11 January 2007 Edition
Sabhat/O'Hanlon 50th anniversary: Capacity crowd attends Memorial Lecture
O’Hanlon’s memory alive in Monaghan
A capacity crowd attended the annual Fergal O’Hanlon Memorial lecture in the Family Resource Centree, Teach Na nDaoine in Cortolvin last Sunday where this year’s address was given historian and University of Limerick lecturer, Dr. Ruan O’Donnell.
The annual lecture series commenced in 1982 on the 25th anniversary of the death of Vol. Fergal O’Hanlon.
Proceedings were overseen by Monaghan town Sinn Féin chairperson Barry Deeney. Also at the top table were Cavan/Monaghan TD and Sinn Féin Dáil Leader, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin and Cllr. Pádraigín Uí Mhurchadha, sister of Feargal. We carry below an edited version of O’Donnell’s address:
This year, the 50th anniversary of the death of Fergal O’Hanlon, is a particularly poignant occasion for his relations and comrades, many of whom are present today in Teach na nDaoine Resource Centre. As is well known, O’Hanlon was a member of the IRA’s Pearse Column which attacked Brookeborough RUC barracks, Fermanagh, on New Year’s Day, 1957. Sadly, he was fatally wounded in this famous operation, along with Limerick man Seán Sabhat. Their motives have been maligned by cynics and dismissed by others. As such, this anniversary is a highly appropriate opportunity to reflect on the circumstances which brought two young men from Monaghan town and Limerick city to fight and die in south Fermanagh.
The Brookeborough Raid was one in a series of attacks mounted by the IRA in the early phase of the Border Campaign of 1956-62. The genesis of the offensive lay in a 1948 decision by the Army Council to wage a campaign against the British forces in the North of Ireland whenever circumstances were most propitious. To this end, Sinn Féin was co-opted as the political engine of the Republican Movement and the United Irishman newspaper was launched to publicize its views. Clashes with the military and police of the Republic were strictly prohibited and this initiative created breathing room for a comprehensive re-organization of the IRA. Recruit classes attracted hundreds of idealistic young men, not least O’Hanlon, who joined when first eligible aged eighteen. Meanwhile, a series of daring arms raids in 1951-4 re-equipped the IRA out of British military stores and raised the media profile and internal morale of the Movement. Supply lines to North America were also re-invigorated and the resurgent Sinn Féin secured over 150,000 votes for abstentionist prisoner candidates in the Six Counties in 1955. While a split in the Dublin Unit in mid-1956 represented an inconvenient and untimely set back, the Army Council believed it had the necessary personnel, war materiel and public support to proceed with a campaign of sabotage in the North from 12 December.
O’Hanlon’s role in such events remains difficult to document owing to the necessary silences surrounding the history of revolutionary activities in modern Ireland. His initial participation, however, is readily explicable. Born in 1936 into a republican and Irish speaking family, Eugene and Alice O’Hanlon would have noticed their son’s academic promise when a student of Monaghan CBS and St. Macartan’s College. He was a skilled and athletic GAA footballer and also played for a local handball team. Having graduated with his Leaving Certificate, the young O’Hanlon secured employment with Monaghan County Council. He could easily have opted for a secure and quiet life at home during a period when a chronic economic crisis drove thousands of his fellow citizens overseas. Instead, he joined the IRA. This was no impetuous or romantic decision but rather one borne of due consideration and deep ideological commitment. His social circle included youths from the Six Counties and, like all residents of Monaghan, he was daily confronted by the iniquitous consequences of partition.
O’Hanlon trained in IRA camps in Cavan and Monaghan and was deemed fully prepared for the campaign that lay in the offing. The core of the Pearse Column was assembled in Dublin on 26 December 1956 and was dispatched via the O’Hanlon household to safe houses in the Knocks area of Fermanagh the following day. Fergal O’Hanlon was one of four Volunteers added to its complement but remained the county’s only representative. He was by no means the only Monaghan IRA man to see action. Under the leadership of Sean Garland and Daithí O’Connell, the augmented unit staged an elaborate ambush that failed to attract the enemy. A different column, under Dubliner Noel Kavanagh, blasted Derrylin Barracks on 31 December while those with Garland and O’Connell in the Knocks planned a similar major effort in Brookeborough on New Year’s Day.
The full details of what transpired in the Fermanagh town are well related in two new publications: The Pearse Column & the Brookeborough Raid and Awakening the spirit of freedom. Essentially, the fourteen raiders were unlucky in several vital respects. Two explosive devices failed to detonate and thus negated any prospect of storming the barracks. More seriously, the defending RUC had just acquired a Bren light machine gun which was operated by a capable World War Two veteran. Although shielded from the main brunt of RUC firepower, the truck used to transport the IRA party was parked within the line of sight and optimum range of their opponent’s Bren. Seán Sabhat, firing the IRA’s captured Bren from the back of the truck, lacked the ammunition and elevation to counter the volume of fire bracketing his position. Garland, with difficulty, arranged the pull out of the IRA section handling the faulty mines but not without incurring wounds. Sabhat and O’Hanlon received severe injuries while another man, Padraig O’Reagain, was hit in the neck and back. Armagh’s Vincent Conlon, also wounded, manoeuvred the truck to safety and towards the sanctuary of the Monaghan border. On reaching Altawark, however, the riddled vehicle had to be abandoned. Reluctantly, the fatally injured O’Hanlon and Sabhat were left in a local barn where they stood the best chance of receiving urgent medical attention. Both men quickly perished. Guided by Pat Connolly, the survivors made an arduous crossing over the mountains into north Monaghan with all their weapons and four wounded comrades.
The aftermath of the raid created a national sensation, particularly when the remains of O’Hanlon and Sabhat were brought across the border from Enniskillen to Clones. Huge crowds turned out to pay their respects and it was evident to all observers that there was considerable sympathy for the IRA. John A. Costello’s Fine Gael led Coalition grasped that a sizeable body of Irish opinion regarded the two Brookeborough fatalities as republican martyrs. O’Hanlon was buried in Latlurcan cemetery, Monaghan, on 4 January 1957 by which time Dublin County Council had voted its condolences. Many other councils followed suit. The intensity of such fraught affairs was further heightened the following day when Sabhat was interred amidst unprecedented public acclamation in Limerick. Within a matter of weeks Sean McBride moved to withdraw Clann na Poblachta from Coalition and in the election which ensued Sinn Féin returned four TDs. Those elected for Sinn Féin included Éineachán O’Hanlon, a Monaghan republican and brother of Fergal. While the armed campaign was gradually wound down and ultimately terminated in February 1962, the experience gleaned in the interim had a profound effect on the subsequent development of the Republican Movement in the 1960s. This process has never received adequate academic attention.
When delivering the oration at O’Hanlon’s funeral Noel Kavanagh echoed Robert Emmet’s speech from the dock in stating that the ‘monument that Fergal would like ......is the Irish Republic’. Few contemporaries would have disagreed and it is clear from the community spirit in evidence today in Monaghan that O’Hanlon’s memory fully deserves the respect it commands to this day.”
An Phoblacht Magazine
AN PHOBLACHT MAGAZINE:
- The first edition of this new magazine will feature a 10 page special on the life and legacy of our leader Martin McGuinness to mark the first anniversary of his untimely passing.
- It will include a personal reminiscence by Gerry Adams and contributions from the McGuinness family.
- There will also be an exclusive interview with our new Uachtarán Mary Lou McDonald.