THE SOLOHEADBEG GELIGNITE
On the morning of Tuesday 21 January 1919 two Co. Council employees, using a horse and cart, collected a supply of gelignite from the military barracks in Tipperary Town. They were scheduled to deliver it to the Council’s quarry at Soloheadbeg. To ensure its safe delivery they were accompanied by a pair of RIC men. But it never reached its destination. Some two hundred metres west of the quarry entrance, at the gate of Cranitch’s field, the convoy was ambushed by Volunteers of the Third Tipperary Brigade IRA. The policemen refused to drop their weapons and were killed. The Volunteers captured the horse, cart, and gelignite, along with the weapons and ammunition of the slain police. This is how Dan Breen, Quarter Master of the Brigade and a participant in the action, described the sequel to the ambush.
We seized the rifles and equipment of the police, mounted the cart and drove away. The cart contained more than a hundredweight of gelignite. We had overlooked the seizure of the electric detonators. One week later we learned that Flynn, the County Council employee, had secreted thirty of them in his pocket.
Never was a horse called upon to give such gallant service in a dash for life and liberty. Seán Hogan held the reins; Seán Treacy and I sat behind. The rest of the party had been ordered to make their escape in different directions.
On we sped, urging our poor horse to greater speed, while school-children and farmworkers watched us in amazement as we went by.
One of those who saw them fleeing was Kate Coffey. They galloped past her family forge at Cunningham’s crossroads. Their secret was safe with her as she was a member of the Donohill Cumann na mBan Company. Having passed straight through the crossroads they continued on through the townland of Clonmore Walk. On reaching the Tipperary to Dundrum road they turned left in the direction of Dundrum. They passed through the townlands of Stokaun, where Seán Hogan had been born, Lisheen, where the local IRA Coy. drilled, and Coolnagun, where Laurence Power, Captain of the Donohill Coy., lived. Dan continued his narrative thus,
We were heading for Donaskeigh. For a great part of our journey not a word was spoken. Treacy was the first to break the silence. In the same cool tones that he might have used if we were sitting round a fire discussing a game of cards he casually remarked, ‘Do you remember, Dan, when we were reading about explosives? The book says that they are dangerous if frozen, or if they get jolted?’
The reminder did not add to our peace of mind; if ever explosives got a jolting, these did. The road was rough and uneven; heaps of loose stones were scattered along the way; the cart was the ordinary farmyard type, without springs.
But we had to speed on our way until we reached the spot where we had decided to hide the booty. We quickly deposited the gelignite with the exception of two sticks which I kept for a decoy. I threw them on the roadside when we covered a good distance. We dismounted at Ryan’s cross and abandoned the horse and cart. The poor horse was so jaded from the gallop that he could proceed no further. He was found a few hours later at Aileen bridge, four miles distant from Tipperary town. The discovery set the Crown forces in motion. In the ensuing months police and soldiers combed the countryside and actually walked several times over the dugout in which the gelignite lay concealed. The loose sticks had led them on a false scent; they kept themselves warm by digging trenches all over the area. But their search was in vain.
Some twenty five years after the event described above Desmond Ryan continued the story in great detail. This is his narrative.
In the meantime, Seán Treacy had been compelled by an unforeseen hitch to make a serious change in his plans after he had left the scene of the ambush. He had appointed a member of his Company to go to a certain spot regularly and be in readiness to collect the gelignite whenever the raid might occur.
This man, one of Treacy’s most trusted and reliable associates, had turned up day after day until the day of the ambush, when he was delayed by an insistent gossip of a neighbour whom he shook off with difficulty, and then hurried to the spot as usual. Unfortunately, in the meantime, the fight was over and the ambushers had been compelled to make off before he arrived.
Treacy ordered that the gelignite should be dumped in a ditch by the roadside at Lisheen Grove and covered with leaves, and then went ahead with his original plan: a decoy to mislead the searchers. The horse and cart were tethered near Aileen creamery, and some sticks of gelignite scattered on the roadside and in adjacent fields to throw the pursuers on a false scent.
The Soloheadbeg raid had been for the gelignite and the raid was now threatened with failure. The cases of gelignite, in fact, were to lie exposed to capture from the Tuesday to the following Friday, and only saved from discovery in the end mainly through the coolness and resource of Tom Carew of Goldengarden – afterwards the Intelligence Officer of the Brigade.
At this point Ryan introduced the Captains of the two local Volunteer Companies. The first was Tom Carew, founding Captain of “B” Coy. (Anacarty), 3rd Batt. Shortly after the events described here he was appointed the Brigade’s IO, which position he occupied all during the War of Independence. He was a firm friend of Michael Collins, who held him in high esteem. The second was Laurence Power, Captain of “C” Coy. (Donohill), 4th Batt. Thanks to their intelligent initiative and daring, the gelignite remained concealed from the enemy. Ryan’s story continued as follows.
Tom Carew was informed by Larry Power of Coolnagun that a small body of Volunteers were keeping watch on the dumped gelignite in a ditch near the Grove on the Dundrum-Tipperary road. Larry Power explained the mishaps which had prevented Treacy’s messenger from arriving in time to make contact with Treacy and to remove the gelignite to a place of safety. It was very evident that the intense military activity which followed the ambush would make the safe disposal of the explosives a much more difficult task than it might have been if the police had surrendered and been captured.
The rifles had been dumped in safety by Tadg Crowe and Paddy Dwyer, but would the precious gelignite return to the police, even as the electric detonators which had remained safely in the pockets of Patrick Flynn?
Larry Power sent a guard to Lisheen Grove to keep watch over the cases from the opposite side of the road. There, day and night, the men lay concealed. Larry Power himself was constantly on the scene, and kept in touch with Carew who determined that, at whatever personal cost to himself, he would do his best to prevent the British authorities from recovering the gelignite. He had not known beforehand of the Soloheadbeg affair, but when Larry Power appealed to him he did not hesitate. The discovery of the stuff would be a lasting discredit to the whole movement. Much of the local feeling would be turned to contempt and derision if the British crown forces succeeded in their thorough and frenzied search.
There was to be a week of constant alarms for Carew, Power and the men on guard, as military activity increased. Lorries and Black Marias were passing and repassing on the main road. Once a military armoured car drove straight to the very spot where the explosives were concealed – and broke down! When this news reached Carew, in an urgent message from Larry Power, Carew decided to risk everything at the first opportunity he could find to carry out the plan he had formed.
Already Larry Power and his men had moved the dump at intervals, and with difficulty, from place to place along the ditch – three cases of half a hundredweight each. The false clues of the scattered gelignite gave the watchers one respite. The police and military had been lured on a false trail, but who could tell when there might not be a chance find in one of their persistent and determined searches?
At this stage we need to consider a few points dealing with the situation which had come to pass. Firstly, while accepting that the leadership of the Third Tipperary Brigade IRA had no formal military training and that the Soloheadbeg Ambush was their first armed action, it’s fairly obvious that their planning and tactics weren’t perfect. As a result they ended up killing two RIC officers. That drew down the unbridled wrath of the authorities on them and resulted in vastly increased determination on the part of the police and military to catch the killers and recover the gelignite. Secondly, they had no “plan B”. Once Treacy’s contact failed to connect with them on the 21st they had no alternative. Consequently they basically abandoned the explosives beside a main road and seemed to hope for the best. Thirdly, the leadership of the local Volunteer Companies proved to be men of high initiative and great daring. Fourthly, Tom Carew proved the old adage, “Cometh the hour – cometh the man”. Though he wasn’t in the confidence of the ambushers, once he was made aware of the situation he acted immediately, intelligently, and decisively. He understood that the gelignite had significance way beyond its value as an explosive. The authorities were determined to recover it, Carew was equally determined that the IRA should keep it. He realised that its propaganda value was at least as great as its military value. At that stage he proved himself to be a good planner who paid attention to detail, anticipated possible problems, and a man of action who could successfully implement his plan. Ryan’s narrative continued,
At last, with intense relief, on the following Friday night, Carew put a very simple plan into operation. He and his brother drove out along the main road with two loads of timber in separate carts. Carew’s brother went ahead a short distance until just past the dump. He signalled that all was clear, and then went ahead slowly.
Carew drove up to the dump, dismounted, and placed the three cases on the driver’s seat. He covered them with his overcoat, and sighed with relief. He reflected that on Wednesday the armoured car had broken down at this very spot. He lighted his pipe and drove on at a leisurely pace. He could see his brother away in the distance on the moonlit road. Ten minutes later, military cars and black Marias hurried past.
“Halt!” Out into the moonlight from the shadows stepped an RIC sergeant. Tom Carew noticed a police patrol, some thirteen strong, grouped in the semi-darkness from which his friend the sergeant emerged. He knew the sergeant had dubbed him a “Sinn Féiner”, although not such a bad specimen of a “Sinn Féiner” as Treacy, Robinson, Breen, or Hogan. The sergeant, moreover, and his patrol had been searching near the spot where the decoy sticks of gelignite had been dropped. Before he gave Carew this information, the sergeant informed him that the summons to halt was to inquire why there were no lights on the cart. Carew asked pleasantly why with so fine a moon, should anyone bother with lights?
The sergeant agreed there was something in that, but even Sinn Féiners should keep the law. Sinn Féiners, proceeded the sergeant pointedly, who rubbed shoulders with the murderers of policemen, scum who fired from behind ditches, and ran. The sergeant then gave Carew full details of the search carried out by himself and the patrol, and held up a stick of gelignite:
“Do you know what that is, Tom Carew?”
Tom Carew replied blandly that he could not say, unless it was some of the children’s sweetmeat known as “Peggy’s Leg”.
The sergeant retorted:
“No, it is not Peggy’s Leg. It’s some of the Soloheadbeg gelignite, stolen by your friends, the Sinn Féin murderers.”
“None of my friends are murderers,” said Carew, “And I have no sympathy with murderers, no, not even of you fellows. So, that’s the Soloheadbeg gelignite, is it? Well when you’ve got one stick of it there, sergeant, you must be damned near the rest of it!”
And Tom Carew sat contentedly on “the rest of it”, wondering whether all this back-chat and banter were not too good to last. There was an angry glint in the sergeant’s eye. He was disappointed with the result of his long search, and Carew’s jibe nettled him. He began to cross-examine Carew about his movements that day, and what his load was, and where it came from.
Fortunately, Carew’s story and a receipt he flourished under the sergeant’s nose was very plausible. He had been down to a sale of timber in Tipperary barracks and was bringing home what he had bought. The load of timber had, in fact, been bought in a sale at the barracks some time before by Carew’s father. Then a sharp-eyed constable confirmed the alibi by pointing out that the load of timber bore the label of Tipperary barracks.
Baffled, the sergeant bade Tom Carew a gruff farewell, with a parting word of advice to mind his lights in future, and to stop drilling with murderers.
That incident amply demonstrates the thoroughness of Carew’s planning. He’d allowed for the possibility of being stopped and had prepared as carefully as possible for such an eventuality. There is an old military adage which says, “No plan, no matter how perfect, survives first contact with the enemy”. He also had another necessary quality which a good commander needs to survive – luck. But his cool bravery and careful planning ensured that the element of luck bore fruit.
Having got through the cordon of searchers he then had to find a secure cache for the explosives. Desmond Ryan continued on to describe how he hid the booty.
Tom Carew went ahead, his horse plodding slowly along. Before he reached the family farm at Goldengarden, he halted once to dump the cases of gelignite in a neighbour’s mangold pit, and cover them with hay.
At early dawn the cases were shifted to a remote spot at the utmost end of Goldengarden farm, near a stream. A sod was cut near a place where cattle foddered, and a pit dug to a few feet below the surface. All clay and sand were removed in a bucket, dropped into the stream near some cow-tracks, and covered with weeds. Inside the pit Carew placed alternate layers of clay and stone, with the boxes underneath. The sod was carefully replaced.
Whether the RIC suspected Carew or not, or whether some vague information reached the British authorities, very shortly afterwards Goldengarden was the scene of military operations and police searches. The secret of the hiding place was known only to Carew and Larry Power, who were amused by the rumours among the local Volunteers and friendly neighbours about the location of the dump. Many theories were current, but none indicated Goldengarden, although Carew listened to several strictly confidential reports from others as to where exactly the dump was.
Military patrols became very active on the roads nearby. Police and soldiers in their methodical and continual searches often crossed the farm land. And then one day fourteen lorries rolled up to Goldengarden in force, spilled out some 200 RIC and soldiers, armed not only with spades, picks and long spikes, but unrolling detailed maps of the farm.
The raid went on for hours. When it started, Carew was out working on the land, and managed to conceal a revolver and get rid of some ammunition. As he entered the house, he was placed under arrest and armed guard, with the other members of his household.
He found the Tommies who guarded him friendly and very bored with their raids and searches. The searchers dug up and prodded place after place, and their shouts came up to him. The maps, and the thoroughness of the search, pointed to a very definite suspicion and, perhaps, to very definite information as well. So far as that was concerned Tom Carew worried very little, since only he and Larry Power knew the exact location of the dump. And then all at once, the gravest misgivings. The raiders had found the dump!
From away below by the stream a whistle sounded sharply and there were exultant shouts. Only a few soldiers remained on guard over the household. At the whistle almost every man dashed to the scene. Down by the stream and on the very spot where the dump had been sunk the raiders were working furiously, spades, picks and spikes all in action. If he had been beside the dump, Carew’s feelings would have been even less hopeful; the spikes were plunged full and deep into the dump itself so often and so fiercely that all around the marks made the earth above it look like a sieve.
One spike, in fact, struck the first box and chipped off a splinter of wood from the lid. By a lucky chance, the stones that made up the layers of the dump caused the spikes to glance aside. In the end, the search stopped, and the soldiers and the police, who made up the majority of the party, tramped back over the fields, their long hours of work ending in failure.
The Tommies who guarded Carew had very little sympathy for their police allies. As the first RIC men came in sight, one Tommy turned to Carew and said with feeling: “These black sons of bitches have found nothing again!”
The escape can’t be put down to mere luck. It was a testament to Tom’s extremely careful planning and intelligent decision-making.
It’s unreasonable to suppose that the huge raid was the result of chance or suspicion, no matter how strong it may have been. Somebody had obviously talked. It may have been pub gossip by Volunteers or neighbourly gossip by their female relatives. It’s similar to the WWII warning, “Careless talk costs lives”. It must also be admitted that at this early stage of the War of Independence, and following the deaths of two fairly popular policemen, some locals may have felt that it was their civic duty to aid the authorities in their efforts.
Desmond Ryan’s last reference to the gelignite read as follows,
In the meantime, the gelignite remained in its dump at Goldengarden from January until the following November. On the 10th or 11th of that month the gelignite was removed and served out as follows: One case for HQ South Tipperary Brigade; one case for the Tipperary Town Battalion; and one for the Rosegreen area. Larry Power and his men, assisted on one occasion by Norah O Keeffe of Glenough, made several journeys to remove it. The first use made of it was in the attack on Drumbane Hall in January 1920, almost a year to the day from its capture at Soloheadbeg.
John C. Ryan of Carhue, QM 3rd Batt, actually oversaw the removal from Goldengarden. In his Witness Statement to the Bureau of Military History (WS#1450) he described the removal.
Ned O Reilly, one of the O Keeffes of Glenough, myself and a few others were detailed for the job. We brought it to Carhue and buried it again in a garden about 200 yards from the gate entrance to my home. After a very short time we received information that the RIC were again on its track, so one night Con O Dwyer and myself exhumed it and reburied it in a valley in Carhue-Kale. It remained there for perhaps a month or so until arrangements were made to distribute it amongst the Battalions. I still possess a stick of it which I retained as a souvenir.
Tadg Dwyer, OC 3rd Batt., gave a slightly different account (BMH WS#1356) of the removal of the Gelignite to Carhue. It must be borne in mind that the two Battalion officers gave their statements to the BMH more than thirty years after the actual events.
It was handed over to Ned O Reilly and D. O Keeffe, who transported it to Carhue. Here the Battalion Quarter Master, John C. Ryan, took charge of it and transferred portion of it to members of the 2nd, (Cashel), Battalion. I cycled ahead of the 2nd Battalion men when they were on their way back with their portion of the gelignite, and at Ballagh school I spotted a patrol of RIC men. I was however, sufficiently ahead to be able to turn back and get the Cashel men away by another route.
Tadg Dwyer’s description of one allocation was more accurate than Desmond Ryan’s in one respect. The latter stated that one portion was sent to Rosegreen. But that Battalion didn’t exist at the end of 1919. It was part the Cashel Battalion, exactly as Dwyer stated.
The attack on Drombane barracks was among the first assault on an RIC barracks in the country. It was planned and led by Commdt. Patrick Kinnane, OC Upperchurch Battalion, Second Tipperary Brigade. The plan was to use some of the gelignite captured at Soloheadbeg to blow a hole in the gable end wall of the barracks. On the 18th January 1920 the building was surrounded by about 200 Volunteers, including a contingent from “C” Coy. (Hollyford), 3rd Batt. The explosives were emplaced and the fuse lit. The powerful ensuing explosion split the wall but it did not collapse as had been hoped. Just like Treacy a year previously, Kinnane had no “plan B”. So after exchanging shots with the RIC defenders the Volunteers withdrew and dispersed.
Phil Fitzgerald, the Adjutant of the 3rd Batt., recalled another time that the gelignite was used on a barracks.
January, 1919, “set the heather on fire”. Two RIC men, guarding explosives for quarrying purposes, were shot dead at Soloheadbeg. A large quantity of gelignite, two rifles and equipment were captured. We procured some of this stuff and had further experiments. Doon RIC barracks (East Limerick Brigade) was marked down for capture by local Battalion officers. They had no explosives and they invited us to bring along some to blow in a gable that had no visible portholes. Here was a golden opportunity to test our efficiency! We arrived there with, what we considered, enough gelignite to blow up the Great Pyramid. Our experiments had led us to believe that we could easily blow a hole in that wall. In spite of a snowstorm, trip wires which gave immediate alarm, the breaking through of already made portholes and dropping of hand grenades, and heavy rifle and machine gun fire, we managed to place three heavy charges in position. We had three terrific explosions but the wall stayed put.
Tadg Dwyer and Phil Fitzgerald had carried out several experiments on the use of gelignite as a breaching material. They perfected a system. It required that heavy planks be placed outside the explosive charges to direct the blast against the wall. The planks had to be held in place by stout wooden stakes. But in Doon the local Volunteers used iron spikes instead. They proved to be ineffective.
On 03 June 1920 more of the gelignite was used by the men who’d actually stolen it. The attack on Drangan RIC barracks was led by Seán Treacy and Séamus Robinson. They used the gelignite to manufacture “mud bombs”. They were sticks of gelignite encased in sticky yellow clay with fuses and detonators attached. They had been invented by Treacy and proved to be very effective at sticking explosives to roofs of buildings. So successful were they at Drangan that they were used in a number of other such attacks. After seven hours of fighting the RIC garrison surrendered. The IRA collected their weapons and munitions and burned the barracks.
Another member of the Soloheadbeg ambush party was also in action that night in Cappawhite. Tadg Crowe described the events of that night.
On the night of 4th June 1920, an attempt was made to capture Cappawhite RIC barracks. Cappawhite was in the East Limerick Brigade area but bordered on our area and we were asked to co-operate. We blocked the roads leading from Tipperary, and Tommy Ryan, Jim Kilmartin and I went to Cappawhite bringing with us a bag of “mud” bombs which had been made from some of the gelignite captured at Soloheadbeg.
The attack was a failure. The Volunteers failed to set the roof alight and after several hours the attack was called off. One Volunteer sustained minor injuries.
Apart from its uses in blowing breaches in barrack walls and helping to set roofs alight, the gelignite was also used in pipe bombs, used in trenching roads and in what are now called “IEDs” (improvised explosive devices), and in hand grenades. The brigade’s QM, Dan Breen, distributed it wherever it was needed. Amazingly the supply lasted to the Truce, 11 July 1921, a period of eighteen months. It was one of the most useful acquisition of war supplies captured by the Brigade. It also had a positive propaganda value as it proved that the Volunteers could carry through to success a military operation. It acted as a great morale booster too. It proved to the wavering Volunteers that their leaders were both in earnest about the armed struggle and that they had the ability to protect what they’d captured from the enemy. Its successful capture and retention steadied the waverers and put steel into the spines of the fainthearted.
Vol. Tadhg Crowe was there at the beginning when the gelignite was captured. It’s only fitting to give him the last word on the subject.
To conclude, it may be of interest to record that, shortly before the Truce, what was left of the gelignite taken at Soloheadbeg was used to destroy Ballydrohid and Aileen bridges. Ballydrohid bridge was blown up by the Battalion staff, that is by Brian Shanahan, Arthur Barlow, James Maloney, Matt Barlow and myself. I was present, too, at the destruction of Aileen bridge. That was about a week before the Truce, and I may say that I felt a sense of relief at seeing the end of that gelignite. Its history and its hairsbreadth escapes from recapture by the military and police after the Soloheadbeg ambush are fairly accurately described in Desmond Ryan’s book ”Seán Treacy and the Third Tipperary Brigade IRA”, and, I might add, they were almost as varied and as exciting as those of any of the men who took it.
 Breen, Dan, My Fight for Irish Freedom, The Talbot Press, 1924, pgs. 34, 35.  Ryan, Desmond. Sean Treacy and the Third Tipperary Brigade IRA, The Kerryman Ltd., Tralee. 1945.  The creamery is adjacent to the bridge mentioned in D. Breen’s narrative.  “E” Coy. (Solohead), 4th Batt. Later QM 4th Batt.  Captain “C” Coy. (Hollyford), 3rd Batt.  Two of his brothers, Jack and Dan, were Volunteers in “B” Coy., 3rd Batt.  James Carew, Goldengarden, Dundrum.  Statement # 1450, given on 05 July 1956.  Vice OC, 3rd Batt.  Vol. Dan O Keeffe, “D” Coy. (Rossmore), 3rd Batt.  Vol. Con O Dwyer, “B” Coy. (Anacarty). 3rd Batt.  His son, T. J., says that it’s still somewhere in his ancestral homestead.  Statement # 1356, given on 23 February 1956.  BMH, WS # 1475, given on 15 August 1956.  BMH WS #1262, given on 30 September 1955.  BMH WS # 1658, given 7 August 1957.  Batt. OC.  Batt Vice OC.  Batt. Adjutant..  Batt. Engineer.  Batt. QM.