Molloy’s Gelignite

Last Updated On June 12, 2018
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The procurement of arms, ammunition and explosives was a priority for the Volunteers from the moment they were founded on 25 November 1913. Following the defeat of the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic on 29 April 1916 and the surrender of its armed forces, the British army captured a huge amount of the Volunteer/IRA munitions – especially in Dublin. That was a serious setback for those surviving IRA and IRB leaders who were still at large and still determined to achieve Irish freedom through armed action. While the bulk of the leadership was imprisoned or interned until Christmas 1916, what might be described as the second tier leaders, and new and emerging ones, were inspired by the sacrifices of the executed and fallen and were fiercely determined to renew the struggle at the earliest opportunity. Eventually the military campaign began with the Soloheadbeg Ambush on 21 January 1919. The aim of that armed action was to initiate the War of Independence and to capture explosives and the guns and ammunition from the RIC escort. That action is correctly remembered as one of the most important events in twentieth century Irish history. While the capture of the gelignite was an important addition to the arsenal of the newly formed Third Tipperary Brigade, its propaganda value was even greater. It proved that not only were the Brigade’s officers capable of planning and executing a daring raid, they were also capable of keeping their booty in spite of the best efforts of the enemy to retrieve it.

While the Soloheadbeg ambush and the successful capture of the explosives became the stuff of legend, it was not the first such action by Volunteers in Co. Tipperary. Even though the Easter Rising had been suppressed its message and significance wasn’t lost on the RIC. They noted that far from cowering in defeat or yielding to pessimism, leading Nationalists were busily reorganising and drilling, especially following the release of the internees at the beginning of 1917. Consequently the RIC in the Thurles area took measures to ensure that the local Volunteers should be denied the opportunity to acquire explosives. Jerry Ryan[1], later OC 1st Batt., Second Tipperary Brigade IRA explained their actions thus.

In April 1917 the RIC removed all arms, ammunition and explosives from Leahy’s and Fitzpatrick’s hardware shops to Molloy’s, which was the oldest firm of that particular trade in Thurles.

But the RIC had miscalculated again. The local Volunteer leader, James Leahy, later Brigadier General of the Second (Mid) Tipperary Brigade IRA, saw the stockpiling of explosives in one location not as a difficulty but as a golden opportunity. In his Witness Statement to the Bureau of Military History[2] he described the planning for the operation.

In the Thurles area at that period a considerable quantity of explosives were stored in Molloy’s magazine in the town. Quarries throughout mid-Tipperary obtained all their blasting supplies from this magazine. After consideration by the prominent Volunteers around Thurles it was decided that we should raid the magazine and seize its contents. The planning for the operation was entrusted to myself. It was a simple enough job because there was no guard of any kind over the place. The raid occurred, I think, in June 1917. I selected the men who were to take part after a good deal of thought as to their suitability. At that time I had not much to guide me as none of the local Volunteers had gone through anything that would serve as a test. In any event I picked about ten men and of these I can now remember Dan and Con O Keeffe,[3] Phil Fitzgerald[4], Paddy Kinnane,[5] Séamus and Thomas Malone,[6] Jack Meagher (my brother-in-law) and Ned O Reilly[7] from Rossmore company in South Tipperary.

The O Keeffe brothers, P. Fitzgerald and N. O Reilly were all members of “D” Coy. (Rossmore), 3rd Batt., Third Tipperary Brigade. There was a strong connection between them and P. Kinnane from Upperchurch as both the Rossmore and Upperchurch Volunteer Companies had been founded by Éamon Ó Duibhir of Ballagh. The Malones had left their native Tyrrelspass due to RIC pressures. Almost forty years later it is hardly surprising that James Leahy, Jerry Ryan and Thomas Malone differed on some minor points in their recollection of the actual raid. This is how Jerry Ryan remembered the event.

Two Volunteers – J. K. Dwyer and Patrick O Connell – were then employed in Molloy’s and one night shortly afterwards they opened the door for a party of Volunteers who seized the complete stock of guns, ammunition and explosives. Some of the stuff was taken to Callanan’s of Ardbawn[8] and the balance was brought to Maher’s (sic) of Annfield.

Thomas Malone[9] gave a more detailed account of the theft. His list of participants differs somewhat from Leahy’s – though the latter admitted that he couldn’t remember all those involved.

We carried out a raid on Molloy’s of Thurles, a big hardware place there. We got an immense lot of gelignite and detonators. Some of the same men took part[10]. I don’t know whether Seán Treacy was in it or not[11], but Jimmy Leahy, Jack Maher, (sic) Paddy Kinnane, Ned Reilly (sic) and Ned Maher, the latter since ordained for the American mission, Seumas[12] and I were there. The amount of stuff we got was so heavy that we were not able to carry it and we had to commandeer an ass and car to cart it. There must have been seven or eight big chests of gelignite and several boxes of detonators. That was used afterwards extensively by the IRA. Molloy’s kept this explosive in a special store, which was built down in the yard. We mobilised for this raid at Micksy Connell’s[13]. He was the man who afterwards sent the famous wire to Seán Treacy at Knocklong in connection with the rescue of Seán Hogan. We broke in the door of the store and took the explosives out through a ruin of an old Protestant Church out to the Mall in Thurles. We took it away out near Annfield[14] and we dumped it eventually in a vault in the graveyard. It was used afterwards all over the country. There was a big lot of gelignite, detonators and I think there was some gunpowder and fuse. That was one of the first raids for military equipment that was carried out in the country. That was in the summer of 1917.

Malone’s last point is an important one. At that particular point in time the IRA was still reorganising after the defeat of 1916 and the then recent release of the leaders who had been interned. While Companies had been established in some areas, there were basically no formal structures above Company level. The creation of Battalions had just begun and the Brigades weren’t established until the following year. Since the latter’s territories were not then exactly defined or established it helps explain why South Tipp personnel were involved in a Mid Tipp operation.

The organiser of the daring and successful raid, James Leahy, gave this account of the operation. It differs in a few inconsequential particulars from the first two. But the main events of the operation are all in agreement.

I got the keys of the magazine from “Mixey” Connell, who worked in Molloy’s. We had to scale a few high walls to get into the yard, but after that it was just a question of opening the magazine door and getting out the stuff. The raid took place around midnight. The material seized included blasting powder, fuse and detonators, as well as nearly half a ton of gelignite. It all had to be carried for about two miles to a point where we got a horse and cart to take it to the Ragg district, where it was concealed for the night under cocks of hay in a meadow that was being saved. Some of the men had to carry up to a hundredweight of gelignite over that journey. On the following evening and night we removed all the material from the meadow to Kylanna graveyard[15] and there stored it in a vault owned by William P. Hanley of Lanespark. This vault had not been used for a long time and we experienced difficulty in opening the door. Eventually I stood back and raced against it. The door yielded and I found myself inside the vault among broken coffins and a number of skeletons. It proved a safe hiding place and was used while we were dividing the material into small lots for distribution throughout Mid-Tipperary in the ensuing couple of months.

The “liberation” of Molloy’s gelignite differed from that of the Soloheadbeg haul in a number of ways. Firstly, it was a bloodless affair. Nobody, least of all any member of the crown forces, was killed or even injured. Consequently the authorities didn’t strive as hard to retrieve it or react with the same fury as they did after the deaths of the two constables in Soloheadbeg. Secondly, the haul of explosives was more than seven times greater than that taken at Soloheadbeg. And in Thurles they made sure to take the detonators! Thirdly, the booty was quickly divided up and distributed around the local Companies. That relieved those who had stolen it of the duty and responsibility to guard it. It also ensured that it would be well- nigh impossible to recover all the material, or even a substantial amount of it.

Because it was such a huge weight of explosives and had been distributed so widely, it is harder to trace its consequent use. There are records of two definite occasions when it was used.

On the 18th of January 1920 Jerry Ryan, OC 1st Batt., Second Tipperary Brigade attacked Holycross RIC barracks in force. He used some of the gelignite to construct homemade mines. His men managed to emplace them against the gable end of the building. Though they managed to successfully detonate the mines, they failed to breach the wall. Ryan blamed the failure on their lack of knowledge of explosives. Once the effort to breach the walls failed it also meant that the attack couldn’t be successful. After exchanging fire with the garrison the Volunteers withdrew in good order.

Among those who helped remove the gelignite from Molloy’s were several members of the Rossmore IRA Company. It would seem reasonable that they were rewarded “in kind” for their co-operation and labour. Later the Company became “D” Coy., Third Batt., Third Tipperary Brigade. The Battalion’s OC, Commdt. Tadg Dwyer[16], described their experiments with explosives during the summer of 1918.

During this period while the conscription menace remained, we were fully occupied with reloading shotgun cartridges with ball ammunition and constructing crude bombs which were packed with gelignite. There was no shortage of gelignite; we had an ample supply which was taken in a raid on Molloy’s hardware stores in Thurles in August, 1917. Ned O Reilly and myself carried out some experiments with it, and we found that a charge of gelignite placed between a strong thick wall and a securely buttressed plank would, when fired by a length of fuse and a detonator, breach the wall. To do this properly it was necessary to drive wooden stakes into the ground so as to ensure that the props and supports were sufficiently staunch to hold the plank in position when the charge exploded.

Surprisingly, Tadg Dwyer seems to have remembered the month of the raid correctly, August 1917. Confirmation of the date came from an unusual source. In 1917 Bridget Heffernan of Glenough was the Captain of the Rossmore branch of Cumann na mBan. In a detailed submission to the Military Services Pension Commission[17] in October 1940 she stated the following.

On 16th Aug. 1917 I was given two boxes of detonators and revolver by P. Fitzgerald,[18] Adjt. 3rd Batt. The detonators were seized at Molloy’s, Thurles, on previous night. Some of these detonators were called for occasionally by P. Fitzgerald.

Again, she had a connection with the Soloheadbeg gelignite. She recorded,

I still had charge of detonators and revolver. Soon after shooting of Police and capture of large quantity of explosives at Soloheadbeg in Jan 1919 P. Fitzgerald gave me box of gelignite (about 1 cwt weight) to keep. This was in my possession about 6 months.

Interestingly enough on the same night as the attack on Holycross barracks, Patrick Kinnane carried out a diversionary attack on Drombane RIC barracks. He used some of the Soloheadbeg gelignite in the attack. He managed to split the gable end wall, but it didn’t collapse. That attack was also unsuccessful. But the incident shows that there was close co-operation between the neighbouring IRA Companies of Rossmore and Upperchurch and between the Second and Third Tipperary Brigades.

The capture of significant amounts of explosives at Molloy’s in 1917 and Soloheadbeg in 1919 provided the IRA with much-needed explosives. The material was used in numerous attacks on RIC barracks. Initially the Volunteers proved inept in its use due to a lack of training and experience. Eventually they evolved tactics that proved to be more successful, especially when used in conjunction with petrol or paraffin. By mid-1920 the RIC were being forced to abandon rural barracks. Indeed by that stage there were only two occupied barracks in the Third Battalion area – Anacarty and Dundrum. That withdrawal destroyed the Government’s intelligence system and did more than almost anything else to convince the general population that the IRA were winning the war.

Another aspect of the raids deserving consideration is the calibre of the men who led the raids. While Brigadier Séamus Robinson authorised the Soloheadbeg action, it was the brainchild of his Vice-Brigadier, Seán Treacy. At the time of the Molloy raid the chief organiser, James Leahy, didn’t hold any formal military rank or position. Yet both Leahy and Treacy shared a number of traits and talents. They were thoughtful men who inspired their fellow Volunteers. They were excellent organisers and successful men of action. Post 1916 they emerged as new and daring leaders in the fight for freedom. They inspired belief and confidence in those they led. Another quality they shared was modesty. They never boasted of their exploits – they didn’t have to, their successes spoke for them. Tipperary, and Ireland, was blessed that they used their natural talents for inspirational leadership, organisation, planning, tactics, logistics, common-sense, and iron determination to win through to achieve this country’s freedom. Ireland owes them a debt of gratitude far beyond our ability to repay.





[1] Bureau of Military History, Witness Statement #1487, given on 11 September 1956.
[2] BMH, WS#1454, given on 03 July 1956.
[3] Members, “D” Coy. (Rossmore), 3rd Batt., Third Tipperary (South) Brigade IRA.
[4] Ditto. Later Adjutant 3rd Batt., Third Tipperary Brigade.
[5] Later OC Upperchurch Batt., Second (Mid) Tipperary Brigade.
[6] Brothers from Tyrrelspass, Co. Westmeath. Members of the local IRA Coy. Thomas later served
as Vice-Brigadier of the East Limerick Brigade IRA. He used the alias Seán Ford.
[7] Capt. “D” Coy. (Rossmore), later Vice-OC 3rd Batt., Third Tipp Brigade.
[8] A townland north of Thurles, west of the Cork to Dublin rail line. The Callanans were staunch Nationalists and very involved in the GAA.
[9] BMH, WS#0845, given on 12 May 1953.
[10] They had earlier been involved in an unsuccessful attempt to disarm some RIC members.
[11] He wasn’t.
[12] Seumas Malone, the narrator’s brother and an Irish teacher.
[13] Member of Sinn Féin, Volunteer organiser post 1916.
[14] Home of J. Leahy’s in-laws, the Meaghers.
[15] James Leahy’s son, Séamus, very kindly supplied the following details about Kylanna graveyard. Kylanna is a small graveyard in the townland of Annfield or Golden Grove about a mile from the crossroads at the Ragg which is on the Thurles-Nenagh road. Kylanna was the burial place of the Meaghers of Annfield whose home is only across a couple of fields away, and by road is a few hundred yards. Their graves are marked by a substantial Celtic Cross. It bears the name of Phil Meagher, the Fenian who was imprisoned after the 1867 Rising, and his wife who were my great-grand-parents and were the parents of Ned Meagher who was the occupier of the home during the War of Independence. The Hanley vault is now completely covered in by bushes. It is immediately on the left inside the entrance to the graveyard.
[16] BMH, WS#1356, given 23 February 1956.
[17] MSPC Ref. No.: B4/57309.
[18] Phil Fitzgerald and Bridget Heffernan later married and set up home in Drumcondra, Dublin.