Brigadier Seán de Bhál
East Limerick Brigade IRA.
Seán de Bhál (Seán Wall) was born in the townland of Ardykeohane outside Bruff in Co. Limerick in 1888. His father, Thomas, was a small farmer. He married Deborah Lynch and they had five children, of which Sean was the second eldest. His elder brother was Fr. Tom Wall who a hundred years ago was the CC of Drumcollogher. He was a fervent Nationalist. After the Easter Rising he did much to influence public opinion and turn the tide in support in favour of the Rebels. As a result there was a trenchant exchange of correspondence between his Bishop, Dr. Edward Thomas O Dwyer and the OC of British occupying forces in Ireland, Gen. John G. Maxwell, accurately nicknamed “The Butcher”.
Seán attended the local national school in Bruff and he then began his secondary education in St. Munchin’s College, Limerick city. Unfortunately his parents both died within a short time of each other when he was in his mid-teens and that finished his secondary education. He became great friends with a neighbour, Nicholas O Dwyer, a newly qualified engineer. With his help he set up a building company, an agricultural contracting company, and they both invented machines for milking, cheese making, and making powdered milk. He was also employed by Limerick Co. Council to carry out surveys on a number of rivers in his area.
In 1906 he attended a meeting of the “All for Ireland League” in Bruff. The main speaker was a Leitrim man named Seán MacDiarmada. He had a great interest in Irish history. Later when he acquired a motorbike he travelled to many historical sites not only throughout Limerick, but throughout Munster. As a child he remembered listening to an old Fenian tell the tale of the failed attack on Ballylanders RIC barracks and how they’d had to bury their muzzle-loading muskets in a local bog. He joined Conradh na Gaeilge (the Gaelic League) and learned Irish. His teacher was a fellow Bruff man, Seoirse MacFhlanncaigh (George Clancy). Later when he was Mayor of Limerick he was murdered by crown forces. Just like a famous Bruree man he met his wife, Bridie Quinlan, whilst learning Irish. They had three children, a boy and two girls. The boy, Gerard, eventually was ordained a priest and ended up a Canon of the Cathedral Chapter and PP of Kilmallock. One of the daughters became a nun.
The split in the Irish Volunteers which followed John Redmond’s advice to them in September 1914 to join the British army had a disastrous effect on the morale and numbers of those who remained loyal to the idea of an Independent Ireland. More than 100,000 Volunteers followed Redmond’s advice and tens of thousands of them did join the British army. As a result more Irishmen died on foreign battlefields fighting for the king of England than died in the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence, and the Civil War combined. Only about 11,000 Volunteers remained faithful to their founding principles. Following the defeat of the Republican forces in Dublin in May 1916 the movement was at a low ebb. But around the country committed republicans were determined to reorganise, rearm, and try again.
In 1917 Seán de Bhál helped organise a Volunteer Company in Bruff. He was elected Coy. Captain, and his friend Nicholas O Dwyer was elected 1st Lieutenant. The following year Wall was elected Brigadier of the East Limerick Brigade Irish Republican Army. He was a tireless worker and a brilliant organiser. He established a strict training regime, collected funds, arms, and munitions, established arms dumps, disrupted recruitment meetings and canvassed for Sinn Féin during the December 1918 election. When the war of Independence started in January 1919 his Brigade was ready for action. They began operations against the crown forces and he actively directed operations in the Brigade area of operations. They ambushed enemy patrols, sniped at RIC barracks, gathered intelligence, blocked roads, and cut phone lines. In early 1920 he organised the attack on Ballylanders RIC barracks and had the satisfaction of forcing its surrender and burning it. It was sweet revenge for the failure of 1867. Thanks to his engineering skills he organised the successful attack on the fortress-like RIC barracks in Kilmallock on 27 May 1920. Such was the regard in which his men held him that they refused to allow him anywhere near the fighting as they reckoned that his death or disablement would be a disaster for the Brigade.
In May 1920 Brigadier Wall was elected the first Sinn Féin Chairman of Limerick Co. Council and around the same time Donnocha O Hannigan was elected OC of the East Limerick Brigade IRA Flying Column. Their abilities and skills complimented each other perfectly and, from a British point of view, they were a lethal combination. The Brigade’s military activities increased dramatically. They initiated an intense campaign of ceaseless guerrilla warfare throughout their area of operations and beyond it. They attacked the RIC and British army at every opportunity, they constantly sniped at barracks and seriously attacked the RIC barracks in Murroe, Doon and Cappawhite. They ambushed crown forces at Ballinahinch, Emly, Ballyhahill, Bruree, Kildorrery, Grange and Dromkeen. Whenever the opportunity presented they assassinated members of the police and army, including a constable in Cappawhite.
They raided for arms, forced the closure of isolated rural barracks, executed convicted spies, and intimidated RIC recruits. All that activity resulted in retaliatory action by the forces of occupation. The Black and Tans were recruited to strengthen the RIC. They fitted seamlessly into the police force as they all shared the same ethos and attitude towards the nationalists. They retaliated to IRA attacks by raids, arrests, beatings, robbery, blowing up houses and burning creameries.
But Seán de Bhál was also involved in political activity on behalf of the Republic. His friend and IRA colleague, Nicholas O Dwyer, who by this time was Commandant of the Bruff Battalion, wrote,
“The Brigade in East Limerick was rather an extraordinary organisation, mainly because our Brigadier, Seán Wall, was a very active man. He was Chairman of the Limerick County Council. He also had charge of the Dáil Loan collection which incidentally was the biggest in the country. He collected £34,000. The next highest to that in any one constituency was £17,000 collected by Kevin O Higgins in Laois. He ran elections and he ran Local Government, in addition to his military duties.”
O Dwyer also stated that he involved the Council officials in his efforts to undermine the authority of Dublin Castle in local affairs in Co. Limerick. He ensured that Nationalists were appointed to local government jobs. He inspired loyalty in the Council’s employees. Again O Dwyer recorded,
“The Brigade also administered Local Government in the county with the full co-operation of the County Staff. Maurice Fitzgerald, Acting Secretary of the County Council, was not a Volunteer but he was a great admirer of Seán Wall, the Chairman, and maintained a staunch loyalty to him. Anything the Chairman ordered was all right with Maurice. It might not be legal but Fitzgerald would carry it out. In fact, I think all the staff in Limerick County Council were with us. There were two County Surveyors, one a Belfast man, Davidson, and the other, Tommy Ryan, a local man, and we could have a car from either of them to take us anywhere at any time. Of course, these were always safe cars to travel in, or at least safer than most cars. Phil O Sullivan, the County Solicitor, though handicapped by a personal friendship with Joe Devlin, admired the “man of action” in Seán and was always at pains to keep his local Government activities as nearly in line with the law as possible – a task in which he got little help.”
As Council Chairman Seán also ensured that all money collected by the council were deposited, not in any Government bank account, but to accounts in the personal names of trusted individuals who disbursed it to him for use in the struggle for freedom.
Nicholas O Dwyer also gave another example of the parallel Republican Government which the IRA established in opposition to the official British system.
“I was saying that the Brigade ran practically everything in East Limerick. We organised Dáil Éireann Courts, providing not only the Bench but the Bar also where necessary, and of course enforcing Court orders. On one occasion I sat with Seán Wall in a cow-shed at midnight to hear a case in which Tim Crowley defended some wrong-doers Mick Mortel had arrested in Kilmallock when Donnocha O Hannigan addressing us for the prosecution said, ‘My Government takes a very serious view of the offence with which the prisoners before you are charged’. Even under that circumstances which compelled us to hold our court in a cow-shed under cover of darkness we were not allowed to forget that we were acting on the authority of the Government”.
As 1920 progressed the crown forces reacted ever more viciously to the IRA campaign. In late December two events were particularly atrocious. On 26 December the Herbertstown Coy. Held a dance in Caherguillamore House to raise funds for the purchase of arms. The RIC got word of the event and decided to raid it with the expectation of arresting important members of the IRA. In particular they wanted to apprehend Seán Wall or Donnocha O Hannigan. However both of them were against the project as they recognised the dangers associated with it and they stayed away. On the night of the dance hundreds of British troops, RIC, and Black and Tans surrounded the house. They opened fire without warning and fired dozens of volleys through the doors and windows. The IRA sentry opened fire in return and killed a B&T. the attackers broke into the house where they proceeded to stab the men with bayonets and club them with rifle butts. When the Tans learned of their comrade’s death they went berserk. They broke up the stairs and used the bannisters to beat the crowd. They imprisoned the young women, there were about ninety of them, in an upstairs room all night. They gathered the 150 young men into one end of the house. The officer in command set up an interrogation room at the other end. The men were forced to run the gauntlet of troops, police, and Tans who beat them all the way with rifle butts, bannisters, and fists. Any man who was unfortunate enough to fall was kicked unmercifully. By dawn five Volunteers lay dead. The survivors were taken to prison in Limerick where the beatings were repeated by troops and police who hadn’t been present in Caherguillamore. The Herbertstown Coy. Ceased to exist as an effective unit of the Brigade. Five days later on 31 December two lorry loads of troops from Tipp Town arrested Lt. Liam Slattery of the Emly Coy. at his home. Emly, like Cappawhite, was in the East Limerick Brigade’s area of operations. The troops beat Slattery unmercifully. Then they threw him into the back of a lorry and set off for Tipp. On the way they stopped, threw him out on the road, and beat him again. Then they tied him to the lorry and drove off at speed to the army barracks. Lt. Slattery did not survive his ordeal.
Though he was a member of the East Limerick Brigade the Third Tipperary Brigade Old IRA Commemoration Committee includes him on its Roll of Honour. It also includes his name on its plaque at the gate of Seán Treacy Park, Tipperary.
Brigadier Wall ordered Commandant O Hannigan and his Flying Column to take appropriate action in response to those atrocities. O Hannigan brought in extra men from the Mid Limerick Flying Column and assembled a force of about forty five well-armed Volunteers. On 3 February 1921 he ambushed a patrol of thirteen RIC men at Dromkeen. Ten were killed in the fighting. One took cover under a lorry and fired on the attackers after the firing ceased. One of the Column’s Section Commanders, Maurice Meade of the Emly Coy. saw him, fired on him and forced him to surrender and come out. Then he shot him. Two surrendered and they were court-martialled by five IRA officers. In keeping with orders issued by IRA HQ in Dublin they were sentenced to death. The IRA had adopted the same policy as their enemies in relation to captured prisoners. Comm. O Hannigan appointed Maurice Meade and a Vol. Stapleton to execute the prisoners. Meade executed his prisoner but Stapleton flunked his job. So Mead executed him too. That was the greatest loss suffered by the RIC in a single action during the course of the war.
The war dragged on during the spring without any quarter given by either side. Then the first week in May proved to be the blackest one in the Brigade’s history. On 1 may the neighbouring Mid Limerick Brigade attempted to hurriedly lay an ambush at Shraherla near the Cork border. But they in turn were caught unawares and ambushed by a BA patrol. Two Volunteers died in action, one was mortally wounded and one captured. The captured man, Vol. Patrick Casey, was executed the next evening in Cork Military Barracks. The next day an army patrol furtively followed a Cumann na mBan courier from Emly to the townland of Lackelly where a group of ten or twelve Volunteers under the command of Dan Allis of Doon were resting. In the ensuing battle three Volunteers were killed in action. One Volunteer, John Frahill, was seriously wounded. The B & Ts brought him to a local woman, Mrs. O Callaghan, and told her to say a prayer for him. She whispered a prayer in his ear and then the Tans and troops bayoneted him to death. On 4 May a contingent of Volunteers were lucky to escape encirclement near Kilteely, where one Vol. was wounded and captured. At this time the IRA was being reorganised by the Dublin HQ. They had decided to adopt a divisional structure. It was decided to group the Mid and East Limerick Brigades, the 2nd and 3rd Tipperary Brigades and the Kilkenny Brigade into the Second Southern Division IRA. Comm. Ernie O Malley of the 3rd Tipp Brigade was appointed provisional Comm. Gen. of the new Division. On Thursday 5 May Donncha O Hannigan and a select band of his most battle-hardened Volunteers arrived in Anacarty.
There they were joined by Seán de Bhál who had travelled down from Dublin by train. The group stayed in two safe houses in Newtown. There are at least three accounts as to how Wall met his death the next day, 6 May. The noted Limerick historian, Thomas Toomey, who wrote the definitive history of the Limerick IRA, wrote as follows,
“Early on Friday morning Seán Wall got up and dressed. In the company of the son of the House, Jack Carey, he strolled out for some air and a smoke. They walked up the bohereen as far as the main road where they stood talking and smoking. Suddenly a patrol of RIC and Black and Tans, led by Sergeant James Kingston of the Cappawhite RIC garrison, came around the bend. The sergeant approached both men and asked them to identify themselves. Carey replied that he was a farmer’s son who lived in the farmhouse just up the bohereen. When Wall was asked the same question he replied that he was an insurance agent visiting Carey’s house on business. Sergeant Kingston was not convinced by Wall and he said that he would have to come to the barracks. As Wall was being marched away, Jack Carey ran back to the house where he alerted O Hannigan and the rest of the IRA contingent. The IRA immediately set out to cut off the patrol and to rescue their Brigadier. When eventually the IRA intercepted the RIC patrol at Glassdrum, on the back road to Cappawhite, they called upon the RIC to surrender but to no avail. What is not clear is who opened fire first, Sergeant Kingston was shot dead by one of the IRA and Seán Wall was blasted by a shotgun. None of the IRA was armed with a shotgun so it would seem that Wall was shot down by one of his escort, probably in retaliation for the death of James Kingston.”
Maurice Meade of the Flying Column gave this account to the Bureau of Military History in September 1953,
“We were in the house in Anacarty the morning – that would be the 6th May – when we suddenly found the house being surrounded by RIC and Tans. They were in the yard of the house and on the road and John Wall tried to assure us that this was not a raid on the house but merely the checking of dog licences or some such thing. Some of the other men tried to persuade him to stay where he was until we saw how the situation would develop and, if necessary, defend ourselves from the house. But Wall would have none of this. I think he felt that it would be wrong to fire from the house and thereby bring the enemy fire and other consequences upon the house and its owners. Some of us got out the back way and sought cover in the back garden but Wall, who was unarmed, rushed out to the front where he was taken prisoner. They opened fire on him when they saw him but he was not hit and we, in turn, opened fire on them and the Sergeant in charge of the RIC party was killed by our fire. They took Wall with them down the road and we continued to fire on them for a while.
I think it was Davey Clancy who shot the police sergeant and he may have been in a position to see Wall being shot but I cannot, of course, be certain about this. The fact is, however, that Wall was captured alive and uninjured but when the police sergeant was shot the others shot Wall, who was their prisoner, in retaliation. At any rate, soon afterwards we were told that Wall had been killed by the Tans and we also knew how it had occurred. Having extricated ourselves from the position, we left there without any further casualties. We returned to East Limerick from Anacarty.”
In October 1951 Brigadier Donncha O Hannigan gave a Witness Statement to the bureau of Military History and this is the relevant extract from it,
“On Thursday we took with us a small party and proceeded to the neighbourhood of Anacarty in County Tipperary. It was late at night when we arrived. We found the Volunteer Organisation here was run in a very slipshod manner. It appeared that all the officers in the local Company were away from home. We decided to divide our party into two sections and have them billeted in two houses about half a mile distant from one another. It was about eight o clock in the morning when we got to bed. The instructions were to await a dispatch at this point which would arrive by twelve noon. Having got no dispatch we remained in bed. We were up and out about 2 pm. I went to the roadside and found a local farmer doing guard duty. I was looking through field glasses and he requested me to allow him to use them. On lifting them he saw a patrol of Black and tans on the road only a few yards away from us. I returned to the house and found John Joe O Brien just going out, and sent him back. I informed our party of the position and ordered the defence of the house. I asked Brigade Commandment Wall to take cover, but while I was going into the room to get my gun he was induced by the owner of the house to leave, and had only gone twenty yards or so distant when he was captured. This changed the situation, as my whole thoughts turned to rescue. He was so important to us that I thought any efforts were worth while trying. I ordered a volley to be fired at the enemy in the hope that they might release him in the excitement, but they held him and quickly got him under cover. Meanwhile we got out into the open and a running fight took place. We were heavily outnumbered. The last that was seen of Brigadier Wall was when he was on the road being held by a Black and Tan. John Joe O Brien fired from the centre of the road and mortally wounded Sergeant Kingston. It was a coincidence that this Sergeant on a previous occasion had severely punished John Joe’s brother, Willie P. O Brien, when the latter was a prisoner in his hands. The Brigadier was pulled away to the side of the road, and was at that time hurt. The enemy got away. We had the impression that they had taken him with them and were not aware that they had killed him. The Black and Tans had a shotgun. We had none, and it was by such a weapon that he met his death.
We crossed the fields, to be met by the other section of our party who were coming to our assistance, but unfortunately, although they came as soon as possible, they were then too late. This and Lackelly could easily have turned out otherwise, but the fortunes of war are precarious. On leaving this place, a dispatch rider arrived from the Divisional Officer Commanding, stating a place and time of meeting. It was then 2.30. I sent a reply informing him of what had happened and stating that we were returning to East Limerick.”
The corpses of Brigadier Wall and Sergeant Kingston were brought to Cappawhite barracks together in the same farm cart. Wall’s remains were then removed to the military barracks in Tipperary for identification. In an effort to identify him a photograph of the body stripped to the waist and showing signs of bullet wounds was displayed in a newsagent’s shop in Tipperary. Eventually his body was claimed by members of his family and his remains were removed for internment in Limerick. On Wednesday 11 May, the remains of Seán Wall were placed on a train at Tipperary and taken to the railway station in Limerick. The coffin was then taken by hearse to St. John’s Cathedral where it lay overnight draped with the tri-colour. High Mass, at which the Bishop, Dr. Hallinan presided, was celebrated by Fr. Thomas Wall. After the celebration of Mass the coffin was taken by a circuitous route to Mount St. Laurence Graveyard, where his remains were interred in the Republican plot. Huge crowds attended the removal but unlike the previous funerals of the past few weeks there was very little overt presence of the RIC and Black and Tans.
At the time of his death Seán de Bhál was thirty two years old. He was a married man with a young family. He was a man of multiple talents and in civilian life he had been a builder, engineer, designer, and surveyor. Like many of his contemporaries he joined the struggle for Irish Independence. He used his considerable engineering experience and skill in the service of his Brigade which he built into one of the most efficient and feared units of the IRA in the whole country. He also had enormous organisational ability which he used to good effect in managing the men and material under his command. He was a tireless worker in the military, political, and administrative spheres. He inspired loyalty and confidence in the Volunteers and in the County Council Officials. While he plotted military action to free his country, he was also very careful to establish all the workings of a civil society. He established an efficient army Brigade, he developed a Republican Court system, he collected taxes, he funded the workings of An Dáil and its government, and he took many hard decisions concerning the lives and deaths of both his Volunteers and his enemies. His untimely death was a disaster for his family and a huge loss to his country.
I’ll finish with the war cry of the Wild Geese: “Remember Limerick”.