On New Year’s Day in 1957, an event occurred that is remembered in song to this day. It all began after World War Two brought change to Northern Ireland as Loyalists and Nationalists shared the same bomb shelters, breaking down the barriers of prejudice erected to keep them divided. The war also created a small measure of prosperity that satisfied some grievances. After the war in 1945, England had to rebuild those barriers to maintain control of the north. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill publicly blasted the Irish Free State for neutrality during the war despite Ireland’s support of the Allies and the tens of thousands of Irish volunteers in the British military – all of which was well known to the government though not to the general public. On 21 December 1948, in an era of post-war high taxes and unemployment, the Irish Free State abolished its Commonwealth status and passed the Republic of Ireland Act to come into effect on Easter Monday, 33 years after Pearse’s declaration at the GPO. On 20 January 1949, Northern PM Basil Brooke, called for a general election on 10 February. Southern PM Costello urged support for anti-partition candidates in that election with pamphlets describing discrimination and gerrymandering in the North. Unionists retaliated with a torrent of anti-Republic and anti-Catholic propaganda that worked on sectarian fears declaring that if the border went, loyalists would be victims of IRA gunmen urged on by Catholic clergy in an effort to establish the Pope as ruler of Ireland. The propaganda had the desired effect, as the Unionists returned to power.
In the South; Dail Eireann brought the Republic of Ireland Act into effect on Easter Monday, 18 April 1949. On 3 May, British PM Clement Atlee declared that Northern Ireland shall remain a part of the United Kingdom, and affirmed to the Loyalist community that in no event will Northern Ireland or any part thereof cease to be part of “Her Majesty’s Dominions” without the consent of the Parliament of Northern Ireland. The new Republic of Ireland protested Britain’s continued partition and urged action, but was not prepared for anything more than a protest. With tempers at a fever pitch, the call for action was heard and the IRA was reborn.
Depleted in numbers and finances, the IRA began reorganizing. They gathered support by objecting to the mistreatment of Northern nationalists, and emerged in their traditional role of spokesmen for the people with the rallying cry: The Border Must Go! On June 5, 1951, the Derry unit of the new IRA raided Ebrington Barracks and captured a quantity of guns and ammunition. As raids continued, the situation became more tense and B-Special patrols became more violent. The Irish Times urged the Northern government to curb its patrols, noting that paramilitary forces are an anachronism in a democratic society, to no avail. On August 15, 1955, four men attacked a Royal Artillery Training Camp, but fled as a sentry gave the alarm. Citing that attack, the Minister of War made a special report to the Cabinet and PM Anthony Eden ordered mobilization to deal with the new IRA campaign. It was later abandoned when four British Officers confessed to the raid to make things hotter for the IRA. An embarrassed War Office sent a communique to the police apologizing for the trouble caused and the matter was dropped. Then, on the night of 12 December 1956, IRA volunteers assembled in 10 areas along the border in an arc from Antrim to Derry. On a signal from campaign center in Monaghan, the morning quiet was broken by numerous explosions. The Border Campaign to retake the Six Counties had begun. Reaction was swift and by December 15, the Special Powers Act was revived allowing arrest and internment without warrant or trial, a curfew was imposed and police forces were strengthened. On December 22, the RUC spiked or blew up every border crossing road and bridge that had no customs post. By the end of the year 3,000 RUC and 12,000 B-Specials were called into action, and the North was an armed camp.
On the morning of January 1, 1957, an IRA raiding party attacked an RUC barracks in Brookeborough, Co. Fermanagh. They parked their truck in front of the barracks and opened fire with rifles and a Bren gun while an assault group plsced a land mine against the building. The mine did not explode and the group returned through a hail of bullets for another one. This too misfired. The raiders began to run out of ammunition as the barracks returned a deadly rain of fire. Misfortune continued as one of the raiders threw a grenade at a barrack window to cover their retreat. The grenade bounced off the building, rolled under the truck and exploded, blowing the tires and damaging the gears. Somehow the raiders limped away in the crippled truck which gave out near the town of Roslea where the badly shot up raiding party sought refuge in an old barn. Six of the party were wounded and two were unable to travel – 19-year old Fergal O’Hanlon of Monaghan and 27-year old Sean South of Limerick. Both went unconscious as one of the party volunteered to stay behind and hold off the RUC while the others escaped. However, such an action would endanger the lives of their unconscious comrades so it was decided to leave them to be captured so they would at least get the medical attention needed to save them. The rest of the raiding party retreated toward the border.
The RUC arrived just after the IRA had left and opened fire on the barn. The retreating IRA men then heard a second burst of fire. They prayed it was just the warning shots associated with assaulting a military target, but they later learned it was the murder of their two unconscious comrades. This became yet another source of unforgiving bitterness for years to come. Author Tim Pat Coogan wrote, “In a sense the Brookeborough ambush explains everything about the IRA and its hold on Irish tradition. It shows the courage, the self-sacrifice, the blundering and the emotional appeal that have characterized and kept alive the IRA spirit for centuries.”
The two young men who lost their lives in the Brookborough affair were given two of the biggest funerals in living memory – but during their lives there was never sufficient public support for their aims for them to receive proper military training or even or even to be correctly briefed on the target that claimed their lives. The two patriots killed in the raid, took their place among the martyrs to Ireland’s cause, and their memories were kept alive in songs which have become part of the Nationalist tradition to this day: “Sean South of Garryowen” and “The Patriot Game.”
Also present at the raid at Brookeborough Barracks was Dáithi Ó Conaill, later a prominent figure in both the Provisional IRA and the Continuity IRA; and Ruairi Ó Bradaigh, later president of Provisional Sinn Féin and Republican Sinn Féin.
“Sean South of Garryowen” was written by Seamas O’Dufaigh of Aghamor, Co. Mayo, though South was not actually from Garryowen. “The Patriot Game” was written by Dominic Behan of Dublin City.
By Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian Emeritus.