HomeHistoryBurning of Hollyford R.I.C. Barracks Commemoration

Burning of Hollyford R.I.C. Barracks Commemoration

The historic commemoration of the burning of Hollyford RIC Barracks a thorn in the side of Hollyford’s inhabitants for long took place on Sunday May the 8th with a large crowd in attendance including many relatives of those involved in the operation.

A piper led the colour party to the scene where a commemorative plaque was unveiled on the wall facing the barracks which is now a private dwelling. This was followed by a fine oration by Kevin O’Reilly that included a firsthand account by John C Ryan Quarter Master of the Third Battalion of the Third Tipperary Brigade I.R.A. The following is the oration in full.

HOLLYFORD ORATION. 08 May 2022 by Kevin O’TReilly.

The 11th of May 1920 was a very historic one in Hollyford. For the first time in over 700 years it was free of foreign rule and experienced the first day of freedom in a new state. That incredible transformation had been accomplished by the simple act of burning the local RIC barracks – the visible, concrete symbol and presence of British rule in this parish. And the amazing feat had been accomplished by the local people and their neighbours.

The IRA’s campaign of burning RIC barracks began in Drombane and Holycross in January 1920. Both attacks were unsuccessful, as was the one in Doon in March. The assault on Hollyford RIC barracks on the night of 10/11 May 1920 was the first organised and carried out by the Third Tipperary Brigade. It was also the first where the primary attack on the building was through the roof rather than through a wall.  The planning for the operation involved the officers of both the Third Brigade and the Third Battalion. It was led by Brigadier Seumas Robinson, aided by his Vice Brigadier Seán Treacy, the Brigade’s Intelligence Officer, Tom Carew, and Commdt Ernie O Malley, GHQ’s man in South Tipp. The Battalion officers involved were Commdt. Tadg Dwyer, Vice Commdt. Ned O Reilly, Adjt. Phil Fitzgerald, QM John C. Ryan (L), and the Intelligence Officer, Patrick Quillinan. Ironically, the local Volunteer Company Captain in Hollyford, Patrick O Dwyer, missed the action as he was locked up in Cork since the previous March as a guest of his majesty for the possession of seditious documents. But he was well served by his second-in-command, Lt. Jim O Gorman, and the Company Adjutant, Rody Crowe.

Tadg Dwyer, OC Third Battalion, was charged with organising the personnel and logistics for the operation. All three Tipperary Brigades and the East Limerick one participated in the action with men and munitions. Up to 300 Volunteers were involved, including 110 Hollyford men. The local Companies of Cumann na mBan and Na Fianna Éireann also played an active part in the operation. However, only about thirty Volunteers were involved in the actual attack on the barracks.

It wasn’t an easy first such operation. No less than seven roads led into the village. Each of them would have to be closed and blocked, with a squad of well-armed Volunteers at each roadblock. That utilised a large number of men along with scarce rifles and even scarcer ammunition. There was a scarcity of explosives too. But such security precautions were vital as the RIC could call on help from police or military in Shevry, Rear Cross, Cappawhite, Anacarty, Dundrum and from the huge military garrison in Tipperary.

But the difficulties and dangers involved in the destruction of a barracks were well worth the advantages that accrued from destroying or capturing it. At that time Dáil Éireann and the Volunteers were not just waging a war of independence, they were in the process of building a new state. That necessitated the replacement of the British administration with a native one. The RIC and their barracks were the symbol and embodiment of British rule in every town and village in the country. So their destruction and expulsion was a powerful sign of freedom and independence. The Peelers were the eyes and ears of the alien administration, so expelling them destroyed the Government’s intelligence–gathering capability. There was the not insignificant opportunity to capture the police rifles and ammunition when they surrendered. And the absence of a permanent police presence meant that the Volunteers could operate and move about the area in relative safety.

Hollyford barracks was a large, sturdy building. Its defensive capabilities had been strengthened by the fitting of loop-holed steel shutters on the doors and windows. Shrubs, bushes and other potential hiding places were removed both to give the Peelers a clear view of the environment adjacent to their fortress and to provide them with a clear and unimpeded field of fire. It was garrisoned by a dozen well- armed and supplied RIC men. Dug in defenders have at least a four-to-one advantage over attackers. Apart from a squad of Volunteers armed with less than efficient shotguns, the attackers had only thirteen rifles. Each rifleman had only twenty rounds of ammunition.

When Ernie O Malley asked Lt. Jim O Gorman of the local Company how they’d crater the approach roads without sufficient gelignite, O Gorman pointed to a large squad of men armed with spades, shovels, pickaxes and crowbars. “Don’t worry, Ernie,” he assured him, “These lads will throw the roads over the ditches”. The Volunteers manufactured grenades at Shanahan’s house in Foilmacduff. They also practised using ladders to scale the two story house there as it resembled the barracks. As the barrack north gable was some forty feet in height they had to lash a couple of ladders together to gain access to the roof. On the night of the assault a squad from First Brigade in stockinged feet placed the ladder against the north gable.

Robinson and O Malley, burdened with sledges, revolvers, grenades, sticks of gelignite, smouldering sods of turf in tins, and carrying buckets of paraffin oil, climbed onto the roof. The first hint the Peelers got of their presence was the sound of sledges smashing the slates. Immediately the squad of snipers led by Seán Treacy opened aimed fire at the loop holes to keep the garrison occupied and divert attention from the pair on the roof. They broke through the slates, poured the paraffin into the holes, and then threw in the smouldering turf. Next they lobbed in grenades and sticks of gelignite, and emptied their revolvers down after them. A chain of men with buckets, led by the local Volunteer Company Adjutant, Rody Crowe, kept the attackers well supplied with paraffin from a store they’d amassed in the local creamery. Soon the building was an inferno. So intense was the heat that the hair was singed off Robinson and O Malley, their faces and hands were burned, and their clothes smouldering.

Inside the blazing barracks the Peelers were in real danger of being burned alive. Common sense would have dictated that they should surrender and save themselves. Instead they took refuge in a sturdy lean-to at the rear of the building. That too must have been like an oven. Their actions are an example of the mind-warping and corrupting effects of foreign rule on a colonised people. They’d entered the king’s service, they wore his uniform, they’d taken his shilling, and they’d sworn loyalty to him. Now they preferred to suffer, and perhaps die, in the service of the King of England rather than surrender to the Volunteers. They were saved from a gruesome death by the dawn.

With the coming of the light Seumas Robinson called off the attack, much to the disappointment or frustration of many of the attackers. But he always had an overriding concern for the welfare and safety of his men. He knew that the light would bring strong, well-armed relieving forces and he refused to place his men in danger. So he ordered them to disperse. They left the barracks a smouldering ruin. While he’d been interned following the Easter Rising in 1916 he determined to devote the rest of his life to fighting for Ireland’s freedom. As he wrote, he’d decided to “make the king’s writ RUN in Ireland”. One hundred and two years ago he and his Volunteers had made the king’s writ run out of Hollyford – and it kept on running and never returned.

The above account is a synopsis of the account published in Desmond Ryan’s book “Seán Treacy and the Third Tipperary Brigade” which was issued in 1945. However the best firsthand account of the assault was one written by the Quarter Master of the Third Battalion, John C. Ryan (Laurence), which he gave to the Bureau of Military History in July 1956, thirty one years after the event. It’s worth quoting in full as it’s the most detail description given by a Volunteer who played a very active part in every aspect of the operation.

On the 9th May, 1920, Clonoulty was again in the news for on that day Ned O’Reilly, with four members of his Company, attacked an R.I.C. patrol on the road between Clonoulty and Goold’s Cross. In the engagement an R.I.C. Sergeant was shot dead and his revolver was captured. I was not present at this ambush, but that night Ernie O’Malley, Seamus Robinson, Sean Treacy, Tadhg O’Dwyer, Ned O’Reilly and myself met at O’Keeffe’s of Glenough, and it was decided to attack Hollyford R.I.C. barracks on the following night, i.e. the night of 10th May, 1920. Meanwhile, some of the officers of the Mid-Tipperary Brigade were contacted and they promised to have ammunition available for us at Hollyford.

On the 10th we met early in the day at Shanahan’s house about half a mile from Hollyford to make final arrangements for the attack. Six men under Tadhg O’Dwyer were detailed as a “ladder” party, and during the evening they practised the carrying and hoisting of the ladders. Some home-made bombs were made and later on O’Malley, who was recognised as being in charge of the operation, called all men with arms into a room where we made a check of the arms and ammunition. The shot guns were allotted to the men going on outpost duty and on duty on road-blocks. This left six rifles and eighty rounds of .303 ammunition available for the riflemen who were to be engaged in the actual attack on the barracks. I should mention that the ammunition promised by the Mid-Tipperary men had not arrived at this stage, and in view of our lack of it O’Malley issued strict orders that only every five or ten minutes was a rifle shot to be fired. The success or otherwise of the attack depended mainly on the efforts of himself and Seamus Robinson to set the barracks on fire.

The attack was timed to commence about midnight and at about 11.30 p.m. Sean Treacy, Phil Fitzgerald (the Battalion Adjutant), Rody Hanly, Jim O’Gorman and myself went into Hollyford. We first of all moved a barrel of paraffin oil and a supply of inflammable materials from a point near the Creamery, where they had been left earlier in the evening, to the side of the road opposite the gable wall of the barracks. We then decided the positions to be taken up by the riflemen. Treacy, Fitzgerald, Hanly and myself, with four rifles, occupied a position behind a wall at the bridge about forty yards to the front of the barracks. Jack Ryan (Jack the Master) was our sole rifleman at the rear of the barracks and Sean Hogan with the remaining rifle was detailed to cover a port-hole in the gable wall at the end from which the attack on the roof began. Later and before the attack commenced Sean Treacy and Phil Fitzgerald moved away from Hanly and myself and took up another position behind a low wall about five yards from the barracks.

At first everything went according to plan. About midnight Tadhg O’Dwyer and his team of “ladder” men ran in, in their stockinged feet and placed the ladders against the gable wall. The tops of the spliced ladders just nicely cleared the eves of the roof. The “ladder” men held the ladders in position whilst O’Malley and Robinson climbed on to the roof and placed two home-made bombs on the slates, one at each side of the roof. To prevent them rolling off the two bombs were attached to each other by a piece of wire. These bombs were fired by lengths of fuse and both exploded almost simultaneously. After the- explosions O’Malley and Robinson again climbed on to the roof and with hammers broke holes In the slates large enough to pour in the oil. Jim O’Gorman carried buckets of oil up the ladders and passed them on to the two men on the roof. After the oil they put burning sods of turf in through the holes in the slates. All this was accomplished in the space of four or five minutes and without a shot being fired by either side.

The instructions to the riflemen were to hold their fire until the garrison opened fire and my own particular instructions were to snipe at the window on the top floor nearest to the gable end against which the ladders were placed. It was through this window that the flames first came indicating that the fire was catching on. The police had by that time opened a rapid fire with rifles and machine guns on to the open spaces around the barracks and on a quarry a short distance away. We could hear stones and chips rattling down the quarry as they were dislodged by the police fire.

Robinson and O’Malley spent a considerable time on the roof pouring in the oil and throwing in burning sods of turf. At one stage I believe tar was got for them and they got that too in through the holes in the slates. As I have said the fire got a grip early on, but it was a long time before a portion of the roof, that portion of it nearest to the gable end, caved in. The garrison had then taken refuge in a room at the other end of the barracks which was cut off from the main portion by a thick dividing wall. Seamus Robinson called on them to surrender but they refused to do so. How they held out for a further four or five hours in the heat, smoke and stifling atmosphere must remain a mystery. All efforts to set this portion of the barracks ablaze failed and at about 7 a.m. Robinson and O’Malley decided to call off the attack. I should also mention that the Mid-Tipperary men did send on a supply of 303 ammunition. It arrived and was distributed while the attack was on. Jack the Master, Sean Hogan, Rody Hanly and myself all got some, but due to the intensity of the fire from the barracks at the time it was impossible to get the extra ammunition in to where Sean Treacy and Phil Fitzgerald were.

We were a disappointed team of men as we moved off from Hollyford that morning. We had failed to capture the barracks and had failed to force the police to surrender. Later that evening we learned with satisfaction that the British reinforcements, who went to Hollyford, withdrew the R.I.C. garrison. Soon afterwards the R.I.C. garrison at Clonoulty was also withdrawn and this gave us the advantage of having a large stretch of open country without an enemy post in it.

In his lecture on Friday evening Dr. Des Marnane referred to the fact that the Third Tipperary Brigade’s memory and reputation is preserved evergreen by the Third Tipperary Brigade Old IRA Commemoration Committee. Over the past hundred years the Committee has erected statues, monuments, plaques, markers and headstones all over South Tipperary. It regularly commemorates ambushes and military operations. But its most important work is that of commemorating and honouring people, the Brigade’s Volunteers, Cumann na mBan, Na Fianna Éireann, and their families. Our freedom was achieved at great cost. The people suffered from innumerable restrictions on their freedoms. They endured arbitrary arrest and long detentions. Their businesses and homes were raided, ransacked, and sometimes burned. Some ninety five of the Third Brigade’s Volunteers paid the ultimate price of their lives.

No Volunteer died in Hollyford in May 1920. Unfortunately, six of those engaged in the action were killed before the Volunteers dumped arms in May 1923. The first to die was Vice Brigadier Seán Treacy who was killed in action in Talbot Street, Dublin, on 14 October 1920. Vol. Daniel Carew, Anacarty Coy., died of wounds received in an ambush on crown forces in Harcourt Street, Dublin, on 06 April 1921. Acting Captain Michael Ryan (Martin), Anacarty Coy., was shot dead by crown forces in Ballybrack on 12 May 1921. Vol. Jack Ryan (Master), Rossmore Coy., died in Cashel hospital from the effects of active service on 12 October 1921. A member of the Hollyford Fianna Éireann in 1920, Adjutant James Quirke, was killed defending the Republic near Golden on 29 July 1922. Their names are inscribed on the Brigade’s Roll of Honour. A former Volunteer of the Hollyford Coy., Patrick Byrne, joined the Free State army and accidently fatally shot himself while going on patrol in Cashel in October 1922.

In November 2013 an anonymous blogger wrote;

When on Remembrance Day
There is no one at the parade
The war is lost.
Dead heroes died in vain –
This shall be a country’s shame.

This weekend a great crowd gathered in Hollyford to remember the freedom fighters of a century ago. For those not well versed in history, and for those passing through, we have erected a memorial to immortalise the actions of the Volunteers of the four mountain battalions of Dundrum, Doon, Upperchurch, and Newport. The Nobel Laureate, Eli Weisel, who survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald, once wrote; “To forget the dead is to kill them all over again”. So we continue to remember and honour them and their heroic deeds. Let us be worthy of them by living as responsible citizens of the country that they succeeded in establishing.

Go sábhála Dia Éire.


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