Seán Sabhat and Feargal Ó h-Annluain lost their lives on New Year’s Day 1957
The I.R.A. attack on Brookeborough police barracks on New Year’s Day 1957 was an important action in the Border War, which began with the failed attack on Gough Barracks in Armagh City on 12th December 1956. A bomb was being placed at the barrack gate to blow it down when a sentry spotted the approaching column and began firing shots in the air. The leader of the column Seán Garland decided to call off the attack. Seán Sabhat was one of the attacking column. They then moved into County Fermanagh where Dave O’Connell of Cork had been appointed I.R.A. Organizer some months previously. He had arranged billets and local guides and had also scouted targets. The I.R.A. Army Council had issued instructions that no attacks were to be carried out on the R.U.C. or B Specials. This meant that targets were very limited. The first and principal demand of local people was ‘Attack the B Specials’.
In his article in ‘Awakening the Spirit of Freedom’ edited by Des Long, Seán Garland who led the column gives us his opinion of Seán Sabhat with whom he had many conversations concerning their task on hand and the future of Ireland. ‘He was a well read man, studious, very quite in manner, always courteous, very determined and committed to his country and people.’ He would give his life for his country during the raid as would his comrade Feargal Ó h-Annluain. Writing about her brother in the same booklet Padraigín Ní Murchú says that Fergal was a fluent Gaelic speaker and writer, that he was a brilliant Gaelic footballer and played minor, junior and senior simultaneously and that he was the kindest and most considerate son and brother. He joined the Irish Republican Army in 1954 when he was eighteen years old and in December 1956 he went into active service with the Pearse Column.
Daithí Ó Conaill who best knew the area proposed the attack on Brookeborough barracks. It would be symbolic as the sectarian prime minister of the Six Co. State Lord Brookeborough took his title from the place. Reconnaissance was carried out on the target and the column advanced to the attack with specific tasks allocated to each man. A builder’s lorry had been commandeered and armoured plated. It was to pull up on the opposite side of the street from the barracks. As they approached the driver saw children playing on the street where they were to stop and pulled to the other side of the road directly under the gable-end of the barracks. This proved to be a fatal error. The bombing group raced forward and placed the bomb at the barrack door and the assault group opened fire which was quickly returned by the defenders. The bomb failed to explode, machinegun fire from the gable-end window raked the lorry which was placed directly below. Seán Garland got out of the lorry and began to fire at the gable window but with little effect as it was protected by steel shutters. It was clear to Garland after a few minutes that they were not going to succeed and he ordered the advance party to withdraw. Everyone got back into the lorry, they picked up the sentries and drove for the countryside. During this manoeuvre Seán Garland received a serious bullet wound to the leg. Some miles out from the town they came to a crossroads with a farmhouse nearby where they stopped to check the causalities. It was obvious that Seán Sabhat and Feargal Ó h-Annluain were the most seriously injured. As they were removed from the lorry it was clear that Sabhat was already dead and Ó h-Annluain was still alive but in a dying state. They were left in the cow-byre, prayers were said and the column assembled at the crossroads and led by a local guide struck out across the mountains heading south. As they advanced up the mountain they could see the headlights of enemy vehicles converging on the crossroads where the lorry was abandoned. As well as the two casualties four other I.R.A. men were wounded, Paddy O’Regan, Phil O’Donoghue, Vince Conlon (the driver) and Seán Garland whose bravery and tenacity secured the successful retreat of the Pearce Column. All four men had been shot in the truck while parked under the gable window of the barracks.
Having established what had happened and what they needed to do and because of Seán Garland’s leg wound, the second in command Dáithí Ó Conaill took charge of the column. Having marched for many hours over difficult terrain they saw the lights of a town in the distance. Pat Connolly of Fermanagh, the local guide went ahead to scout the area and on returning shouted out ‘We’re in the State, we’re in the State’, the column had crossed over the border. Shortly afterwards they reached a farmhouse where they were made welcome and given food. Ó Conaill organised the dumping of arms and then went out to get assistance for the wounded. Within a short period of time the farmhouse was surrounded by Free State forces, an ambulance was called and the four wounded men were brought to Monaghan Hospital. The rest of the column were made prisoner and a few weeks later sentenced to six months in jail. Seán Garland records his abiding memory of Monaghan Hospital as looking out the window of the ward and seeing the long procession of motor car headlights accompanying the two hearses bringing the dead bodies of his two brave, patriotic and honourable comrades across the border late at night, for burial among their kin in Monaghan and Limerick. In the heroic tradition of Irish Republicanism Seán Sabhat and Feargal Ó h-Annluain lay down their lives that Ireland might be free. I measc Laochra na Gael go raibh siad. An Phoblacht Abú.
The kind permission of veteran republican Des Long of Limerick, editor of ‘Awakening the Spirit of Freedom’ has been received. Copies of this historic booklet which records the memories of the surviving column members and their immediate family members are still available from Des, Go maire sé céad.