Seán Treacy (Irish: Seán Ó Treasaigh; 14 February 1895 – 14 October 1920) was one of the leaders of the Third Tipperary Brigade of the Irish Republican Army during the Irish War of Independence. He helped to start the conflict in 1919 and was killed in a shootout with British troops in Talbot Street, Dublin during an aborted British Secret Service surveillance operation in October 1920. Although sometimes spelled as ‘Tracy’ or ‘Tracey’ as inscribed on the commemorative plaque in Talbot Street, his surname is more often spelled as ‘Treacy’.
Treacy came from a small-farming background in west County Tipperary. He left school aged 14 and worked as farmer, also developing deep Irish nationalist convictions. He was a member of the Gaelic League, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) since 1911 and the Irish Volunteers since 1913. He was arrested in the aftermath of the Easter Rising in 1916 and spent much of the following two years in prison, where he went on hunger strike on several occasions. From Dundalk jail in 1918 he wrote to his comrades in Tipperary, “Deport all in favour of the enemy out of the country. Deal sternly with those who try to resist. Maintain the strictest discipline, there must be no running to kiss mothers goodbye”. In 1918 he was appointed Vice Officer-Commanding of the Third Tipperary Brigade of the Volunteers (which became the Irish Republican Army in 1919). He was impatient for action and was disappointed that the IRB leadership forbade attacks on the police in 1917.
The Soloheadbeg ambush
On 21 January 1919 Treacy and Dan Breen, together with Seán Hogan, Séamus Robinson and five other volunteers, helped to ignite the conflict that was to become the Irish War of Independence. They ambushed and shot dead two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) — Constables Patrick MacDonnell and James O’Connell — near their homes at Soloheadbeg in County Tipperary. The RIC men were transporting gelignite explosives; when they allegedly refused to surrender and offered resistance, the Volunteers shot them dead. Robinson was the organiser of the action, while Treacy was the logistics expert.
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…” Breen’s later comment suggests that the aim of the attack was to capture or kill as many policemen as possible, for political and military effect.
The Knocklong train rescue
As a result of the action, South Tipperary was placed under martial law and declared a Special Military Area under the Defence of the Realm Act. After another member of the Soloheadbeg ambush party, Seán Hogan, was arrested on 12 May 1919, the three others (Treacy, Breen and Séamus Robinson) were joined by five men from the IRA’s East Limerick Brigade in order to organise Hogan’s rescue. Hogan was being transported by train from Thurles to Cork city on 13 May 1919, and the men, led by Treacy, boarded the train in Knocklong. A vicious close-range struggle, involving man-to-man combat, ensued on the train. Treacy and Breen were seriously wounded in the gunfight. Two policemen died, but Hogan was rescued. He was brought by his rescuers to the nearby village of Knocklong where his handcuffs were removed using a cleaver in the local butcher’s shop.
A thorough search for Treacy and others was mounted afterwards. Treacy had to leave Tipperary for Dublin in order to avoid capture. In Dublin, Michael Collins employed Treacy on assassination operations with “the Squad”. He was involved in the attempted killing of British general Sir John French in December 1919. In the summer of 1920, he returned to Tipperary and organised several attacks on RIC barracks, notably at Ballagh, Clerihan and Drangan before again seeking refuge in Dublin.
By the spring of 1920 the political police of both the Crimes Special Branch of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and G-Division (Special Branch) of the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) had been effectively neutralized by IRA counterintelligence operatives working for Michael Collins. The British thoroughly reorganized their administration at Dublin Castle, including the appointment of Army Colonel Ormande de l’Eppe Winter as Chief of a new Combined Intelligence Service (CIS) for Ireland. Working closely with Sir Basil Thomson, Director of Civil Intelligence in the Home Office, with Colonel Hill Dillon, Chief of British Military Intelligence in Ireland, and with the local British Secret Service Head of Station Count Sevigné at Dublin Castle, Ormonde Winter began to import dozens of professional Secret Service agents from all parts of the British Empire into Ireland to track down IRA operatives and Sinn Féin leaders.
Treacy and Dan Breen were relocated to Dublin where they were directed to operate with Michael Collins’ infamous assassination unit, “The Squad”. The Squad’s mission was to surveil and assassinate British secret agents, political policemen and their informants, and to carry out other special missions for General Headquarters (GHQ) as directed by Collins. With help from police inspectors brought up to Dublin from Tipperary, Ormonde Winter’s CIS effectively spotted Treacy and Breen shortly after their arrival in Dublin and placed them under surveillance.
Death On the 11th of October 1920
Treacy and Breen were holed up in a safehouse – Fernside – at Drumcondra, in north Dublin when it was raided by a police unit. In the ensuing shootout, two senior British officers were wounded and died the next day, Major Smyth and Captain White, while Breen was seriously wounded and the homeowner, Dr. Carolan, was killed.
Treacy and Breen managed to escape through a window and shot their way through the police cordon. The injured Breen was spirited away to Dublin’s Mater hospital where he was admitted in alias persona. Treacy had been wounded but not seriously. The British search for the two was intense and Collins ordered the Squad to guard them while plans were laid for Treacy to be exfiltrated from the Dublin metro area. Treacy hoped to return to Tipperary; realizing that the major thoroughfares would be under surveillance, he purchased a bicycle with the intent of cycling to Tipperary via the backroads.
When Collins learned that a public funeral for the two officers killed at Fernside was to take place on October 14, he ordered the Squad to set up along the procession route and to take out further senior members of the RIC and the DMP. Four or five members of the Squad assembled at a Dublin safehouse early on October 14 in preparation for this operation. Treacy was to join them for his own protection, but arrived late, to discover that Collins had cancelled the attack. While the others quietly dispersed, Treacy lingered behind in the safehouse. But a British Secret Service surveillance team working under Winter’s direction and led by Major Carew and Lt. Gilbert Price had followed Treacy in the hope that he would lead them to Collins or to other high-value IRA targets. Seeing Treacy enter the premises, they set up a stake-out of the building.
A decision was made to apprehend Treacy as soon as he emerged from the safehouse. When Treacy eventually stepped out, Price drew his pistol and closed in on Treacy. Treacy drew his parabellum automatic pistol and shot Price and another British agent before he was hit in the head, dying instantly. Rushing to the scene, Colonel Winter was horrified to see the bodies of Treacy and his own agents lying dead in Talbot Street. The entire confrontation had been witnessed by a Dublin newspaper reporter who captured a photo of Price the instant he had been hit. Making a statement to the reporter, Ormonde Winter called the event “a tragedy.”
Treacy’s death sent alarm bells through the upper echelons of the IRA leadership and it appears to have been a factor in the decision by Richard Mulcahy (IRA Chief of Staff) and Cathal Brugha (Minister of Defence) to approve Michael Collins’ (Director of Intelligence) plan to assassinate en masse some two dozen British Secret Service agents, Special Branch agents and British informers a month later. These assassinations were carried out on Sunday, November 21, 1920—a date that has been called “Bloody Sunday”.
Some historians of the period consider that Seán Treacy may have been the most feared IRA operative in Ireland. A hardened killer with the sensibilities and manners of a monk, Treacy was one of the few IRA soldiers to stand up to Michael Collins. Collins had a bullying, no-nonsense management style that intimidated most subordinates. Most feared the wrath of the blustering Collins more than their British enemy.
Treacy, on the other hand, had no such fear of the IRA Chief. In one memorable incident, Treacy escorted a young lady friend to a speech by Collins to a group of Sinn Féin supporters. As Collins got wound up in his remarks, he increasingly salted his speech with profanity. Suddenly the Vice Commander of the Third Tipperary Brigade stood up and held up his hand, silencing Collins. Treacy then indignantly rebuked Collins for using such language in the presence of mixed company and demanded that Collins apologize to his girl friend. A very nonplussed and embarrassed Michael Collins stared at Treacy awhile before regaining his composure and then apologized for his dirty talk. Treacy retook his seat, and the meeting proceeded.
A commemorative plaque above the door commemorates the spot where Treacy died. His coffin arrived by train at Limerick Junction station and was accompanied to St. Nicholas Church, Solohead by an immense crowd of Tipperary people. He was buried at Kilfeacle graveyard, where despite a large presence of British military personnel, a volley of shots was fired over the grave.
Seán Treacy’s death is remembered each year on the anniversary of his death at a commemoration ceremony in Kilfeacle. At noon on the morning of All-Ireland Senior Hurling Finals in which Tipperary participate, a ceremony of remembrance is also held at the spot in Talbot Street where he died, attended mainly by people from West Tipperary and Dublin people of Tipperary extraction.
The last such ceremony was held at midday on Sunday, 5 September, 2010 and attracted a large attendance, most of whom were en route to Croke Park. In Thurles, Co.Tipperary there is an avenue named after him – Seán Treacy Avenue. The town of Tipperary is also home to the Seán Treacy Memorial Swimming Pool which contains many relics of the Easter Rising and IRA, as well as a copy of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. The song “Seán Treacy”, also called Tipperary so Far Away is about Treacy’s death and is still sung with pride in West Tipperary.