Seán Mac Eoin

Last updated

Seán Mac Eoin
Sean MacEoin.jpg
Minister for Defence
In office
2 June 1954 20 March 1957
Taoiseach John A. Costello
Preceded by Oscar Traynor
Succeeded by Kevin Boland
In office
7 March 1951 13 June 1951
TaoiseachJohn A. Costello
Preceded by Thomas F. O'Higgins
Succeeded byOscar Traynor
Minister for Justice
In office
18 February 1948 7 March 1951
TaoiseachJohn A. Costello
Preceded by Gerald Boland
Succeeded by Daniel Morrissey
Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces
In office
4 February 1929 21 October 1929
Preceded by Daniel Hogan
Succeeded by Joseph Sweeney
Teachta Dála
In office
July 1948   April 1965
In office
February 1932   July 1937
In office
May 1921   August 1923
Constituency Longford–Westmeath
In office
July 1937   July 1948
Constituency Athlone–Longford
In office
June 1929   February 1932
Constituency Leitrim–Sligo
Personal details
John Joseph McKeon

(1893-09-30)30 September 1893
Ballinalee, County Longford, Ireland
Died7 July 1973(1973-07-07) (aged 79)
Dublin, Ireland
Nationality Irish
Political party Fine Gael
Spouse(s)Alice Cooney
(m. 1922; d. 1973)
Military service
Allegiance Irish Republican Brotherhood
Irish Volunteers
Irish Republican Army
Irish Free State Army
Battles/wars Irish War of Independence
Irish Civil War

Seán Mac Eoin (30 September 1893 – 7 July 1973 [1] ) was an Irish Fine Gael politician and soldier who served as Minister for Defence briefly in 1951 and from 1954 to 1957, Minister for Justice from 1948 to 1951, and Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces from February to October 1929. He served as a Teachta Dála (TD) from 1921 to 1923, 1929 to 1957, and 1961 to 1965. [2]


He was commonly referred to as the "Blacksmith of Ballinalee". [3]

Early life

Seán Mac Eoin was born John Joseph McKeon on 30 September 1893 at Bunlahy, Granard, County Longford, the eldest son of Andrew McKeon and Catherine Treacy. After a national school education, he trained as a blacksmith at his father's forge and, on his father's death in February 1913, he took over the running of the forge and the maintenance of the McKeon family. He moved to Kilinshley in the Ballinalee district of County Longford to set up a new forge.

He had joined the United Irish League in 1908. Mac Eoin's Irish nationalist activities began in earnest in 1913, when he joined the Clonbroney Company of the Irish Volunteers. Late that year he was sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood and joined the Granard circle of the organization. [4]

IRA leader

Sean Mac Eoin's work site in Ballinalee, Ireland Sean MacEoin - by Andrew J Hill 081.JPG
Seán Mac Eoin's work site in Ballinalee, Ireland

He came to prominence in the War of Independence as leader of an Irish Republican Army (IRA) 'flying column'. In November 1920, he led the Longford brigade in attacking Crown forces in Granard during one of the periodic government reprisals, forcing them to retreat to their barracks. On 31 October, Inspector Philip St John Howlett Kelleher of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) was shot dead in Kiernan's Greville Arms Hotel in Granard. Members of the British Auxiliary Division set fire to parts of the town. The next day, Mac Eoin held the village of Ballinalee situated on the Longford Road between Longford and Granard. They stood against superior British forces, forcing them to retreat and abandon their ammunition. In a separate attack on 8 November, Mac Eoin led his men against the RIC at Ballinalee. An eighteen-year-old Constable Taylor was killed. Constable E Shateford and two others were wounded. [5] The story was that the small garrison sang "God Save the King" as they took up positions to return fire.[ citation needed ]

On the afternoon of 7 January 1921, a joint Royal Irish Constabulary and British Army patrol consisting of ten policemen led by an Inspector, with a security detachment of nine soldiers, appeared on Anne Martin's street. Mac Eoin's own testimony at his trial (which was not contested by any parties present) states that:- "I was at the table writing when I was informed of the advance of the party. My account books were left in this house for safety. I was in partial uniform, wearing Sam Browne belt and revolver with two Mills No. 4 bombs in my pocket. Owing to some females being in the house, I had to get out as I could not endanger them by putting up a defence in the house, and as this Officer and Police Force had already signified to my sister and mother their intention to shoot me on sight, I decided to give them a run for their money. I stepped out on the street, about three paces directly in front of the oncoming force, and opened fire with my revolver. The leading file fell, and then the second file in the gateway brought their rifles to the ready. I then threw a bomb, and jumped back behind the porch to let it burst. When it had burst and the smoke had lifted, I saw that the whole force had cleared away, save the officer who was dead or dying on the street." [6] The casualties from this incident were District Inspector Thomas McGrath killed, and a police constable wounded. [7]

Sean and Alice on their wedding day, 21 June 1922 Sean Mac Eoin Wedding Day.jpg
Seán and Alice on their wedding day, 21 June 1922

On 2 February 1921, the Longford IRA ambushed a force of the Auxiliaries on the road at Clonfin, using a mine it had planted. Two lorries were involved, the first blown up, and the second strafed by rapid rifle fire. District Inspector Lt-Cmdr Worthington Craven was hit by two bullets and killed. [8] District Inspector Taylor was shot in the chest and stomach. Four auxiliaries and a driver were killed and eight wounded. The IRA volunteers captured 18 rifles, 20 revolvers and a Lewis gun. At the Clonfin Ambush, Mac Eoin ordered his men to care for the wounded British, at the expense of captured weaponry. [9] This earned him both praise and criticism, but became a big propaganda boost for the war effort, especially in the United States. [10] He was admired by many within the IRA for leading practically the only effective column in the midlands. In July 1920, he was among the majority of commanders who were prepared to sign the Agreement recognizing the Volunteers as the Army of the Republic. The Oath of Allegiance was "for the purpose of ratifying under the Agreement under which the Volunteers came under the control of the Dail". [11]

On 5 February 1921, The Anglo-Celt ran an article claiming the discovery of the body of William Chalmers, a local Protestant farmer. Mr Elliott was also a farmer, whose body was found on 30 January, lying face down in a bog. [12]

Mac Eoin was captured at Mullingar railway station in March 1921, imprisoned and sentenced to death for the murder of an RIC District Inspector McGrath in the shooting at Anne Martin's street in January 1921. [13]

Mac Eoin's family forge was near Currygrane, County Longford, the family home of Henry Wilson, the British CIGS. In June 1921, Wilson was petitioned for clemency by MacEoin's mother (who referred to her son as "John" in her letter), by his own brother Jemmy, and by the local Church of Ireland vicar, and passed on the appeals out of respect for the latter two individuals. Three auxiliaries had already given character references on his behalf after he had treated them chivalrously at the Clonfin Ambush in February 1921. However, Nevil Macready, British Commander-in-Chief, Ireland, confirmed the death sentence; he described Mac Eoin as "nothing more than a murderer", and wrote that he was probably responsible for other "atrocities", but also later recorded in his memoirs that Mac Eoin was the only IRA man he had met, apart from Michael Collins, to have a sense of humour. [14] His second-in-command was from North Roscommon. Sean Connolly had a colourful career as head of Leitrim brigade.[ citation needed ]

Mac Eoin wrote the following letter to his friend (and classmate at Moyne Latin School) Father Jim Sheridan, a combatant in the Old IRA and a 'flying column' member, who had been ordained and sent to Milwaukee to study theology:

Dear Jim, Last week I was tried, convicted and sentenced to die three weeks from today. My poor mother was here yesterday to request that my body be turned over to her for Christian burial. They refused and told her that my body would be buried in quicklime in the prison yard. If you write immediately, I will receive your letter before I died. Farewell, Jim. Pray for my soul.

According to Oliver St. John Gogarty, Charles Bewley wrote Mac Eoin's death-sentence speech. Michael Collins organised a rescue attempt. Six IRA Volunteers, led by Paddy O'Daly, captured a British armoured car and, wearing British Army uniforms, gained access to Mountjoy Prison. However, Mac Eoin was not in the part of the jail they believed, and after some shooting, the party retreated. [15]

Within days, Mac Eoin was elected to Dáil Éireann at the 1921 general election, as a TD for Longford–Westmeath. [16]

He was eventually released from prison — along with all other members of the Dáil, after Collins threatened to break off treaty negotiations with the British government unless he were freed. It was rumoured that Sean Mac Eoin was to be the best man at Collins' wedding. [15]

Treaty and the Civil War

In the debate on the Anglo-Irish Treaty, Mac Eoin seconded Arthur Griffith's motion that it should be accepted. [1]

Mac Eoin joined the National Army and was appointed GOC Western Command in June 1922. During the Civil War he pacified the west of Ireland for the new Free State, marching overland to Castlebar and linking up with a seaborne expedition that landed at Westport. His military career soared thereafter: he was appointed GOC Curragh Training Camp in August 1925, Quartermaster General in March 1927, and Chief of Staff in February 1929.

Political career

Sean Mac Eoin's burial site in Ballinalee, Ireland Sean MacEoin - by Andrew J Hill - 1.png
Seán Mac Eoin's burial site in Ballinalee, Ireland

He resigned from the Army in 1929, and was elected at a by-election to Dáil Éireann for the Leitrim–Sligo constituency, representing Cumann na nGaedheal. At the 1932 general election he returned to the constituency of Longford–Westmeath, and—with the merging of Cumann na nGaedheal into Fine Gael—continued to serve the Longford area as TD in either Longford–Westmeath (1932–37, 1948–65) or Athlone–Longford (1937–48) until he was defeated at the 1965 general election.

During a long political career he served as Minister for Justice (February 1948 – March 1951) and Minister for Defence (March–June 1951) in the First Inter-Party Government, and again as Minister for Defence (June 1954 – March 1957) in the Second Inter-Party Government.

He unsuccessfully stood twice as candidate for the office of President of Ireland, against Seán T. O'Kelly in 1945, and Éamon de Valera in 1959.

Mac Eoin retired from public life after the 1965 general election, and died on 7 July 1973. He married Alice Cooney on 21 June 1922, at a ceremony attended by Griffith and Collins; she died on 16 February 1985. They had no children.


British Army intelligence file for John J McKeon Piece 207-154; John J McKeon (1922).pdf
British Army intelligence file for John J McKeon

On 16 June 2013, during the 'General Sean MacEoin Commemoration Weekend', a statue of Mac Eoin was unveiled in his home town of Ballinalee; on the same day a plaque was unveiled in Bunlahy, his birthplace. Both the statue and the plaque were unveiled by Enda Kenny, the then Taoiseach, who laid a wreath at the statue. [17] [18]

The forge that he worked in is still standing and is known as 'Mac Eoin forge'. [19]


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  1. 1 2 "MacEoin, General Seán". University College Dublin . Retrieved 20 June 2007.
  2. "Seán Mac Eoin". Oireachtas Members Database. Retrieved 2 January 2019.
  3. "The Old Country". TIME . 29 June 1959. Retrieved 20 June 2007.
  4. Interview with MacEoin
  5. R Abbott, "Police Casualties in Ireland, 1919-1922", (Cork 2000), pp.86-7.
  6. Irish Republican Bulletin, Volume Five, Number 48. Page 2.
  7. 'Guerrilla Warfare in the Irish War of Independence, 1919-1921', by Joseph McKenna (Pub. McFarland, 2014).
  8. Belfast Telegraph, 4 Feb 1921.
  9. Damage Reports (21 Feb 1921, Hansard)
  10. O'Farrel, Padraic (1981). The Seán Mac Eoin Story. Mercier Press. pp. 28–45. ISBN   0-85342-664-3.
  11. Oglaich na hÉireann, Weekly Memorandum: No. 18, 4 Nov 1921. Military Archives, Ireland CD 236/3.
  12. Lawlor, p.95.
  13. 'Guerrilla Warfare in the Irish War of Independence, 1919-1921', by Joseph McKenna (Pub. McFarland, 2014).
  14. Jeffery 2006, p275-6
  15. 1 2 Coogan, Tim Pat (1991). Michael Collins . Arrow Books. pp.  223. ISBN   0-09-968580-9.
  16. "Seán Mac Eoin". Retrieved 20 June 2007.


Political offices
Preceded by
Gerald Boland
Minister for Justice
Succeeded by
Daniel Morrissey
Preceded by
Thomas F. O'Higgins
Minister for Defence
March–June 1951
Succeeded by
Oscar Traynor
Preceded by
Oscar Traynor
Minister for Defence
Succeeded by
Kevin Boland
Military offices
Preceded by
Daniel Hogan
Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces
Succeeded by
Joseph Sweeny