Soloheadbeg ambush

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Soloheadbeg Ambush
Part of the Irish War of Independence
Soloheadbeg proclomation.jpg
A proclamation offering a reward of £1,000 for information leading to the capture of those involved in the Soloheadbeg ambush
Date21 January 1919
52°31′N8°10′W / 52.52°N 8.16°W / 52.52; -8.16 Coordinates: 52°31′N8°10′W / 52.52°N 8.16°W / 52.52; -8.16
Result IRA victory
IRA seize large amounts of gelignite
Flag of Ireland.svg Irish Volunteers/Irish Republican Army Flag of the United Kingdom.svg Royal Irish Constabulary
Commanders and leaders
Flag of Ireland.svg Seán Treacy Flag of the United Kingdom.svg James McDonnell  
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg Patrick O'Connell  
10 volunteers 2 officers
Casualties and losses
none 2 dead
Island of Ireland relief location map.png
Red pog.svg
Location within island of Ireland

The Soloheadbeg ambush took place on 21 January 1919, when members of the Irish Volunteers (or Irish Republican Army, IRA) ambushed Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) officers who were escorting a consignment of gelignite explosives at Soloheadbeg, County Tipperary. Two RIC officers were killed and their weapons and the explosives were seized. The volunteers acted on their own initiative and had not sought authorisation for their action. As it happened on the same day that the revolutionary Irish parliament first met and declared Ireland's independence, it is often seen as the first engagement of the Irish War of Independence. [1]

Irish Volunteers Irish nationalist military organisation

The Irish Volunteers, sometimes called the Irish Volunteer Force or Irish Volunteer Army, was a military organisation established in 1913 by Irish nationalists. It was ostensibly formed in response to the formation of the Ulster Volunteers in 1912, and its declared primary aim was "to secure and maintain the rights and liberties common to the whole people of Ireland". The Volunteers included members of the Gaelic League, Ancient Order of Hibernians and Sinn Féin, and, secretly, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Increasing rapidly to a strength of nearly 200,000 by mid-1914, it split in September of that year over John Redmond's commitment to the British War effort, with the smaller group retaining the name of "Irish Volunteers".

Irish Republican Army (1919–1922) Irish republican revolutionary military organisation

The Irish Republican Army (IRA) was an Irish republican revolutionary paramilitary organisation. The ancestor of many groups also known as the Irish Republican Army, and distinguished from them as the Old IRA, it was descended from the Irish Volunteers, an organisation established on 25 November 1913 that staged the Easter Rising in April 1916. In 1919, the Irish Republic that had been proclaimed during the Easter Rising was formally established by an elected assembly, and the Irish Volunteers were recognised by Dáil Éireann as its legitimate army. Thereafter, the IRA waged a guerrilla campaign against the British occupation of Ireland in the 1919–21 Irish War of Independence.

Royal Irish Constabulary former armed police force of the United Kingdom in Ireland

The Royal Irish Constabulary was the police force in Ireland from the early nineteenth century until 1922. A separate civic police force, the unarmed Dublin Metropolitan Police, controlled the capital, and the cities of Derry and Belfast, originally with their own police forces, later had special divisions within the RIC. About 75% of the RIC were Roman Catholic and about 25% were of various Protestant denominations.



In April 1916, during the First World War, Irish republicans launched an uprising against British rule in Ireland, called the Easter Rising. They proclaimed an Irish Republic. After a week of heavy fighting, mostly in Dublin, the rising was put down by British forces. About 3,500 people were taken prisoner by the British, many of whom had played no part in the Rising. Most of the Rising's leaders were executed. The rising, the British response, and the British attempt to introduce conscription in Ireland, led to greater public support for Irish republicanism.

Easter Rising Armed insurrection by Irish Republicans during Easter Week of 1916

The Easter Rising, also known as the Easter Rebellion, was an armed insurrection in Ireland during Easter Week, April 1916. The Rising was launched by Irish republicans to end British rule in Ireland and establish an independent Irish Republic while the United Kingdom was heavily engaged in the First World War. It was the most significant uprising in Ireland since the rebellion of 1798, and the first armed action of the Irish revolutionary period.

Proclamation of the Irish Republic constitution

The Proclamation of the Republic, also known as the 1916 Proclamation or the Easter Proclamation, was a document issued by the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army during the Easter Rising in Ireland, which began on 24 April 1916. In it, the Military Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, styling itself the "Provisional Government of the Irish Republic", proclaimed Ireland's independence from the United Kingdom. The reading of the proclamation by Patrick Pearse outside the General Post Office (GPO) on Sackville Street, Dublin's main thoroughfare, marked the beginning of the Rising. The proclamation was modelled on a similar independence proclamation issued during the 1803 rebellion by Robert Emmet.

Conscription Crisis of 1918

The Conscription Crisis of 1918 stemmed from a move by the British government to impose conscription in Ireland in April 1918 during the First World War. Vigorous opposition was led by trade unions, Irish nationalist parties and Roman Catholic bishops and priests. A conscription law was passed but was never put in effect; no one in Ireland was drafted into the British Army. The proposal and backlash galvanised support for political parties which advocated Irish separatism and influenced events in the lead-up to the Irish War of Independence.

In the general election of December 1918, the Irish republican party Sinn Féin won a landslide victory in Ireland, gaining 73 out of 105 seats (25 of these unopposed) in the British Parliament. However, in its election manifesto, the party had vowed to set up a separate government in Ireland rather than sit in the British Parliament. At a meeting in Dublin on 21 January 1919, Sinn Féin established an independent parliament called Dáil Éireann and declared independence from the United Kingdom. [2]

Sinn Féin is a left-wing Irish republican political party active in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

House of Commons of the United Kingdom lower house in the Parliament of the United Kingdom

The House of Commons is the lower house of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. Like the upper house, the House of Lords, it meets in the Palace of Westminster. Officially, the full name of the house is the Honourable the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled. Owing to shortage of space, its office accommodation extends into Portcullis House.

The Sinn Féin Manifesto 1918 was that party's election manifesto for the 1918 general election. After its reform in 1917, the Sinn Féin party campaigned against conscription in Ireland. Following the armistice of 11 November 1918 the British Government called a general election for 14 December, in which Sinn Féin won 73 out of 105 seats.


That same day, an ambush would be carried out by Irish Volunteers from the 3rd Tipperary Brigade. It involved Seán Treacy, Dan Breen, Seán Hogan, Séumas Robinson, Tadhg Crowe, Patrick McCormack, Patrick O'Dwyer and Michael Ryan. [3] Robinson (who had participated in the Easter Rising) was the commander of the group that carried out the attack and Treacy (a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood since 1911) coordinated the planning of the attack. [4] The unit involved acted on its own initiative. [3]

3rd Tipperary Brigade

The 3rd Tipperary Brigade was one of the most active of approximately 80 such units that constituted the Irish Republican Army during the Irish War of Independence. The Brigade was based in southern Tipperary and conducted its activities mainly in mid-Munster.

Seán Treacy IRA Member

Seán Treacy was one of the leaders of the Third Tipperary Brigade of the Irish Republican Army during the Irish War of Independence. It was his actions that initiated the conflict in 1919. He was killed in October 1920, on Talbot Street in Dublin, in a shootout with British troops and spies during an aborted British Secret Service surveillance operation.

Dan Breen Irish politician

Daniel "Dan" Breen was a volunteer in the Irish Republican Army during the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War. In later years he was a Fianna Fáil politician.

In December 1918, they received information that there were plans to move a consignment of gelignite from Tipperary British Army barracks to Soloheadbeg quarry. They began plans to intercept the consignment and Dan Breen's brother Lars, who worked at the quarry, received information that the consignment was to be moved around 16 January 1919. They anticipated that there would be between two and six armed escorts, and they discussed different plans. If the escort was small, they believed they could overpower the RIC officers without firing a shot. Gags and ropes were hidden in the quarry, so that if the officers surrendered they could be bound and gagged. [5] The planning for the ambush took place in the 'Tin Hut', a deserted semi-derelict house at Greenane. [3]

Tipperary (town) Town in Munster, Ireland

Tipperary is a town and a civil parish in County Tipperary, Ireland. Its population was 4,979 at the 2016 census. It is also an ecclesiastical parish in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cashel and Emly, and is in the historical barony of Clanwilliam. The town gave its name to County Tipperary.

Robinson, who had returned to the Brigade area after his release from jail, was briefed by Treacy about the plans to seize the gelignite. Robinson supported the plan and confirmed with Treacy that they would not request permission from the Irish Volunteer leadership. If they did, they would have to wait for a response, and even if the response was affirmative, it might not come until after the gelignite was moved. [6]


Each day from 16 to 21 January, the men chosen for the ambush took up their positions from early in the morning to late afternoon and then spent the night at the deserted house. Seven of the Volunteers were armed with revolvers while Treacy was armed with a small automatic rifle. [3] On 21 January, around noon, Patrick O'Dwyer saw the transport leaving the barracks. The consignment of 160 lb of gelignite [5] was on a horse-drawn cart, led by two council men and guarded by two RIC officers armed with carbine rifles. [3] [7] O'Dwyer cycled quickly to where the ambush party was waiting and informed them. [4] Robinson and O'Dwyer hid about 20 yards in front of the main ambush party of six, in case they rushed through the main ambush position. [8]

When the transport reached the position where the main ambush party was hiding, masked volunteers stepped out in front of them with their guns drawn and called on the RIC to surrender, shouting "Hands up!" more than once. [3] [7] It was raining. [5] The officers could see at least three of the ambushers; one officer got down behind the cart and the other apparently fumbled with his rifle. [5] According to the volunteers, the officers raised their rifles to fire at them. [3] [7] Séumas Robinson said the officers attempted to shoot but that the rifles did not fire because "the cut-off[ definition needed ] had been overlooked". [9] The volunteers immediately fired at the officers, and it is believed that Treacy fired the first shot. [5] Both officers were killed: James McDonnell and Patrick O'Connell, native Roman Catholics. [8] [10] MacDonnell was shot in the left side of the head and through the left arm; O’Connell was shot through the left side, and was likely in a stooping position. [5] McDonnell was born in Belmullet, County Mayo. He was aged 50 at the time of his death and left behind a widow and five children. O'Connell was unmarried and a native of Coachford, County Cork. [11]

As planned, Hogan, Breen and Treacy took the horse and cart with the explosives and sped off. [3] They hid the explosives in a field in Greenane. The explosives were moved several times and later divided up between the battalions of the brigade. [12] Tadhg Crowe and Patrick O'Dwyer took the guns and ammunition from the dead officers, [3] while Robinson, McCormack and Ryan guarded the two council workers, Ned Godfrey and Patrick Flynn, before releasing them once the gelignite was far enough away. [8]

Breen gave apparently conflicting accounts of their intentions that day. One account implies that the purpose of the confrontation was merely to capture explosives and detonators being escorted to a nearby quarry. [13] However, almost thirty years later he told the Bureau of Military History that he and Treacy intended killing the police escort to provoke a military response.

"Treacy had stated to me that the only way of starting a war was to kill someone, and we wanted to start a war, so we intended to kill some of the police whom we looked upon as the foremost and most important branch of the enemy forces [...] The only regret we had following the ambush was that there were only two policemen in it, instead of the six we had expected". [3] [7]

Séumas Robinson said that they would not have "shot down men in cold blood, although certainly we had no intention of being intimidated by the armed guard". [3] Patrick O'Dwyer said the plan had been to "disarm them and seize the gelignite without bloodshed if possible", [8] and Tadhg Crowe said they did not believe the ambush would end in violence. [14]


A wanted poster for Dan Breen. Daniel Breen police notice.jpg
A wanted poster for Dan Breen.

The ambush would later be seen as the beginning of the Irish War of Independence. [15] [16] [17] [18] The British government declared South Tipperary a Special Military Area under the Defence of the Realm Act two days later. [19] [20] There was strong condemnation from the Catholic Church in Ireland. The parish priest of Tipperary Town called the dead officers "martyrs to duty". [21]

A meeting of the Executive of the Irish Volunteers took place shortly thereafter. On 31 January, An t-Óglach (the official publication of the Irish Volunteers) stated that the formation of Dáil Éireann "justifies Irish Volunteers in treating the armed forces of the enemy – whether soldiers or policemen – exactly as a National Army would treat the members of an invading army". [22]

In February 1919 at a Brigade meeting in Nodstown Tipperary, Brigade officers drafted a proclamation (signed by Seamus Robinson as O/C) ordering all British military and police forces out of South Tipperary and, if they stayed they would be held to have "forfeited their lives". GHQ refused to sanction the proclamation and demanded it not be publicly displayed. Despite this it was still posted in several places in Tipperary. [23] [24]

In order to avoid capture, Breen, Treacy, Hogan and the other participants were forced to stay on the move for the following months, often hiding in the barns and attics of sympathisers. [25]


A monument was erected at the site of the ambush, and each year, a ceremony of remembrance is held there. [26]

See also

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  1. English, Richard (1998), Ernie O'Malley: IRA Intellectual, Oxford: Oxford University Press
  2. "Explainer: Establishing the First Dáil". Century Ireland.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Ambrose, Joe. Seán Treacy and the Tan War. Mercier Press, 2007. pp.89-98
  4. 1 2 Aengus Ó Snodaigh (21 January 1999). "Gearing up for war: Soloheadbeg 1919"
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 "Soloheadbeg: what really happened?". History Ireland , Volume 5, Issue 1 (Spring 1997).
  6. Bureau of Military History, Witness Statement 1721, Séumas Robinson
  7. 1 2 3 4 Tomkins, Phil. Twice A Hero: From the Trenches of the Great War to the Ditches of the Irish Midlands 1915-1922. Memoirs Publishing, 2013. pp.96-97
  8. 1 2 3 4 Bureau of Military History, Witness Statement 1432, Patrick O'Dwyer
  9. "The Soloheadbeg ambush - Sudden, bloody and unexpected". RTÉ, 20 January 2019.
  10. "The Soloheadbeg Ambush - 21 January, 1919". Garda Síochána Historical Society. Retrieved 15 September 2018.
  11. "Men Drive Away in Cart Laden with Gelignite". Freemans Journal. January 22, 1919.
  12. Bureau of Military History, Witness Statement 1450, John Ryan
  13. Peter Berresford Ellis (2007). Eyewitness to Irish History. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 231–232. ISBN   978-0-470-05312-6.
  14. Bureau of Military History, Witness Statement 1658, Tadhg Crowe. p.8
  15. Irish Freedom by Richard English ( ISBN   978-0-330-42759-3), page 287
  16. The Irish War of Independence by Michael Hopkinson ( ISBN   978-0773528406), page 115
  17. A Military History of Ireland by Thomas Bartlett and Keith Jeffery ( ISBN   978-0521629898), page 407
  18. Michael Collins: A Life by James Mackay ( ISBN   1-85158-857-4), page 106
  19. Sean Treacy and the 3rd. Tipperary Brigade by Desmond Ryan (Tralee 1945), p.74
  20. Police Casualties in Ireland, 1919-1922 by Richard Abbott ( ISBN   978-1856353144), p.49
  21. Stewart, Bruce. Hearts and Minds: Irish Culture and Society Under the Act of Union. Colin Smythe Publishing, 2002. p.222
  22. "Chronology of Irish History 1919 - 1923: January 1919". Archived from the original on 2012-03-05. Retrieved 2010-07-10.
  23. Sean Treacy and the 3rd. Tipperary Brigade by Desmond Ryan (Tralee 1945)
  24. Bureau of Military History, Witness Statement 1721, Séumas Robinson
  25. Sean Treacy and the 3rd. Tipperary Brigade by Desmond Ryan (Tralee 1945)
  26. "The Irish Times view on Soloheadbeg: a complex legacy". The Irish Times , 21 January 2019.