“Sean Treacy”


"We often heard our fathers tell How in the Fenian times The noblest of Tipperary's sons Imprisoned spent their lives." The police pursue Treacy; he kills two before being slain himself. The song reports, "He died for Ireland free."


This English-language song conclude with the ironic words, "In our Gaelic tongue we'll tell our sons How brave Sean Treacy died."

It might be more interesting to start by telling why Treacy was pursued. According to the distinctly pro-Irish historian Calton Younger, "Two Irish policement were shot dead at Soloheadbeg, on January 21st, 1919....

"[E]ight men of the south Tipperary Brigade of what was soon to be widely known as the Irish Republican Army... lay in ambush for five days waiting for a cart of gelignite [or 'blasting gelatine' -- nitroglycerine plus collodion, a shapable high explosive created by Alfred Nobel].

"[T]he car was guarded by two unwary constables, MacDonnell and O'Connell.... [Both] were popular enough in the district. With them were two employees of the South Tipperary County Council.... [They] were shot down by Sean Treacy, second-in-command of the South Tipperary Brigade." (Younger, _Ireland's Civil War_, p. 85).

Robert Kee, in _Ourselves Alone_, being volume III of _The Green Flag_, p. 58, says of the reaction to this incident, "The two Irish constables, both Catholics, one a widower with four children, were very popular locally and had never had any connection with political prosecutions. Their deaths aroused widespread indication and horror, and there was a poignant moment at the inquest when one of McDonnell's sons asked if they had been given any time to surrender the explosives or if they had had a dog's chance."

It may be that the two made an attempt at resistance. But there is no question: Treacy was a terrorist. Fighting for an Irish republic, but a terrorist. In fact, in Younger's view at least, he was the prototype: "[Treacy and Dan Breen] were the first to steel themselves to kill, to acquire the kind of mentality that men must acquire to win freedom" (p. 87).

The popular reaction was less positive. Kee p. 58 adds, "The action was condemned as a crime at the masses throughout Tipperary the following Sunday and the Archbishop of Cashel in Thurles Cathedral proclaimed it an offense against the law of God.... [A]nother cleric, Monsignor Ryan, cried, 'God help poor Ireland if she follows this deed of blood.'

"Nevertheless, in spite of an offer of [a thousand pound reward], the killers were able to vanish without a trace until an even more sensational appearance three months later."

Their bloody work did have some effect. Kee, p. 59, notes, "[t]heir objects were often more successfully served by the British authorities' reaction to Volunteer exploits than by the military results of the exploits themselves." Which, of course, is exactly what happened with the Easter Rebellion, too: The Irish despised the initial rebellious act, but despised the severe British response even more.

After many months on the run for this and other incidents (see also the notes to "The Station of Knocklong" and "Tipperary Far Away"), Treacy finally died in a shoot-out with police. According to Younger, p. 121, "they had caught up with him, bringing an armoured car and two lorry loads of auxiliaries." Treacy opened fire, killing at least two of the attackers; they responded with machine gun fire, killing Treacy and two bystanders.

Younger adds that the woman "who identified his body saw that it had been impeccably laid out, and a soldier on guard gave her a lock of Treacy's hair." But Younger does not cite a single source with regard to the death of Treacy; I wonder if parts of his account, incluing the hair, might not be taken from this song and "Tipperary Far Away" (which mentions the hair business).

Kee, p. 116, adds that he "easily became a hero as legendary as Cuchulain." And yet, of eight histories I consulted, Kee is the only one to mention Treacy in three contexts (Knocklong, Soloheadbeg, and his death). One mentions Soloheadbeg and his death, two mention only Soloheadbeg (one of them mentioning him also in his role as part of the hit squad led by Michael Collins), one tells of Knocklong, and the rest don't mention him at all. - RBW

Historical references

  • Oct 14, 1920 - death of Sean Treacy (Tracey)

Cross references


  1. PGalvin, pp. 65-66, "Sean Treacy" (1 text, 1 tune)
  2. BI, PGa065


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1962 (Galvin)
Found in: Ireland