Dan Breen started the Irish War of Independence in 1919; he played a major role in that war and the ensuing Civil War. He remains, to this day, one of the most famous and controversial IRA leaders of his generation.
My mother's people, the Norris family, were prosperous tenant farmers in Co. Tipperary, where Breen was the local IRA leader. They lost their farm when their lease came up for renewal, being outbidded by their neighbours. My mother and my Aunt Josie often spoke bitterly of the small bog farm they were forced to live on until, some years later, the lease on the home place came up for renewal all over again. This time Dan Breen and his comrades visited the usurpers and suggested that it'd be a good idea to let Jim Norris have his farm back. My cousins still farm there today. So my family owed him a debt of gratitude .
I'd recently left U.C.D. in 1981 when the idea came to me to write a book about this man whose legend was part of the fabric of my upbringing. My paternal grandfather - who was also in the IRA but who took the opposing side in the Civil War - used to say that Breen's memoir, My Fight For Irish Freedom, was the book in which the word "I" was used the most often in the English language.
Breen certainly didn't win the war single handed, and I wrote about all the men - and women - who won us our freedom in my biography.
In 2006, using a huge amount of previously unseen archival material about Breen and the IRA, I wrote an entirely new book on Dan Breen. Once again I worked with Ireland's Mercier Press. This new book tells the story of Breen and his colleagues in their own words and from their own point of view. The extract featured here concerns a daring rescue, undertaken by Breen and his pal Sean Treacy, of their teenage comrade, Sean Hogan. Hogan was being transported to Cork Prison by the British. He would almost certainly have been executed there.
Sean Hogan sat in a compartment, handcuffed and seated between Sergeant Wallace and Constable Enright. Both men carried revolvers. Opposite Hogan there were two other Constables, Ring and Reilly, bearing shotguns. Sergeant Wallace was an important political officer, his pre-eminence shown by the fact that he was in charge of a key prisoner like Hogan.
Treacy and Eamonn O'Brien walked down to Knocklong station, while Breen and Robinson entered the town on bikes. Breen and Robinson were to linger around the station entrance, acting as lookouts, while O'Brien and Treacy went in to free Hogan.
When the train pulled into the station, two of the Galbally men jumped out before it ground to a halt. One of them pointed to the compartment where Hogan sat under guard. Treacy and O'Brien strode onto the train, revolvers drawn.
They made their way to Hogan's compartment, thrust open its sliding door, and shouted, 'Hands up! Come on Sean, out!' Constable Enright placed a revolver against Hogan's neck and crouched in behind him for cover. Treacy and O'Brien opened fire, killing Enright. 'We certainly would never have fired if Enright had not made a move to attack Hogan.' O'Brien later maintained.
Hogan jumped up and crashed his handcuffed hands right into the face Constable Ring, seated opposite him. Treacy and Wallace wrestled viciously with one another, while Eamonn O'Brien and Constable Reilly fell into a similar struggle. Then the Galbally contingent stormed onto the train virtually unarmed and wrenched Reilly's rifle away from him. One of them smashed him across the head with his own weapon and he collapsed onto the floor, apparently knocked out. Constable Ring either jumped out a window or was thrown out through it. This was the last that was seen or heard of him for some time.
Treacy, still wrestling with Wallace, told Hogan to leave the train. The teenager withdrew, with difficulty, as far as the corridor. There were now so many people in the small compartment that chaos reined. While the tenacious Wallace and the resolute Treacy remained locked in combat, Treacy repeatedly appealed to the powerfully built Sergeant to give it up but one man was as stubborn as the other.
Wallace was now getting the upper hand in his struggle with Treacy. The two were grappling desperately for control of Wallace's Webley revolver, whose barrel was remorselessly turning in the direction of Treacy's head. Eamonn O'Brien fired at Wallace just as the policeman put a bullet through Treacy's neck.
Wallace fell back, mortally wounded. The rescue party was in a position to get off the train. Treacy had little fight left in him - he later told a friend, "I thought I was a dead man. I had to hold my head up with both hands, but I knew I could walk."
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