The Salt of the Earth

Last Updated On February 08, 2018
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The name Tipperary is synonymous with the fight for Irish freedom. In 1916 the first signatory on the Proclamation of the Irish Republic was Thomas J. Clarke, whose mother was a native of Clogheen. Commdt. Thomas MacDonagh from Cloughjordan, one of the signatories of the Proclamation of the Republic, commanded the second Battalion IRA in Jacob’s factory during Easter week. One of the Volunteers who served under him was Phil Shanahan from Hollyford. Later he provided huge sums of money to Michael Collins for the purchase of munitions. Elected a Sinn Féin MP/TD in 1918 he was a member of an Chéad Dáil Éireann. He owned a public house in Foley Street and it was a rallying point for Republicans and Volunteers, especially Tipperary men on service in the capital.

The War of Independence was initiated by members of the Third Tipperary Brigade IRA at Soloheadbeg on 21 January 1919. Many brigade members achieved countrywide legendary status during that war. Among those heroic figures were Séamus Robinson, Seán Treacy, Dan Breen, Seán Hogan, Dinny Lacey, Frank Drohan, D. P. Walsh, Mick Davern, Ernie O Malley and a host of others. But there were 3,650 other officers and men in the Brigade, many of whom didn’t become individually famous. Yet they were equally as important as their more famous comrades in the struggle for independence. Their anonymity shouldn’t diminish their importance.

Neither should it be forgotten that the army was only one of the elements that was used to establish the country’s freedom. An Dáil and Sinn Féin established a parallel administration alongside the official UK one. There were Republican police, courts of justice and even detention centres. An Dáil and local public representatives loyal to it organised the raising of national loans and the collection of taxes. They also set up their own bank and government departments. They established a sophisticated espionage system. They engaged in propaganda and courted international public sympathy, with some success, especially in the USA and other English speaking countries and subjugated parts of the British empire. They adopted the tricolour as their flag, chose a National Anthem, and founded an embryonic diplomatic service.  At home the Republicans won the battle for hearts and minds and that enabled them to win the military conflict also. The people accepted the authority of Dáil Éireann and its institutions to such an extent that the British authority became a husk, a hollowed out, unimportant and almost irrelevant aspect of civil society in Ireland. The British establishment never understood, or respected, the national, social, political or cultural aspirations and needs of the Irish. So they became frustrated and then revolted. Leon Trotsky, a man who knew a thing or two about revolution, stated,

“The fundamental premise of a revolution is that the existing social structure has become incapable of solving the urgent problems of development of the nation”.

That in a nutshell is exactly what happened in Ireland. But without the active or tacit support of the people the IRA could not have won the war. At its height the IRA numbered almost 120,000 men. But its supporters were numbered in millions of ordinary, but determined, civilians.

The McGrath family of Bonarea, Cappawhite is a perfect example of those people. When the War of Independence erupted in 1919 Thomas and Catherine McGrath, nee Ryan (Wal), were the parents of four children. According to the 1911 census he was forty eight years old, she forty two in 1919.  They worked an average sized farm and made a comfortable living from it. The farmstead was situated in the middle of the townland at a height of about 195 metres above sea level on the north slope of the Bonarea River valley. Its co-ordinates on map 66 of the OS Discovery series are, R922490. It is in a very secluded site three point six km. along a narrow, winding country lane off the Shanaknock to Carhue road. That location proved to be fortunate during the war. One would need good knowledge of the local geography and byroad network to find it. A little over 100 metres to the east lived the Ryan (Seanthaidg) family. Two of the men in that family had been active in the Fenian movement in the 1860s. Fifty years later their sympathies remained unchanged.

Thomas McGrath did not join the Volunteers. Obviously he was well into middle age and the father of a young family. The IRA preferred to enrol young single men from the age of eighteen upward. Only single men were allowed to join the Flying Columns and Active Service Units. However he and Catherine proved to be staunch supporters of the local B Coy. of the Third Battalion. Of the two she was the more involved. She joined the Anacarty Company of Cumann na mBan and served as its secretary. She was obviously a trusted and competent member because she was also elected to serve as the Adjutant of the Third Battalion’s members. The McGraths hid and provided food and shelter for Volunteers on the run. One of those whom they aided was Lt. Michael Ryan (M) of Ballybrack. His home was about two km. away on the far side of the valley. Thomas was also in the confidence of the IRA. He knew where their arms bunker was. He also supplied them with intelligence and warned them who the local informers were.

The McGrath house was raided on a number of occasions. This was a very worrying and frightening experience for a family. Hostile and abusive soldiers entered the house and searched it. Behind the front door the family had to pin up a list of all the inhabitants of the house. Any discrepancies would have meant trouble, especially for Thomas. More than once, due to its seclusion, he was able to warn Michael Ryan that they were about to be raided.

Thanks to that vigilance he was able to make his escape and hide until the danger of capture was over. The neighbouring Ryans (Seanthaidg) also hid and protected him.

But if Thomas McGrath knew who the local informers were, they in turn knew of his Nationalist sympathies and activities. One man in particular caused him much worry. He was often “arrested” by the RIC and army intelligence. Yet no charges were ever laid against him. On one occasion shortly after the Black and Tans had finished a search this man appeared at the door. He spun a tale about having been apprehended by the raiders. However he had managed to “escape” after he convinced the Tans that he needed to urinate. Then as soon as he climbed over the ditch he ran away. It all proved too much for Mrs. McGrath. She told him straight out that he was an informer and that if he valued his life he should never show his face around her place ever again.

Shortly afterwards the family had a lucky escape, thanks to their secluded location. A patrol was despatched from Dundrum barracks with orders to burn McGrath’s house. Fortunately they got lost in the maze of small minor roads in the vicinity, they took a wrong turn, and ended up in Hollyford. The house escaped destruction.

Lt. Michael Ryan was not so lucky. An informer betrayed him while he was visiting his parents. He was shot while trying to escape. Denied medical treatment he died the following day from his wounds. Two months later the British government sued for a truce. Not just the IRA, but the ordinary Irish people had persevered through the worst of what could be done to them, and they’d been successful. Never again would the McGrath house be raided or threatened with arson.

Suaimhneas síoraí tabhair don seisear dóibh, a Thiarna. Sheas said go buan dílis leis an bPoblacht.