Commandant Seán O’Hegarty Commemoration speech 30th June 2013
Firstly, it is with sincere regret that I cannot be present with you all this afternoon to commemorate the memory of the prominent, and distinguished, Soldier of Ireland, Commandant Seán O’Hegarty O/C Cork No.1 Brigade. I would also like to take this opportunity to extend my gratitude to the Irish Volunteers Commemoration Organisation for kindly representing me in my absence.
Seán was held with the highest regard by my grandfather, Brigade Captain Donncad Mac Niallghuis. My dear late uncle, Seán Mac Niallais, Donncad’s eldest son, once stated in a letter to me, that on every occasion that Seán O’Hegarty’s name was mentioned to Donncad, it was obvious that he was held in the highest esteem. ‘If you were to ask me who was my father’s greatest friend whilst he was on this earth,’ Seán Mac Niallais wrote, ‘without doubt, I would say: Seán O’Hegarty.’ The profound friendship between the Cork and Donegal men was both resolute and mutual, reflected in Seán’s letter of condolence on Donncad’s passing. The highest regard for Seán also remains so today by Donncad’s descendants for several reasons, though one incident in particular.
A significant factor in Seán and Donncad’s friendship was that they both placed great emphasis on a person’s character. Both were IRB-men who had joined the Cork Irish Volunteers at their formation, remained loyal to the Volunteer Executive during the Redmonite split, and ‘went out’ with the mobilised Cork Volunteers at Easter 1916. After the confusion or orders prevented the Rising in Cork and the subsequent mass arrests and internment of Volunteers, a small militant group of IRB men, including Donncad, and another mutual close friend, Brigade Adjutant Florrie O’Donoghue, began to gravitate under Seán’s leadership. Distrustful of political interference they became known as ‘Hegarty’s Crowd’ or the ‘Active Squad,’ adhered to Fenian tradition, and were determined to set the pace for Irish Independence. In addition to other activities, daring raids for arms ensued. One of their earliest being that of the Officer Cadets’ armoury at Cork Grammar School. As the pace stepped up, in September 1918, the British Commander in Chief, Frederick Shaw, extended a previous ban on the possession and carrying of weapons to cover the whole of Ireland. Irish Volunteer policy, however, was not to recognise the right of the British government to disarm or arrest them. This order was reiterated in an instruction published in An t-Ógláċ, the official organ of the Volunteers, that same month.
In addition to his Brigade duties, Donncad also acted as the city companies’ armourer. Acting on the word of an informer, in the early hours of November 4th 1918, three RIC men raided Donncad’s lodgings in Cork city. One RIC man was armed with a revolver. Donncad opened fire seriously wounding the head-constable and fiercely resisted arrest against the remaining two. During the desperate struggle, the landlord of the house, Denis Kelleher, courageously saved Donncad from near-fatal strangulation, for which he was later imprisoned. Both men were arrested after the arrival of re-enforcements led by District Inspector Swanzy and were imprisoned behind the daunting walls of Cork prison. Volunteer GHQ published praise for following the order in resisting arrest in An t-Ógláċ. However, the British, concerned with the resulting public excitement, sought to make an example of Donncad and recommended he be quickly tried by General Court Martial – which could potentially issue a death sentence. Seán, then acting Brigade O/C, on hearing of the arrest, had made no hesitation and urgently telegraphed Donncad’s brother, Peter. On meeting him in Cork, Seán told Peter to tell Donncad: ‘Your defence will be provided for.’ Seán then ordered a rescue plan. Assisted by Florrie O’Donoghue, teams of selected Volunteers, including O’Donoghue, were despatched to reconnoitre the prison interior, ostensibly visiting other prisoners, and succeeded in passing coded messages to Donncad. Despite serious reservations from some deeming the operation too risky, and knowing their own lives were at risk, seven days later, in the afternoon of Armistice Day 1918, they sprang into action.
Father Dominic O’Connor, the Brigade chaplain, made his way to the prison vicinity where he remained ready to provide spiritual aid in case of Volunteer fatality. With military precision, six armed rescuers, one dressed as a Christian Brother, entered the prison in paired intervals. A larger group took up position outside, cut the telegraph wires and held up an arriving party of armed soldiers. At a specified time, several of the inside party seized control of the guardroom, restrained the warders, and isolated the communications. Two Volunteers then proceeded with a warder to the visiting room where Donncad was waiting. The warder was promptly overpowered, the separation partition breached, Donncad was handed a revolver, and all three, evading sentry, raced through the prison grounds and main gate just as the alarm was raised. Moments later the astonished governor, warders and armed sentries were in pursuit. But they were too late – the prisoner and rescuers had vanished without a single shot being fired.
Seán’s rescue operation caused a sensation throughout the country and was widely reported in the media including The Times in London. The Cork Examiner described it as ‘one of the most extraordinary and carefully planned coups of its kind ever brought off in the history of Irish, or indeed any other prisons.’ Michael Collins sent a celebratory telegram to the Cork Brigade. Cathal O’Shannon called it ‘one of the smartest operations carried out by the Volunteers anytime, anywhere.’ Dan Corkery explained that Volunteer morale had previously been at a low ebb due to the end of World War one and the return of thousands of British troops: ‘We went silently fearing the worst… England could now do what she liked…then the news that Mac Niallghuis had been rescued from a dark and threatening pile, well policed, well soldiered, began to spread almost everywhere.. and then when confirmed, was nothing less than sunshine spoken.’ Even the bewildered Dublin Castle, the seat of the British government in Ireland, conceded it had been conducted with great ingenuity. An t-Ógláċ praised the operation, held the rescuers as the model to follow and instructed all Irish Volunteers to emulate them. An extensive man-hunt continued throughout Ireland and Britain and a counter-intelligence battle of wits ensued. Renowned for his dry humour, Seán later arranged for Cork Corporation to elect a High Sherriff for the city. Audaciously, the four nominations sent to the British Lord-Lieutenant were all his IRB-men, including Donncad, who were currently either imprisoned or on the run. Donncad continued his activities and was never captured again.
In 1925 Donncad and his wife Peig lived in Seán O’Hegarty’s home for several months and Peig regularly accompanied Seán’s mother Katherine to morning mass. Seán’s wife Maghdalen (Mid) kindly continued to send a Christmas pudding each year to the Mac Niallghuis home until she passed away in 1940. It was a gesture dearly appreciated by a large family, particularly during the difficult economic period.
In the summer of 1956, two years after Donncad’s passing, Seán Mac Niallais visited Seán O’Hegarty in his Cork home. Inside was a photo of the young Mac Niallghuis children within a small ornamental picture stand that Donncad had made him. A photograph also exists of the three friends and brothers in arms, Seán O’Hegarty, Florrie O’Donoghue and Donncad Mac Niallghuis taken together at Ardnacrusha in 1927.
Whilst the Mac Niallghuis rescue was, of course, but one of a number of successful spectacular operations organised and commanded by Commandant Seán O’Hegarty for Irish Freedom; Donncad’s descendants will especially always remember Seán, and his rescue team, for risking their lives to save Donncad’s life on that afternoon on Armistice Day 1918, and all those who protected him.
Antaine Mac Coscair.