Tipperary’s Dan Breen: The Hardest Hard Man

Dan Breen was startled awake from his dozing slumber by the sound of tramping feet. The small room suddenly flashed to near daylight as a spotlight played across the window looking out to the back of the house. Breen leaped to his feet and grabbed his Mauser pistol off the chair where he had left it for easy access earlier as he heard a nearby church spire clock chime. It was 1 am on October 11, 1920, in Drumcondra, north Dublin.

As Breen (right) jumped to his feet, Seán Treacy was shaken awake and grabbed his Parabellum pistol and bounded from the bed as well. Outside their door, they heard the heavy footsteps of what they knew was a raid by the Crown Forces coming up the steps to their door in Fernside house.

Both were sure they only had minutes to live. 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. They immediately returned that fire through the door, which was now partly opened. The room was flashing from light back to dark over and over like a strobe light as the two sides fired like madmen. Breen took his first wound as a bullet nicked his right thumb, but he continued firing.

Following the sound of a body slamming into the floor outside the opposing fire slackened but so did Treacy’s as his Parabellum jammed. Telling Treacy to jump out the window and try to make his escape, Breen burst through the door. He could hear more men coming up the stairs and opened fire toward the flashlights that were now illuminating him. The men on the stairs could hardly miss the hulking, well-lite target and they did not. Bullets grazed his forehead, tore into his thigh, both calves and one into his chest, still he continued to fire and his rounds were finding their marks too. He pulled the trigger again but heard only a click as his pistol was empty.

Luckily for him, the surviving soldiers were now retreating. It was his chance to follow Treacy out the window but he was filled with the rage of the warrior who was sure he was already dead and his only goal was to take as many of the enemy with him as possible. He reloaded and started down the stairs, but instead of the volley of rounds, he expected he found the Crown Forces in full retreat out the door.

Climbing back up the stairs he headed for the back window, tripping over a body on the way, and jumped out, crashing through the glass roof of the conservatory below, cutting his bare feet. Looking around for Treacy he saw no trace of him. Bullets from the rifles of soldiers behind the wall surrounding the compound were splattering against the wall and into the ground around him. Still, for the first time, he believed he might have a chance to escape over the low back wall that the home’s owner, Professor John Carolan, had shown him days earlier. Blazing away at the muzzle flashes of the rifles with his pistol, head down, he moved as quickly as his wounds would allow for his only escape route.

(Left: Seán Treacy)

Breen 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.

Breen had many nationalist influences in his childhood. His mother passed on militant Republicanism to him, buying him paperback books about Wolfe Tone, Emmet, and other Republican heroes. He and other young men in the area had another strong nationalist influence during their school years, Cormac Breathnach, a teacher in the local national school.

Breathnach taught his students the reality of Irish history, including the Penal Laws, the ’98 Rising, and the efforts to destroy the Irish language and the Catholic religion. The teaching of all of that was proscribed by the British occupation government and thwarted their efforts to turn the Irish children in those schools into “happy English children,” according to Breen. In addition to Breen, Breathnach taught future Irish Volunteers Seán Treacy, Dinny Lacey, Packy Deere, and Seán Hogan.

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.

(Right: An anti-Boer War poster.)

In addition to absorbing the nationalist perspectives of his mother and Breathnach, Breen was affected by the last eviction in his area. The victim, Michael Dwyer Ban, was a relative of the Breens and he later died on the roadside. Breen recalled that this also left “an indelible impression on my mind.” An indication of how strongly nationalist the region was is his memory of people in the neighborhood reading articles about the Boer War. When the papers reported a Boer victory, he recalled that everyone would all be exhilarated by the news.

Like so many young Irishmen from poor families at the time, Breen’s education was ended prematurely by his family’s needs. He went to work at age fourteen. He proudly remembered the first time he was able to hand over his pay to his mother. After a few years of hiring himself out to local merchants and farmers, he got a job as a lineman for the Southern Railway in 1913.

Moving around with the line crew doing repairs, the dark-haired, 5 foot 7 inches tall, sturdily built young man was able to see more of the country. This included being in Dublin during the Lockout. He was further radicalized by seeing people assaulted by the police on the streets.

(Left: Street violence during the Dublin Lockout, 1913.)

Unsurprisingly, given the times and his nationalist upbringing, he was sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in 1912 and the Irish Volunteers in 1914. His friend, Seán Treacy, swore him into the IRB. Though he and Treacy had grown up barely a mile apart, they did not meet until Breen was eighteen. Such was the insular nature of Tipperary at the time, but they were such kindred spirits that Breen immediately felt as if they had known each other their entire lives.

In the months after the Easter Rising Breen, Treacy and other Volunteers in Tipperary and elsewhere around the island were frustrated by what they saw as the timidity of the politicians of Sinn Féin. The two of them would become the living embodiment of boldness and audacity as the conflict escalated, often prompted by things they did.

In the last year of WWI, as the threat of conscription hung over their heads, the young men of Ireland joined the Volunteers in droves. But when the war ended in November 1918, they also abandoned it in droves. Breen, of course, was not among them. He and friend Paddy Keogh even started a grenade-making factory in a cottage owned by Tom O’Dwyer in preparation for the conflict with the Crown that they were sure was coming. It shortly blew up, nearly killing Keogh. They got it going again in some farm buildings owned by the family of young Seán Hogan, who would from that point be part of what became known as the “Big Four” of Tipperary rebels, adding 3rd Brigade commander Séamus Robinson as the fourth.

There is little question that the most controversial military action Breen the other three members of the “Big Four” took part in was the killing of two RIC constables during an ambush of a shipment of gelignite at Soloheadbeg on January 21, 1919. It is considered by most to be the start of the Irish War of Independence. By the end of 1918, many members of the Volunteers were afraid the organization was sliding toward becoming more political than military. Treacy, who would appear to have been the leader of the “Big Four,” was certainly one of them. Breen later wrote that Treacy said it was “high time we did a bit of pushing.”

Breen said that Treacy’s plan included, “shooting down the escort, as an assertion of the national right to deny the free passage of an armed enemy.” Robinson says that if there were only two RIC escorts, they planned to challenge them and give them the chance to surrender.

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, and since Treacy didn’t survive the war, and the teenage Hogan was never a leader of their actions, there was no one left to say where the truth might lie.

Breen’s story was that he and Treacy planned the ambush and that Treacy had gotten Robinson installed as commander of the 3rd Brigade because he would be an easily manipulated stooge. Robinson’s version was that Treacy had discussed the action with him in December, asking his permission to do it, which he had granted. Whichever of those different versions was correct, there was no question that none of them had asked permission from their superiors in the Volunteers.

(Left: Poster offering reward for information about the Soloheadbeg ambush.)

The ambush nearly did not come off, as they were unsure of exactly when the explosives would be shipped. They spent five fruitless days laying in wait. Later in the war, they might not have gotten away with that without the Crown forces getting wind of it. Finally, on the morning of the 21st, their forward scout came running down the road shouting, “HERE THEY COME!”

In the accounts of both Breen, Robinson, and other members of the ambushing party, the Volunteers shouted “HANDS UP,” rather than just opening fire. Breen, however, asserts that Treacy didn’t. What is known for sure is that constables James McDonnell and Patrick O’Connell lay dead when it was over. Breen, Treacy, and Hogan rode off on the wagon and later hid the 160 pounds of gelignite.

Edward Godfrey, one of the civilians driving the wagon, knew both Breen and Treacy. A week later the famous wanted posters of Breen, offering a £1,000 reward were issued. The price on Breen’s head would eventually reach £10,000.

(Right: The wanted poster for Dan Breen that has become one of the iconic images of the War of Independence.)

Breen, Treacy, 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 Crown’s immediate reaction was to declare Martial Law in Co. Tipperary and to scour the countryside looking for them. They also harassed the family members of the three men from Tipperary. Robinson was originally from Belfast. And just to tweak the British a bit more, the “Big Four” released a proclamation calling on all Crown Forces to leave south Tipperary on penalty of death. 

Sinn Féin leadership formed a plan to ship the “Big Four” out to America. They would not consider it, however. 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 were all out of Tipperary for several months, but by May they were all back. When young Hogan’s pursuit of a local girl led to him being snatched up by the RIC in Glenough, it set up one of the most famous incidents of the war. Knowing that if Hogan made it to Cork all chance to rescue him would be gone and that he would surely be executed for his part in Soloheadbeg, the other members of the “Big Four” determined to intercept the train carrying Hogan and free him.

On May 13th they met the train at Knocklong, Co. Limerick. There, with the help of five volunteers from the East Limerick Brigade Volunteers in Galbally, they freed Hogan. Two RIC men, Sgt. 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.

(Left: Knocklong railroad station.)

Moving overland to Tom Shanahan’s in Glenlara, Treacy and Breen were treated by Dr. William Hennessy from Galbally. Breen was sure he was going to die, and asked for a priest. The bullet had passed through one of his lungs. Both Treacy and Breen would recover. Breen would prove a very hard man to kill, however.

The “Big Four” were now unquestionably the most wanted men on the island. The rescue of Hogan had been a monumental embarrassment for the Crown forces. As such, it provided an enormous boost to the morale of the Republican movement. The British dragnet for the “Big Four” intensified massively. They were celebrities now and found plenty of help from locals in Tipperary and the surrounding counties, making their way to Co. Clare, where Treacy and Breen recuperated for several weeks.

With Tipperary too hot for them, Michael Collins, knowing his plans would call for some “hard men,” brought the “Big Four” to Dublin. 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 finally did it on December 19, 1919.

This time they were in the right place at the right time to stop French’s three-car convoy near the Ashtown gate in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, but their belief that he was in the middle car caused them to miss him. They stopped the 2nd and 3rd cars while the 1st continued on with French aboard.

(Right: Bullet damage on one of the cars from the Lord French ambush.)

In the firefight they had with the policemen who were in the other two cars, two Dublin Metropolitan Policemen, Sgt Halley, and Constable O'Loughlin, were killed. Volunteer Martin Savage was also killed and Breen was once again wounded. This time he was seriously wounded in the leg. With Paddy Daly supporting his bike, Breen managed to eventually reach the home of the Malones in Grantham.

Breen would spend three months recuperating there. Mrs. Malone’s son had died in the Easter Rising and she had two daughters in the Cumann na mBan, the Irish republican women's paramilitary organization, who helped nurse him back to health. Breen would marry one of them, Brighid, in June 1921.

The attack on French may have had more to do with the escalation of the war than did Soloheadbeg, as the spring of 1920 saw attacks on the RIC increasing. RIC barracks all over the island were abandoned and many of them burned down. Breen claimed that during that spring he took part in several barracks attacks back in Tipperary. Robinson, during their post-conflict war of words, insisted that Breen had only been at the attack on Rearcross. At Rearcross Breen was once again wounded, but this time only slightly by shrapnel from an RIC grenade.

(Left: Drombane RIC barracks, one of the Co. Tipperary barracks that was attacked in early 1920.)

Breen was also present on July 30th, when Treacy led an ambush of a British convoy of trucks at Oola in east Limerick. 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.

Within days of that action, Breen was on his way back to Dublin, and near the end of the summer, Treacy went back as well. The 3rd Brigade needed leadership at that time, and yet both of these strong leaders chose to return to Dublin. No one was sure then or now why they did. They may have simply fallen in love with the excitement of the city.

Thus it was that Breen and Seán Treacy were there in Professor Carolan’s house in Dublin at 1 am on October 11, 1920, when it was surrounded by a mixed group of nine soldiers and intelligence officers. That night Breen got over the wall and out of the compound and managed to slip away into the darkness, but he was rapidly losing blood and with it his strength. He looked around for Treacy, who had already escaped. Seeing no sign of him, he assumed he was dead and he could only save himself. Managing to get over the wall and into the St. Patrick's Training School compound, he lost his pursuers. Going south through the campus he reached the shallow Tolka River, which he was able to walk across.

(Right: Major George Smyth, who swore to revenge his brother, Gerald, by killing Dan Breen.)

Knowing of no nearby safe house, and feeling he would not be conscious for much longer, he knocked on a random back door of a house. It was a roll of the dice, but he won. Fred Holmes and his wife took him in and got a local nurse named Long to minister to him. In his book, he claims they told him the houses on either side of them had a Black & Tan lodging in them, but many think details like this in his book are suspect.

Later that day a group of Volunteers helped to transfer him to Mater Hospital. Michael Collins brought Treacy to see Breen at a safe house shortly before they got him to the hospital. Breen was overjoyed to see his best friend was still alive, as was Treacy, who was also sure Breen had been killed. But that happiness, and Treacy himself, would be short-lived.

Breen learned that one of the two RIC officers he or Treacy had killed at Fernside 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 officer to shoot to kill any Irishman with his hands in his pockets. Though Breen had been incorrectly fingered as George’s killer, Gerald had vowed to get revenge but instead had suffered the same fate as his brother.

The British were combing the city looking for Treacy and Breen. On the 14th they caught up with Treacy on Talbot Street. Despite being in a hopeless situation, Treacy pulled out his parabellum and went down fighting. He killed two of his attackers before a bullet pierced his head, killing him. Treacy was scheduled to marry his girlfriend, May Quigly, less than two weeks later.

(Left: Seán Treacy's funeral card.)

Michael Collins visited Breen in his hospital room later that day, but when Breen enquired about Treacy, Collins, not wanting to upset the recuperating Breen, lied and said, “he’s out in the country.” Breen was finally told about his friend’s death ten days later. It was a heavy blow for Breen, for whom Treacy was more like a brother than a comrade.

Breen would spend the rest of 1920 and the first part of 1921 recuperating as he was moved first to Dún Laoghaire, then to east Co. Wicklow. Just before Christmas, he was reunited with Robinson and Hogan back in Tipperary, though he was still not ready to go back into action.

Breen participated in little of note in Tipperary in those final months before the Truce. He did have one notable personal event, however. On June 21, perhaps recalling how Treacy had died before he was to marry his own sweetheart, Breen married Brighid Malone. Seán Hogan was Breen’s best man.

A notable personal event after the truce was announced occurred in December when Breen met Mahatma Gandhi in London. He also claimed to have contacted some of the more militant Indian rebels and offered his services to them, but was turned down and then got an offer from Moroccan rebels to come there and assist them, which he refused.

Breen was then the best man at Séamus Robinson's wedding back in Dublin. So apparently their relation was fine until the publication of Breen’s book in 1924. After the treaty passed, Breen expressed his disgust with it saying, “I would never have handled a gun or fired a shot… to obtain this Treaty.” Breen and Hogan then went to the U.S. briefly. Just before the Civil War broke out, they returned at the request of Liam Lynch. Breen participated in the efforts to avoid the Civil War, but when it came, he fought on the Republican side.

Breen was captured near the end of the Civil War and imprisoned in Limerick and then Mount Joy Jail in Dublin. While he was there he went on hunger strike and was released. While in jail, he was elected Teachta Dála (TD) for South Tipperary. He held the seat until 1927. Though he was usually the most uncompromising of Republicans, in 1927 he became one of the first anti-Treaty TD to take his seat. This cost him the seat in the following election, however.

In 1924 Breen published the story of his participation in the War of Independence, “My Fight for Irish Freedom.” The book was extremely successful and, though much of it is certainly self-serving, remains one of the most well-known books on the war. Rebels in India even used the book as an instructional manual for guerrilla war against the British.

Breen again went to the U.S. after losing his TD seat. He apparently ran a speakeasy in prohibition Chicago and some say he came in conflict with Al Capone. He returned to Tipperary in 1932 and ran for and won back his TD seat as a member of Fianna Fáil. He would hold the seat until he retired in 1965.

Breen was always a controversial figure. During WWII he was openly supportive of the Germans, perhaps driven by an intractable hatred of the British Empire. We should remember though, that while the Allies has some information on aspects of the Holocaust during the war, the media did not widely report it. They may have been wary as a result of the many false stories about “the Huns” during WWI. So few in Ireland would have had much knowledge of what was actually happening. During the 60’s he opposed the American intervention in Vietnam, something that was in line with his anti-imperialist mindset.

(Right: Breen in his later years.)

Dan Breen passed away in Dublin on December 27, 1969. Over ten thousand people attended his funeral at Donohill in west Tipperary.

Breen's reputation has taken a beating from the revisionist historians in recent years, like so many other Republican heroes of the war. He did nothing to mitigate that with his statements in interviews over the last part of his life. Of their RIC victims, he said they were “a pack of deserters, spies, and hirelings.” And of Soloheadbeg, “I would like to make this point clear, and state here without any equivocation that we took this action deliberately having thought the matter over and talked it over between us.” He also said, “the only regret we had following the ambush was that there was only two policemen in it, instead of the six we had expected because we felt that six dead policemen would have impressed the country more than a mere two.” Though many of his comrades expressed some regrets for things done during the war, he was an unrepentant rebel.

Mary Anne Allis, Sean Treacy's aunt, called him “Breen the Murderer” until the day she died. She probably blamed Breen for Treacy’s death, however, Breen said that “the truth is that in the matter of patriotic endeavor he [Treacy] was the leader, and I was his willing disciple.” In the eyes of the revisionists, Breen has become one of the leading “thugs with blood on their hands.”

Dan Breen's book, though it has many faults, has become one of the classic works on the war. It gave him a permanent place in the pantheon of Irish heroes of war, and that was likely one of his goals in writing it, but that does not mean he doesn’t deserve that place. 

(Left: Dan Breen's tombstone in Donohill Cemetery.)

Dan Breen was, indeed, one of the hardest of the “hard men” of the Republican cause, but was he harder than the generations of “hard men” who had ruled over the Irish for centuries? Harder than the judges who had sentenced generations of poor Irishmen and women to transportation to Van Dieman’s Land for offenses like stealing a coat, or a sheep to feed a starving family? Harder than the British officers who commanded troops to guard wagonloads of food being sent to Great Britain during “The Great Hunger” as women and children on the island starved? Harder than the Black & Tans who burned out the center of Cork City and who randomly shot up Irish villages and burned cottages in the countryside, something the British government officially sanctioned in 1921? Breen would say he was not.


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Views: 10706

Tags: Dan Breen, Irish War of Independence, Knocklong, Sean Hogan, Sean Treacy, Seumus Robinson, Soloheadbeg

Comment by Joe Gannon on August 6, 2020 at 8:35pm

Comment by Joe Gannon on August 7, 2020 at 1:16am

“The Ballad of Dan Breen” by the Threshing Mill Boys

Comment by Joe Gannon on August 7, 2020 at 1:18am

“The Ballad of Dan Breen” by the Threshing Mill Boys

Of all the men who took up arms for the freedom of their land
There's one indeed who sowed the seed for victory's final stand
A son of Tipperary--he's held in high esteem
He was born and reared in Solonead and his name it is Dan Breen.

Along with Sean Tracy, they formed a steadfast band
They were prepared to do or die to free their native land
By mountain side and heather glen, through many a valley free,
The tans they fled, they were in dread with meeting with Dan Breen

His deeds of courage and renown will live forever more
Near Solenead and Aherlow and 'round by Galtee More
He was fearless in the face of death and the story still lives on,
We saved Sean Hogan from the tans at the Station Of Knocklong.

When all this land once more is free and it surly will some day
And we'll remember men who fought in many a bloody fray
Those men whose smoldering bones do lie beneeth our sod of Green
In letters bold inscribed in gold will write the name Dan Breen.
In letters bold inscribed in gold, will write the name Dan Breen.


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