Mrs Breens Hens and Pigs
Almost before the echoes of the first shots of the War of Independence at the Soloheadbeg Ambush, 21 January 1919, had died away the Government declared martial law in Co. Tipperary. Not only did that allow the crown forces greater power to regulate the activities of the civilian population, for practical purposes it gave them cart blanche to act as they wished. They also had the certainty that they had the active support of both Dublin Castle and Westminister for whatever actions they took in the name of security or enforcing law and order. They freely and fearlessly harassed the people they were engaged to protect. Anybody could be stopped and searched as they went about their daily lives. With time the “security forces” began to arrest innocent people, interrogate them vigorously, assault them, rob them, search their houses without warrants, and steal whatever took their fancy. Eventually they progressed to torture and murder. Few if any members of the crown forces were ever challenged by their superiors or the law to answer very serious charges of personal abuse of civilians, theft, torture, or murder.
Following the action at Soloheadbeg Séamus Robinson, Seán Treacy, Dan Breen, and Seán Hogan had to go on the run. They had to stay away from west Tipperary for months. Finally in early May 1919, more than three months after the ambush, they returned to Donohill. Dan took the opportunity to visit his widowed mother, Honora Breen. In his memoir, My Fight for Irish Freedom, page 51, he described the visit and the effects that his involvement with the IRA had on her.
She was very brave and in the best of spirits in spite of the fact that her little home was often raided at early dawn and midnight; her place was ransacked three times during one period of twenty-four hours. It gave me great courage to see her and to talk to her again. But I could not stay long. She gave me her blessing and we parted in sorrow.
The dear old soul had suffered much for the crime of having taught her sons to do their duty for their country. Her house was looted and set on fire over her head; even her hens and chickens had to pay the price of British hate, for they were bayoneted by the black and Tans. Through all her trials she never lost heart and would always have her jibe at the enemy. On one occasion when the Peelers came and enquired if her son was in, she sarcastically asked them if they would venture under the same roof with him. On another occasion, in reply to the same question, she told them that I was upstairs and invited them to enter. Their response to the invitation was a hasty retreat.
The next exploit of the “Big Four” while on the run was the amazing rescue of Seán Hogan from four RIC men at Knocklong railway station. During the action both Treacy and Breen were wounded, the latter seriously. A few days after the rescue Vol. Seán Keane of the West Limerick Brigade brought accurate news of the event to Vol. Mick Davern of the Clonoulty Coy. He also asked him to provide funds for the four fugitives and to convey the news to Eamon Ó Duibhir, and to the mothers of Treacy, Breen, and Hogan. He cycled to Tipperary and met Commdt. Seán Duffy and Con Moloney. In his statement to the Bureau of Military History, #1348, he related what happened next.
I also saw Con Moloney, Acting Brigade Adjutant, and I informed him what had happened at Knocklong, and told him to inform Mrs. Treacy, Mrs. Breen, and Mrs. Hogan. They suggested that I should go back home by Mrs. Breen’s, which I did. When I informed her of what had happened and that two of the R.I.C. were killed she said, “O, Christ, isn’t it a pity that they didn’t kill the four bastards”.
Both she and Dan had an absolute hatred for the RIC and their actions.
About three years later she sought compensation for her losses in court. The local press reported her evidence thus.
“They came to my house”, said Mrs. Breen,” several times, and after kicking a few sides of bacon around the house, you’d laugh to see them trying to drive the few hens I had down to the old lorry”. “Talk”, she went on with a smile, “about driving the turkeys, but to see them driving the hens was the best value I ever saw”.
When questioned if they used to ask for her son, the famous Comm. Dan Breen, she replied, “Indeed yes, they were very curious about him; every time they called they always found him out. He’d be glad to meet any of them personally, but you know coming in numbers of thirty and forty they were over-doing it”.
When a solicitor remarked that Dan would not mind meeting four or five of them. “Or half a dozen “, she intervened, “of that class that sometimes called, little lads with rifles, and with coats and trousers two sizes too large for them”.
But the climax of her humour was reached when this respectable old lady narrated how a Black and Tan entering her house went into the yard and shot a pig, her property, and then returning to the kitchen and asked her where was her son. She replied that he was away earning his living and when queried by the Black and Tan, “why couldn’t he earn it at home”?
“Why couldn’t you earn it at home”, was Mrs. Breen’s question by way of reply. “what brought you over here from England?”
“I came over here” proudly vaunted the imported perpetrator of deeds of gloomy memories, “to put down the Sinn Féiners”.
“Oh, I see” said she, inquiring “was the pig you’re after shooting in the yard a Sinn Féiner?”
Her description of other incidents were equally interesting and amusing, especially about the occasion on which the Crown forces took a cage and canary, her property. The bird, she stated, was a beauty and she hoped they would retain her until her warbling put themselves and their bad deeds to sleep in Ireland.