley, and Breen were all involved in an attack on the RIC barracks at Rear Cross. It was destroyed and several RIC constables were killed. Treacy, O’Malley, and Breen were all slightly wounded.
(Right: Photos of O'Malley taken in Kilmainham Jail after he was arrested in 1921.)
Treacy and Breen led an ambush of a British convoy of trucks at Oola in east Limerick on July 12th. Two British soldiers were killed that day before the attack was broken off for fear of British reinforcements. Also nearly killed when a bullet grazed his head was General Cuthbert Lucas, one of the most famous British officers ever captured by the Volunteers during the war. Treacy and Breen had no way of knowing he was there, as he had just “escaped” (some believe he was allowed to escape) earlier that day.
(Below: Seán Treacy's parabellum pistol, now in the National Museum of Ireland.)
On August 12th, Treacy was surprised and nearly captured by a British patrol at a house in Rosegreen. Michael Brennan, one of the leaders of East Clare Volunteers, who spent time in prison with Treacy, would later recall that they both agreed when they got out, “that we had had more than enough of prison and that we were not going back there again. Next time an attempt was made to arrest us we would fight.” Treacy made good on that pledge in Rosegreen, engaging in a close-range gunfight with them and wounding three of them before escaping. He would make good on it two more times in his life.
Treacy headed back to Dublin in September, but not before he and May Quigley set October 25th as their wedding date. Treacy would see May one last time in Dublin, where she was staying at her aunt’s house. “Something made me come tonight,” he told her, “I had to see you. I flew here.” She recalled having a strong feeling she would never see him again, though the dangerous life he was living would likely make any parting feel that way. In all the years of study of the war by historians since then, no one is sure why Treacy or Breen, who had left Tipperary earlier, returned to Dublin.
(Below: Robinson, Treacy, and Breen, left to right.)
Shortly after he got to Dublin, in the early morning of October 11th, Treacy and Breen would have an epic shootout at a “safe” house on Drumcondra Road in Dublin. They had stayed there safely before but on this night they believed they had been followed by a British spy since known as “the man with the bowtie.” They thought they had lost him that night before heading to that home, owned by Profession John Carolan.
They were in an upstairs bedroom around 1 a.m. when they were awakened by the sound of British soldiers banging on the door. Both men grabbed their pistols. Surrender would have seemed their only way to survive. Neither suggested that they do so. They were sure they only had minutes to live, but they would take some soldiers with them. Treacy grabbed Breen by the arm and whispered, “Goodbye, Dan, until we meet above” a moment before two bullets cracked through the door, buzzing past their heads and into the back wall.
Urban warfare inside a building is the most nerve-racking, visceral form of modern warfare. Bullets were flying up and down the stairs as muzzle flashes lit up the darkness off and on like a strobe light blinking along with the bright beams of the soldier's flashlights. Breen would be wounded several times as he fired in the direction of the flashlights. Treacy’s Parabellum would jam, causing Breen to tell him to attempt the only possible escape, through the window, smashing into a glass conservatory, and then jumping over the back wall. Breen would follow a few minutes after Treacy. (Some accounts have it the other way around.) Both of them escaped the area that way.
One of the soldiers involved in guarding the rear of the house, Captain Robert Jeune, many years later said one of the other raiders had gone back around to the front because of all the firing from that direction. That may explain how Treacy and Breen escaped.
They left two of the Crown Forces dead at the house. One was RIC Assistant Commissioner George Smyth. Smyth was involved in a vendetta to get Breen at all costs. His brother was Major Gerald Smith, who had been shot dead in Cork after infamously having instructed RIC officers to shoot to kill any Irishman with his hands in his pockets. Breen had been incorrectly fingered as Gerald's killer, thus George had vowed to get revenge but instead had suffered the same fate as his brother. Also mortally wounded was Professor Carolan, supposedly shot “accidentally” as he was being questioned.
(Left: Major George Smyth, who swore to revenge his brother, Gerald, by killing Dan Breen.)
Treacy and Breen both left the area thinking the other was dead. The next day they were reunited at a stable on Great Charles Street where the severely wounded Breen had been moved as they attempted to get him into Mater Hospital. Treacy helped to carry Breen’s stretcher into the hospital. The two comrades celebrated cheating death once again, as they had at Knocklong, then Treacy shook Breen’s hand and bid him farewell for the last time. Treacy would not cheat death again.
The Crown Forces were scouring the city for Treacy and Breen, raiding numerous homes and shops. Everyone urged Treacy to leave and hide out somewhere in the countryside, but he refused. He stayed, perhaps to help protect Breen. Many of “The Squad” were moving back and forth between the Mater Hospital and the Republican Outfitters, a drapery shop on Talbot St, owned by Volunteer Peadar Clancy, during the day.
(Right: A lorry being loaded with bodies on Talbot Street, possibly of Treacy and / or Lt. Price.)
Thus it was that Treacy, partly through bad luck and partly through reckless behavior, ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time that fateful October 14th. Had he been captured, there is little doubt the British would have executed him. No doubt he preferred dying with a gun in his hands, fighting Ireland’s enemies.
In the aftermath of the carnage on Talbot Street, shards of glass from shop windows were sparkling all over the sidewalk, people were screaming and running, and the soldiers moving out in different directions looking for other possible armed rebels. In the confusion, Volunteer Seán Brunswick, telling the British he was a medical student, was able to get to the lifeless body of Treacy and remove some documents. The British proceeded to destroy the Republican Outfitters with hand grenades. Breen was not informed of Treacy’s death for several days, but later claimed he already “knew” his friend Seán was gone.
(Plaque on Talbot Street above the spot where Treacy was killed.)
Today there is a plaque in the spot on Talbot Street where Treacy died. There is a Seán Treacy Avenue in Thurles. There is a commemoration ceremony in Kilfeacle Cemetery every October 14th and any year that Tipperary makes the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Final, there is a commemoration at noon on game day along Talbot Street. And he is commemorated in the Irish traditional song, “Tipperary So Far Away.”
(Right: The funeral of Seán Treacy.)
On October 18, 1920, one week before he and May Quigley were to be married, Treacy was buried in Kilfeacle Cemetery in Thomastown, County Tipperary. All businesses in the area were closed in honor of the national hero. The funeral procession from Solohead church was said to be five miles long. In a short graveside oration, 3rd Brigade Adjutant Con Molony urged the mourners to use Treacy’s death to “strengthen our resolve for which he gave his life; if necessary, to die fighting as Seán did.”
Treacy’s comrades did, indeed, do that. They fought the greatest Empire in the world to a stand-still, and against all odds, achieved independence for their nation after centuries of struggle for that often seemingly unattainable goal. No man had suffered and struggled or sacrificed more to attain that freedom than Seán Treacy.
(Below: Treacy's funeral card. Note the incorrect date of his death.)
His comrades gathered around him
To bid him a last farewell.
He was as true and as brave a lad
That ever in battle fell.
They dug a grave and in it they laid
The bones of Sean Treacy so brave,
He will never more roam to his native home,
Tipperary so far away.
“Sean Treacy and the 3rd. Tipperary Brigade” by Desmond Ryan
“Sean Treacy and the Tan War” by Joe Ambrose
"The Twelve Apostles: Michael Collins, the Squad, and Ireland's Fight for Freedom" by Tim Pat Coogan
"Limerick's Fighting Story 1916-21: Told by the Men Who Made It" by Ruan O'Donnell
“Dublin's Fighting Story 1916 - 21: Told By The Men Who Made It”
“Who's Who in the Irish War of Independence & Civil War” by Padraic O'Farrell
"Seán Hogan, His Life: A Troubled Journey" by John Connors
"Citizen Soldier: From Sevastopol Street to Soloheadbeg: Séamus Robinson and the Irish Revolution" by Daniel Jack
"The 3rd Brigade: A History of the Volunteers/IRA in South Tipperary, 1913-21" by Denis G. Marnane
“Tipperary so far away” by the Wofle Tones (audio)
Sean Treacy a life for Ireland (Lecture – Video)
Tipperary Heroes Sean Treacy Commemoration 2016 in Talbot St., Dublin (Video)
Lecture 71: Tipperary So Far Away; The Death of Seán Treacy by Niamh Hassett and Daniel Jack (Video)
Dan Breen and Sean Treacy Documentary Part 1 (Video) .... Part 2
The Road to Irish Freedom, Ep 1: Dan Breen - My Fight for Irish Freedom (video)
Dan Breen Interview 1967 (video)
“The Ballad of Dan Breen” by the Threshing Mill Boys
Station of Knocklong by Johnny Donegan (song - video)
Knocklong Station Rescue (video)
Rescuing Knocklong (video)
Rescue at Knocklong | May 13th 1919 - Episode 11 (video)
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