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8 November 2007 Edition

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The Resistance Campaign, 50 Years On





Tragedy at Edentubber

Mícheál MacDonncha continues the series marking the 50th anniversary of the IRA’s Resistance Campaign – more widely known as the Border Campaign – which commenced in December 1956. The series is based on the monthly republican newspaper of the time An tÉireannach Aontaithe/ The United Irishman.

Mícheál Mac Donncha

ON A MOUNTAINSIDE overlooking the border between Counties Louth and Armagh occurred the single greatest tragedy of the Resistance Campaign. The name Éadan Tobair, ‘The Brow of the Well’, entered history in the early hours of the morning of 11 November 1957 when the quiet of the countryside was shattered by a loud explosion. The explosion was heard in three counties, Louth, Armagh and Down, for the three counties meet near this point.
Each of those three counties lost a native son in the explosion and distant County Wexford lost two. That solidarity between North and South was a constantly repeated theme as people reflected on the death of five republicans on that tragic morning.
The little two-roomed, slate-roofed house at Edentubber belonged to Michael Watters. Following the death of his mother two years earlier, Michael, a forestry worker in his 50s, lived alone in the house. But Michael was a republican and he made his home available to the Irish Republican Army. And so it was that four Volunteers were in the house at Edentubber, preparing to carry out an operation across the border. Exactly what went wrong will never be known but a large amount of explosives detonated and the force of the blast demolished the house and killed all five men.
The Newry Reporter wrote:
“As the early morning mists cleared from the rocky defile abounding in that area, the grim, gaunt evidence of the terror of the earlier hours was visible. The blast was heard over five miles away. Little remained of the building but a heap of scattered rubble. A small portion of one wall was still standing. Wood splinters and masonry and parts of shattered furniture littered fields up to 150 yards away. Four Thompson sub-machineguns and ammunition were found among the wreckage.”
The four young republicans who had come to Edentubber were all active service Volunteers who had left their homes months before to join the Resistance Campaign. The oldest was George Keegan (29), of Enniscorthy, County Wexford. George brought with him all the proud republican tradition of that county. An ancestor was a United Irishman executed in 1798. His grandfather was arrested as a Fenian organiser. George’s father, Patrick, was with the Volunteers in Enniscorthy in Easter Week 1916, the last group in the country to surrender. Patrick Keegan was a commandant of the Wexford IRA during the Black and Tan War. George Keegan was a baker by trade and was described as extremely popular with all his comrades. His culinary skills were noted and earned him the title ‘cook-sergeant’ from fellow Volunteers. He was political from an early age and as a schoolboy he campaigned to save the life of Charlie Kerins, executed by the Fianna Fáil government in Mountjoy Jail in 1944.
From Wexford town came Patrick Parle (27). A typesetter by trade, Paddy Parle was strong in the tradition of republican labour, a great admirer of James Connolly. He was a fluent Irish speaker, a member of Conradh na Gaeilge and a founder of Parnell’s GAA club. As a popular and respected young man he became a successful IRA organiser and was largely instrumental in putting together the group of Wexford men who took part in the campaign and were given the proud name of ‘The Vinegar Hill Column’.
Although only 19, Paul Smith was already a wanted man and was being hunted by the RUC for his IRA activities. A native of Bessbrook in South Armagh, he was an architect’s apprentice. He had been on active service since the start of the Resistance Campaign on 12 December 1956. Outwardly carefree and good-humoured, his republican activism was founded on a deep commitment and nurtured by his wide reading.
From the town of Newry, Oliver Craven was another 19-year-old. He had been on the run since May 1957 and was wanted by the Stormont and British authorities. He was described as powerfully built, quietly spoken and cool-headed. Like Paul Smith, he used quiet hours while on active service to read extensively.
The funerals of the five republicans took place in Dundalk and Wexford on 14 and 15 November. Paul Smith, Oliver Craven and Michael Watters were buried in a single grave in the Republican Plot in Dundalk Cemetery. The oration was delivered by John Joe McGirl, who had been elected Sinn Féin TD for Sligo-Leitrim earlier that year. He told the crowd of thousands:
“The tragedy which brought to a sudden end the lives of five great Irishmen is a tragedy of the Irish nation, the tragedy of an Ireland that is unfree and divided. These men came from the North and the South to join together to end the tragedy of our nation and her people.
“Michael Watters was symbolic of the mass of the Irish people who have borne the brunt of the struggle for Irish freedom. The road they travelled was the hard road but its signposts were unmistakable. It was the road Tone, Emmet, Pearse, Goss, Gaughran, Sabhat and Ó hAnnluain traveled to name but a few...
“For 35 years, the nationalists in the North looked to their brother Irishmen in the South for a direct lead against British occupation. They were sadly disillusioned by the inept approach to the problem of occupation by their fellow Irishmen in the South. Having examined and employed all peaceful approaches to the unnatural division of our country, they once again asserted their God-given right to freedom and have fought side by side with gallant men from the South.”
Crowds of thousands honoured the Volunteers in four towns: in Dundalk, where three were laid to rest; in Dublin, when the cortege of the two Wexford Volunteers was joined by an IRA guard of honour and paused while prayers were said at the top of Parnell Square; and in Enniscorthy and Wexford, where George Keegan and Paddy Parle were laid to rest.
The oration for George Keegan was delivered by Myles Shevlin in St Mary’s Cemetery, Enniscorthy. He said:
“In the years to come, loving hands will raise here a column of stone to perpetuate the memory of this townsman of yours but we today feel, in the spiritual communion around his grave, that no such stone is adequate for such a purpose, that for us there can be no real monument but the realisation of the dream of freedom for which he died – an Irish Republic, free, unfettered and independent from Athlone to the sea.”
And in a reflective editorial, The United Irishman of December 1957 recalled the deaths of Sabhat, O’Hanlon and the five at Edentubber. It had this to say:
“During 1957, seven brave men gave their lives for the cause of Irish freedom. Scores of others have been sentenced to long terms of imprisonment in the Crumlin Road Jail, Belfast. Still more are held in the same prison without charge or trial. Over 100 are in the Curragh Concentration Camp. Seven are jailed in England.
“But the cause of Irish republicanism is not based upon sentiment. Those who serve do not seek sympathy either for themselves or for their dependants who are deprived of the support of their breadwinners. What Irish republicans do seek is the support of all the Irish people, at home and abroad, in the struggle for Ireland’s full freedom. That struggle must go on.”

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