Dan Breen

1894-1969, b. Donohill, Co. Tipperary; joined Irish Volunteers 1914; participated with Seán Tracy in the ambush at Soloheadbeg, nr. Monard, Co. Tipperary, 21 Jan. 1919, in which Tracy fired the revolver rounds that killed two RIC-men (Constables McDonell and O’Connell) escorting a load of dynamite, thus initiating the Anglo-Irish War, 1919-21; Breen led the 3rd Tipperary Brigade of IRA, attracting an award of £1,000 for his arrest; rescued Sean Hogan from guarded train at Knocklong Station, and shot himself free from a house in Drumcondra with Tracy, though badly wounded;
travelled went to America but returned on request of Liam Lynch; endured 12 days of hunger-strike and was elected TD for Tipperary while in prison, 1923; member of Clann Éireann and anti-Treaty deputy, Jan. 1927, being the first republican to take the Oath of Allegiance; spent some years in Chicago [USA], where he managed a speak-easy; elected Tipperary TD, 1932-65 (during which he was noted for his finger-snapping method of attracting the attention of the Ceann Comhairle); promoted early film industry in Ireland as TD;
his record of guerrilla war, My Fight for Irish Freedom (1924), was brought to print with much assistance from Katherine O’Doherty (wife of Séamus O’Doherty) - to whom he refused to pay the agreed sum of £20 due to her as ghost-writer in spite of the book’s success; a later edition deletes the admission that the Soloheadbeg attack had been intended to break the stale-mate; prominently displayed pictures of Hitler in his house till 1948; commended his enemies in the Civil War and called for reconciliation with the Northern Ulstermen in Dáil farewell speech, 1961;
reputedly said on RTÉ television, ‘We got our freedom too late - we should have got it in 1798’ and expressed no regrets for Soloheadbeg on the grounds that he would ‘do it again’ if his country were invaded. DIB DIH

Wanted 1919
Dan Breen

Dan Breen (calling himself Commander of the 3rd Tipperary Brigade)

Age 27, 5 feet 7 inches in height, bronzed complexion, dark hair (long in front), grey eyes, short cocked nose, stout build, weight about 12 stone, clean shaven; sulky appearance, looks rather like a blacksmith coming from work; wears cap pulled well down over face.
  The above reward will be paid by the Irish Authorities to any person not in the Public Service who may give information resulting in his arrest.

Images given in Johan Gustaf Richert, Irland och Irländarna (Stockholm: Allen & Akerlunds Forlag 1925), ill. [52 illustrationer kartor, portratt och vyer]. Available at Runeberg.org > [Irland] Ireland - online.

My Fight for Irish Freedom, [intro. by Joseph McGarrity] (Dublin: Talbot 1924; 3 edns.), xii, 258pp.; Do. [2nd edn.] with an introduction by Joseph McGarrity (Dublin: Talbot Press 1924), xii, 258pp., 12 pls.; Do. (Dublin: Anvil Books 1964, 1974), 192pp.; and Do. [new edn.], incl. letter to Dan Breen from G. Bernard Shaw and introduction by the editor of Anvil Books (Dublin: Anvil Books 1981), 208pp., 16 pls.; also Do., in an Irish trans. by Séamas Daltún as Ag troid ar son na saoirse (Tralee: Anvil 1964).

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Joe Ambrose, The Dan Breen Story (Cork: Mercier 1981), 119pp., and Do. [rev. edn.], as Dan Breen and the IRA (Cork: Mercier 2006), 224pp., ill. [8pp. photos]; Oliver Snoddy, ‘Notes on Literature in Irish Dealing with the Fight for Freedom’, in Éire-Ireland, 3, 2 (Summer 1968), pp. 138-48.

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Denis Ireland
(From an Irish Shore, 1939), is ‘still wondering if Mr. Breen wrote it [My Fight] himself’ [145]; gives long account with quotations from Dan Breen’s My Fight for Irish Freedom; called the narrative ‘something Homeric in the full sense of that overworked epithet’ [146]; his ‘escape from the house in Drumcondra one of the most extraordinary incidents of the Black and Tan War in Ireland.’ [152].

St. John Ervine, Craigavon (1949), calls My Fight for Irish Freedom ‘a work writen in the worst style of journalistic clap-trap’, citing Michael Collins’s repudiation of the Soloheadbeg in the Dáil (p.336).

Frank O’Connor, An Only Child (1961), Chap. 15: ‘I did not like Breen. His mother told my mother that even when he was a small boy no one could control him [...] He was greedy with a child’s greed, shouted everyone down with what he thought were funny stories or denunciations of the “bleddy eejits” who ran the country or its music, and battered a Beethoven sonata to death with his red eyebrows reverently raised, believing himself to be a man of perfect manners, liberal ideas, and perfect taste. [...] He quarrelled bitterly with me after the first performance of a play called The Invincibles [by Thomas Morton, 1829] because he had convinced himself that I had caricatured him in the part of Joe Brady, the leader of the assassins - a brave and simple man driven mad by injustice - and though at the time I was disturbed because such an idea had never occurred to me, it seems to me now that the characters in whom we thing we recognise ourselves are infinitely more revealing of our real personalities than those in which someone actually attempts to portray us.’ ( pp.192-93; rep. in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, gen. ed. Seamus Deane, Derry: Field Day 1991, Vol. 3.)

Peter Costello, The Heart Grown Brutal: The Irish Revolution in Literature from Parnell to the Death of W. B. Yeats, 1891-1939 (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 1977), quotes Charles Townsend to the effect that there can be no doubt from the account written by Sean Tracy’s companion-in-arms Dan Breen that the attack at Soloheadbeg that the attack was a self-conscious assertion of the ‘physical force’ wing. (Townsend, The British Campaign in Ireland, 1919-21, Oxford 1975, p.16, citing Breen, 1924, new edn. 1964, p.38; Costello, op. cit., p.117.)

Robert Kee, The Green Flag (1972), writes: ‘When Ernie O’Malley captured three British Officers and felt obliged to execute them in the period of retaliations, Summer 1921, Dan Breen finished them off with revolver shots as they lay twitching on the ground.’ (pp.707-08, citing O’Malley, On Another Man’s Wounds, pp.328-32.)

Brian Inglis, Downstart: Autobiography of Brian Inglis (London: Chatto & Windus 1990): ‘When West Briton [his earlier autobiographical work] was published in 1962, I had another indication of the way things were changing in Ireland, in the form of a letter from Dan Breen. In 1919 Breen had led a group of Volunteers in Tipperary in the ambush which triggered off the War of Independence; “one of the great berserkers of the war”, Tim. Pat Coogan had described him in Ireland since the Rising, who had eventually become “in many ways the most colourful figure in the Dail”. I had thought Breen an incorrigible Republican hardliner, but in his farewell speech to the Dail in 1961 he had included tributes to some of the men he had fought against in the Civil War, and had actually urged reconciliation with the Ulster Orangemen, in place of the anti-Partition campaign. Now, “You will I know be surprised” he wrote, “to get a letter from me. Your grandmother would not like it - in fact she may now turn in her grave at you reading it. I only want to congratulate you on your book “West Briton”. You surely got to grips with the real position. It’s sad for Ireland to lose men like you - you are needed back here to build up an Ireland not rich, but with a culture.” The handwriting was at times barely legible; he had been ill for some time, he explained, and found it hard to write, “so excuse my effort”. As I wrote back to tell him, I could think of no letter which had given me more pleasure.’ (p.273.)

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Benedict Kiely, Drink to the Bird (London: Methuen 1991): ‘[My Fight for Irish Freedom] was, about that time, almost compulsory Irish nationalist reading. But even though Dan Breen had to be accepted as a Tipperary hero battling in the 1920s against the pretty atrocious Black-and-Tans, my sophisticated secondary-school taste did not give a high rating to his book, not for political but for literary reasons. Don’t remember now, if I ever did know, whether Dan Breen wrote the book himself or had somebody do it for him. But it was a crude enough story and not too well told. / M. J.’s [Kiely’s school-teacher] objections were more and other than literary. He held it no heroic thing to hide behind a hedge and shoot men in the back. His was an outdated standard of behaviour even then and one that would have imposed an over-rigorous discipline on the devoted guerrilla. Yet when, in later years, I met Dan Breen and found him to be a charming, humorous and human man, it occurred to me, from the hints I gathered from his talk, that his standards did not much differ from those of M. J. Curry. Deeds done in the heat of youth, and not only deeds of blood, seem different to the backward view of age. Naturally I did not raise the delicate topic with Dan Breen, to whom I was introduced by a celebrated Capuchin friar. But in the conversation that followed our introduction, he spoke broodingly of bad times and of things then done [146] that in the time and place he was talking in (Dublin in the late 1940s) would be difficult to justify. He was not speaking only of or for himself. / We have lived, some of us, to see better times and more abominable deeds.’ (pp.145-46; and note: Kiely goes on to explain the inspiration for his own novel Proxopera - see longer extract, infra.)

Roy Foster, Paddy and Mr Punch (1993), remarks that Breen’s admission to having detonated the Anglo-Irish war was inspired by suspicions that the Sinn Féin politicians were going to adopt a constitutional rather than a ‘physical force’ approach; this admission was deleted in the second edn. and edns. thereafter. (Foster, p.97.)

Jer O’Leary, letter in History Ireland (Winter 1997), claims that the ambush of a party of the RIC by men of ‘D’ Company of the Volunteers resulted in the capture of two magazine Lee-Metfor carbines and two slings of .303 ammunition with 50 rounds occurring nr. Beala Ghleanna, between Ballyvourney and Balingary in West Cork on 8 July 1918, six months before Soloheadbeg. (p.11.)

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God of mercy: ‘They talk about a God of mercy. No God of mercy could allow the pain I’m suffering now.’ (Reputedly said in interview on RTÉ when he was dying of cancer; quoted in Pearse Hutchinson, contrib. to Dermot Bolger, ed., short contrib. to Letters from the New Island: 16 on 16 (1988), p.14.

On Soloheadbeg

… we took the action deliberately, having thought over the matter and talked it over between us. [Seán] 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.

Quoted in Remembering Sean Tracy, in "Come Here To Me!", Dublin Life & Culture (17 Aug. 2019) - online; posted on FB by Basil Miller, 17.08.2019.

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Dorothy Macardle the historian Macardle offers an account of Soloheadbeg in Irish Republic with remarks on Breen which De Valera called ‘an exhaustive chronicle of fact’.

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