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Seán Treacy c. 1919
14 February 1895|
Soloheadbeg, County Tipperary, Ireland.
|Died||14 October 1920
at Talbot Street, Dublin.
|Other names||Seán Ó Treasaigh (Irish), Seán Tracey|
|Known for||IRA volunteer|
Seán Treacy (Irish: Seán Ó Treasaigh; 14 February 1895 – 14 October 1920) 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 but he was killed the following year, in October 1920, in Talbot Street in Dublin, in a shootout with British troops during an aborted British Secret Service surveillance operation.
Although sometimes written as Tracey, as inscribed on the commemorative plaque in Talbot Street, or even as Tracy, his surname is more usually spelled as 'Treacy'.
Treacy came from a small-farming background in west County Tipperary. He left school aged 14 and worked as farmer, also developing deep Irish nationalist convictions. He was a member of the Gaelic League, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) since 1911 and the Irish Volunteers since 1913. He was arrested in the aftermath of the Easter Rising in 1916 and spent much of the following two years in prison, where he went on hunger strike on several occasions. From Dundalk jail in 1918 he wrote to his comrades in Tipperary, "Deport all in favour of the enemy out of the country. Deal sternly with those who try to resist. Maintain the strictest discipline, there must be no running to kiss mothers goodbye" In 1918 he was appointed Vice Officer-Commanding of the Third Tipperary Brigade of the Volunteers (which became the Irish Republican Army in 1919). He was impatient for action and was disappointed that the IRB leadership forbade attacks on the police in 1917.
The Soloheadbeg ambush
On 21 January 1919 Treacy and Dan Breen, together with Seán Hogan, Séamus Robinson and five other volunteers, helped to ignite the conflict that was to become the Irish War of Independence. They ambushed and shot dead two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) — Constables Patrick MacDonnell and James O'Connell – near their homes at Soloheadbeg in County Tipperary. Robinson was the planner and commander of the operation, while Treacy was in charge of weapons and transport. The RIC men were transporting gelignite explosives. Some accounts say the Volunteers shot them dead when, allegedly, they refused to surrender and offered resistance; other accounts suggest that was the intent from the start.
Breen later recalled: "...we took the action deliberately, having thought over the matter and talked it over between us. 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 that we had following the ambush was that there were only two policemen in it, instead of the six we had expected..."
Breen's later comment suggests that the aim of the attack was to capture or kill as many policemen as possible, for political and military effect
The Knocklong train rescue
As a result of the action, South Tipperary was placed under martial law and declared a Special Military Area under the Defence of the Realm Act. After another member of the Soloheadbeg ambush party, Seán Hogan, was arrested on 12 May 1919, the three others (Treacy, Breen and Séamus Robinson) were joined by five men from the IRA's East Limerick Brigade to organise Hogan's rescue. Hogan was being transported by train from Thurles to Cork city on 13 May 1919, and the men, led by Treacy, boarded the train in Knocklong. A vicious close-range struggle, involving man-to-man combat, ensued on the train. Treacy and Breen were seriously wounded in the gunfight. Two policemen died, but Hogan was rescued. He was brought by his rescuers to the nearby village of Knocklong where his handcuffs were removed using a cleaver in the local butcher's shop.
A thorough search for Treacy and others was mounted afterwards. Treacy had to leave Tipperary for Dublin to avoid capture. In Dublin, Michael Collins employed Treacy on assassination operations with "the Squad". He was involved in the attempted killing of British general Sir John French in December 1919. In the summer of 1920, he returned to Tipperary and organised several attacks on RIC barracks, notably at Ballagh, Clerihan and Drangan before again seeking refuge in Dublin.
By the spring of 1920 the political police of both the Crimes Special Branch of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and G-Division (Special Branch) of the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) had been effectively neutalised by IRA counterintelligence operatives working for Michael Collins. The British thoroughly reorganised their administration at Dublin Castle, including the appointment of Army Colonel Ormande de l'Epee Winter as Chief of a new Combined Intelligence Service (CIS) for Ireland. Working closely with Sir Basil Thomson, Director of Civil Intelligence in the Home Office, with Colonel Hill Dillon, Chief of British Military Intelligence in Ireland, and with the local British Secret Service Head of Station Count Sevigné at Dublin Castle, Ormonde Winter began to import dozens of professional Secret Service agents from all parts of the British Empire into Ireland to track down IRA operatives and Sinn Féin leaders.
Treacy and Dan Breen were relocated to Dublin where they were directed to operate with Michael Collins' infamous assassination unit, "The Squad". The Squad's mission was to surveil and assassinate British secret agents, political policemen and their informants, and to carry out other special missions for General Headquarters (GHQ) as directed by Collins. With help from police inspectors brought up to Dublin from Tipperary, Ormonde Winter's CIS effectively spotted Treacy and Breen shortly after their arrival in Dublin and placed them under surveillance.
On 11 October 1920, Treacy and Breen were holed up in a safehouse – Fernside – at Drumcondra, in north Dublin when it was raided by a police unit. In the ensuing shootout, two senior British officers were wounded and died the next day, Major Smyth and Captain White, while Breen was seriously wounded and the homeowner, Dr. Carolan, was killed. Treacy and Breen managed to escape through a window and shot their way through the police cordon. The injured Breen was spirited away to Dublin's Mater hospital where he was admitted in alias persona. Treacy had been wounded but not seriously.
The British search for the two was intense and Collins ordered the Squad to guard them while plans were laid for Treacy to be exfiltrated from the Dublin metro area. Treacy hoped to return to Tipperary; realising that the major thoroughfares would be under surveillance, he purchased a bicycle with the intent of cycling to Tipperary via the backroads. When Collins learned that a public funeral for the two officers killed at Fernside was to take place on 14 October, he ordered the Squad to set up along the procession route and to take out further senior members of the RIC and the DMP.
Four or five members of the Squad assembled at a Dublin safehouse early on 14 October in preparation for this operation. Treacy was to join them for his own protection, but arrived late, to discover that Collins had cancelled the attack. While the others quietly dispersed, Treacy lingered behind in the safehouse. But a British Secret Service surveillance team working under Winter's direction and led by Major Carew and Lt. Gilbert Price had followed Treacy in the hope that he would lead them to Collins or to other high-value IRA targets. Seeing Treacy enter the premises, they set up a stake-out of the building. A decision was made to apprehend Treacy as soon as he emerged from the safehouse.
When Treacy eventually stepped out, Price drew his pistol and closed in on Treacy. Treacy drew his parabellum automatic pistol and shot Price and another British agent before he was hit in the head, dying instantly. Rushing to the scene, Colonel Winter was horrified to see the bodies of Treacy and his own agents lying dead in Talbot Street. The entire confrontation had been witnessed by a Dublin newspaper reporter who captured a photo of Price the instant he had been hit. Making a statement to the reporter, Ormonde Winter called the event "a tragedy."
Treacy's death sent alarm bells through the upper echelons of the IRA leadership and it appears to have been a factor in the decision by Richard Mulcahy (IRA chief of staff) and Cathal Brugha (Minister of Defence) to approve Michael Collins' (Director of intelligence) plan to assassinate en masse some two dozen British Secret Service agents, Special Branch agents and British informers a month later. These assassinations were carried out on Sunday, 21 November 1920—a date that has been called "Bloody Sunday.
A commemorative plaque above the door commemorates the spot where Treacy died. His coffin arrived by train at Limerick Junction station and was accompanied to St. Nicholas Church, Solohead by an immense crowd of Tipperary people. He was buried at Kilfeacle graveyard, where despite a large presence of British military personnel, a volley of shots was fired over the grave. Seán Treacy's death is remembered each year on the anniversary of his death at a commemoration ceremony in Kilfeacle. At noon on the morning of All-Ireland Senior Hurling Finals in which Tipperary participate, a ceremony of remembrance is also held at the spot in Talbot Street where he died, attended mainly by people from West Tipperary and Dublin people of Tipperary extraction. The last such ceremony was held at midday on Sunday, 4 September 2011 and attracted a large attendance, most of whom were en route to Croke Park.
In Thurles, Co.Tipperary there is an avenue named after him – Seán Treacy Avenue. The town of Tipperary is also home to the Seán Treacy Memorial Swimming Pool which contains many relics of the Easter Rising and IRA, as well as a copy of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. The Seán Treacy GAA Club takes his name in honour and respresents the parish of Hollyford, Kilcommon and Rearcross in the Slieve Felim Hills which straddle the borderland between the historical North and South Ridings of Tipperary.
The song "Seán Treacy", also called Tipperary so Far Away is about Treacy's death and is still sung with pride in West Tipperary.
Footnotes and References
- The well-known author Tim Pat Coogan uses this form in his book 'The I.R.A.'.
- Michael Hopkinson, Irish War of Independence, page 116
- Aengus O Snodaigh (21 January 1999). "Gearing up for war: Soloheadbeg 1919". An Phoblacht. Retrieved 20 June 2007.
- History Ireland, May 2007, p.56.
- Breen, Dan (1981). My fight for Irish freedom. Anvil. p. 77. ISBN 978-0-900068-58-4. Retrieved 06/07/2010.
- Ambrose, Joe (2007). Seán Treacy and the Tan War. Mercier Press. p. 152. ISBN 978-1-85635-554-4. Retrieved 09/07/2010.
Shelley, John R., A Short History of the 3rd Tipperary Brigade. (Cashel, Ireland 2006)
Hart, Peter, Mick: The Real Michael Collins. ISBN 978-0-330-48527-2, 2005.
Hart, Peter, ed., British Intelligence in Ireland, 1920–1921: The Final Reports. ISBN 978-1-85918-201-7, 2002.
Hart, Peter, The I.R.A. at war, 1916–1923. ISBN 978-0-19-925258-9, 2003.
Ambrose, Joe, Sean Treacy and the Tan War. ISBN 978-1-85635-554-4, 2007.
- 'that Ireland will soon be free' – Part 7 of the Series 'The Forgotten Ten' – The Wild Geese Today at www.thewildgeese.com
- Republican Autograph Book – Seán Treacy at www.clarelibrary.ie
- AN PHOBLACHT/REPUBLICAN NEWS at republican-news.org
- IRISH WAR OF INDEPENDENCE at homepage.eircom.net
- Seán Treacy(Tipperary So Far Away) Song with Guitar Chords
- Lyrics of various songs in English and Irish commemorating Treacy
- Helen's Family Trees (Treacy page)
- Newsreel footage of Talbot Street in the moments after Treacy was shot.
- Dominic Behan singing a song commemorating Seán Treacy