Seán Treacy c. 1919
|Died||14 October 1920 (aged 25)|
Talbot Street, Dublin
|Burial place||Kilfeacle, County Tipperary|
|Other names||Seán Ó Treasaigh (Irish), Seán Tracey|
|Known for||IRA volunteer|
Seán Allis 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. 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.
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'.
Seán Allis Treacy came from a small-farming background in Soloheadbeg in west Tipperary. He left school aged 14 and worked as a farmer, also developing deep patriotic convictions; locally, he was seen as a promising farmer, calm, direct, ready to experiment with new methods, and intelligent. He was a member of the Gaelic League, and of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) from 1911 and the Irish Volunteers from 1913.
He was picked up in the mass arrests 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.
The Soloheadbeg ambush
On 21 January 1919 Treacy and Dan Breen, together with Seán Hogan, Séumas 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 O'Connell and James McDonnell – during the Soloheadbeg Ambush near Treacy's home. Treacy led the planning for the ambush and briefed the brigade's O/C Robinson on his return from prison in late 1918. Robinson supported the plans and agreed they wouldn't go to GHQ for permission to undertake the attack. The RIC men were guarding a transport of gelignite explosives. Some accounts say the Volunteers shot them dead when they refused to surrender and offered resistance; other accounts suggest that shooting them 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...
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, who was just 17, was arrested on 12 May 1919, the three others (Treacy, Breen and Séumas Robinson) were joined by five men from the IRA's East Limerick Brigade to organise Hogan's rescue.
Hogan was brought to the train which was intended to bring him from Thurles to Cork city on 13 May 1919 — his escort grinning at him as he told the ticketmaster: "Give me three tickets to Cork — and two returns." As the train steamed across the Tipperary border and into Co Limerick the IRA party, led by Treacy, boarded the train in Knocklong. A close-range struggle ensued on the train. Treacy and Breen were seriously wounded in the gunfight. Two RIC men died, but Hogan was rescued. His rescuers rushed him into the village of Knocklong where a butcher's wife slammed down the shutters to hide them and her husband cut off his handcuffs using a cleaver.
On his keeping
A search for Treacy and others was mounted across Ireland. Treacy left 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 the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, 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 moving his base of operations to Dublin.
By spring 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 neutralised by IRA counterintelligence operatives working for Michael Collins. The British thoroughly reorganised their administration at Dublin Castle, including the appointment of Colonel Ormonde de l'Épée Winter as chief of a new Combined Intelligence Service (CIS) for Ireland. Working closely with Sir Basil Thomson, Director of Civil Intelligence in the British 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' assassination unit, "The Squad". The Squad's mission was to discover 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 spotted Treacy and Breen after their arrival in Dublin and placed them under surveillance.
On 11 October 1920, Treacy and Breen were holed up in a safe house – Fernside – in Drumcondra on the north side of Dublin city when it was raided by a police unit, led there by a tout, Robert Pike. 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. The owner of the house, Professor John Carolan of the nearby St Patrick's Teacher Training College, was put up against a wall and shot in the back of the neck by the British. 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 metropolitan area. Treacy hoped to return to Tipperary; realising that the major thoroughfares would be under surveillance, he bought a bicycle with the intention of cycling to Tipperary by back roads. 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 the most powerful man in the country, the Chief Secretary for Ireland Hamar Greenwood and Lieutenant-General Henry Hugh Tudor, who had invented the Black and Tans.
Four or five members of the Squad assembled at a Dublin safe house, the Republican Outfitters shop at 94 Talbot Street 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. Treacy was extremely distressed — he and his closest friend, Dan Breen each thought that the other had been killed. Breen had managed to get away, his feet cut to ribbons by the glass of Professor Carolan's greenhouse, and was now being hidden by the medical staff in a nearby hospital.
While the others quietly dispersed, Treacy lingered behind in the shop. But he had been followed by a tout, and a British Secret Service surveillance team working under Winter's direction and led by Major Carew and Lt Gilbert Price were stalking him in the hope that he would lead them to Collins or to other high-value IRA targets.
Treacy realised that he was being followed, and ran for his bicycle. But he grabbed the wrong bike — taking a machine far too big for him — and fell. 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 15-year-old Dublin trainee photographer, John J Horgan, who captured the scene moments after the shooting, showing Treacy lying dead on the pavement and Price propped up against a doorway a few feet away. Making a statement to a reporter, Ormonde Winter called the event "a tragedy".
The British soldiers immediately destroyed the Republican Outfitters, riddling the shop with bullets and throwing Mills Bombs inside to wreck it.
Treacy's death sent alarm bells through the upper echelons of the IRA leadership.
A commemorative plaque above the door of 94 Talbot Street, now the Wooden Whisk and directly across from Talbot House, 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 held at the spot in Talbot Street, Dublin where he died, attended mainly by people from West Tipperary and Dublin people of Tipperary extraction. The most recent ceremonies were held at midday on Sunday, 4 September 2016 and 18 August 2019 both attracting a large attendance of Tipperary folk en route to Croke Park. The ceremony usually consists of the reading of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, a recitation of a decade of the rosary in Irish, singing of 'Tipperary so far away', an oration by one of the organizing party and followed by the playing of the Irish National Anthem. The first event took place in 1922 and has been held on approximately 27 occasions as of 2019.
In Thurles, Co Tipperary Seán Treacy Avenue is named after him. The town of Tipperary is home to the Seán Treacy Memorial Swimming Pool, which contains many historic items related to the Easter Rising and the War of Independence, and a copy of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. The Seán Treacy GAA Club takes his name in honour and represents 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. He is remembered in many songs. The song Seán Treacy, also called Tipperary so Far Away, is about Treacy's death and is still sung with pride in west Tipperary. A line from this song was quoted by former US president Ronald Reagan when he visited Tipperary in 1984: "And I'll never more roam, from my own native home, in Tipperary so far away".
The song most closely identified with him, Seán Treacy and Dan Breen commemorates his and Breen's escape from Fernside, and mourns his death:
Give me a Parabellum and a bandolier of shells,
Take me to the Murder Gang and I'll blow them all to hell,
For just today, I heard them say that Treacy met defeat,
Our lovely Séan is dead and gone, shot down in Talbot Street.
They were at the front and at the back; they were all around the place. None of them anxious to attack; or meet him face to face. Lloyd George did say, "You'll get your pay - and a holiday most complete", But none of them knew what they would go through, in that house in Talbot Street.
When he saw them in their Crossley trucks, like the fox inside his lair, Seán waited for to size them up before he did emerge,
With blazing guns he met the Huns, and forced them to retreat,
He shot them in pairs coming down the stairs, in that house in Talbot Street.
"Come on", he cried, "'Come show your hand, you have boasted for so long, How you would crush this rebel band with your armies great and strong". "No surrender", was his war cry, "Fight on lads, no retreat" Brave Treacy cried before he died, shot down in Talbot Street.
Footnotes and References
- The well-known author Tim Pat Coogan uses this form in his book 'The I.R.A.'.
- Mass card at http://www.traceyclann.com/files/Sean%20Treacy.htm
- 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.
- Irish Bureau of Military History - Séumas Robinson witness statement, WS 1721
- History Ireland, May 2007, p.56.
- Breen, Dan (1981). My Fight for Irish Freedom. Anvil. ISBN 978-0-900068-58-4. Retrieved 6 July 2010.
- Seán Treacy and the Tan War (2007) publisher: Mercier Press ISBN 978-1-85635-554-4, p.152
- Tipperary Star - August 26, 2011 http://www.tipperarystar.ie/what-s-on/arts-culture-entertainment/tipp-will-remember-patriot-sean-treacy-on-day-of-all-ireland-1-3003751
- Speech at Ballyporeen, Tipperay by US President Ronald Reagan, June 3, 1984
- Abbott, Richard (2000). Police Casualties in Ireland 1919-1922. Cork.
- Ambrose, Joe (2007). Sean Treacy and the Tan War. ISBN 978-1-85635-554-4.
- Borgonovo, John (2007). Spies, Informers and the Sinn Fein Society: The intelligence war in Cork City 1920-1921. Dublin.
- Hart, Peter (2005). Mick: The Real Michael Collins. ISBN 978-0-330-48527-2.
- Hart, Peter (2002). Peter Hart (ed.). British Intelligence in Ireland, 1920–1921: The Final Reports. ISBN 978-1-85918-201-7.
- Hart, Peter (2003). The I.R.A. at war, 1916–1923. ISBN 978-0-19-925258-9.
- Ryan, Desmond (1945). Sean Treacy and the Third Tipperary Brigade I.R.A. Kerryman Limited.
- Shelley, John R. (2006). A Short History of the 3rd Tipperary Brigade. Cashel, Ireland.
- 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
- Lyrics of various songs in English and Irish commemorating Treacy
- Helen's Family Trees (Treacy page)
- on YouTube
- Sean Treacy & Talbot street