Dan Breen (11 August 1894 – 27 December 1969) was a volunteer in the Irish Republican Army during the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War. In later years, he was a Fianna Fáil politician.
Dan Breen was born in Grange, Donohill parish, County Tipperary. His father died when Dan was six, leaving them very poor. He was educated locally before becoming a plasterer, and later a linesman on the Great Southern Railways.
Breen was sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1912 and the Irish Volunteers in 1914. On 21 January 1919, the day the First Dáil met in Dublin, Breen, who described himself as “a soldier first and foremost” took part in the Soloheadbeg Ambush. The ambush party of eight men, led by Séamus Robinson, attacked two Royal Irish Constabulary men who were escorting explosives to a quarry. The two policemen, James McDonnell and Patrick O’Connell, were fatally shot during the incident. The ambush is considered to be the first incident of the Irish War of Independence.
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…
During the conflict, the British put a £1,000 price on Breen’s head, which was later raised to £10,000. He quickly established himself as a leader within the Irish Republican Army (IRA). He was known for his courage. On 13 May 1919 he helped rescue his comrade Seán Hogan at gunpoint from a heavily guarded train at Knocklong station in County Limerick. Breen, who was wounded, remembered how the battalion was “vehemently denounced as a cold-blooded assassins” and roundly condemned by the Catholic Church. After the fight, Seán Treacy, Séamus Robinson and Breen met Collins in Dublin, where they were told to make themselves scarce. They agreed they would “fight it out, of course”.
He and Sean Treacy shot their way out through a British military cordon in the northern suburb of Drumcondra (Fernside). They escaped, only for Treacy to be killed the next day. Breen was shot at least four times, twice in the lung.
The British reaction was to make Tipperary a ‘Special Military Area’, with curfews and travel permits. Volunteer GHQ authorised entrerprising attacks on barracks. Richard Mulcahy noted that British policy had “pushed rather turbulent spirits such as Breen and Treacy into the Dublin area”.The inculcation of the principles of guerrilla warfare was to become an essential part of all training. They joined Michael Collins’ Squad of assassins, later known as the Dublin Guard, when Tipperary became “too hot for them” and Dublin was the centre of the war.
Breen was present in December 1919 at the ambush in Ashtown beside Phoenix Park in Dublin where Martin Savage was killed while trying to assassinate the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Viscount French. The IRA hid behind hedges and a dungheap as the convoy of vehicles came past. They had been instructed to ignore the first car, but this contained their target, Lord French. Their roadblock failed as a policeman removed the horse and cart intended to stop the car.
Breen utterly rejected the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which made him, like many others, angry and embittered:
I would never have handled a gun or fired a shot… to obtain this Treaty… writing on the second anniversary of Martin Savage’s death, do you suppose that he sacrificed his life in attempting to kill one British Governor-General to make room for another British Governor-General?
In the June 1922 elections Breen was nominated as a candidate by both the pro- and anti-Treaty sides, but was not elected.
He died in Dublin in 1969 and was buried in Donohill, near his birthplace. His funeral was the largest seen in west Tipperary since that of his close friend and comrade-in-arms, Seán Treacy at Kilfeacle in October 1920. An estimated attendance of 10,000 mourners assembled in the tiny hamlet, giving ample testimony to the esteem in which he was held.