Dan Breen: The shadowy Gunman

Posted by The Skibbereen Eagle | August 11, 2018 0

One of the most famous fighters in the fight for Irish freedom, Dan Breen was born on this day in Grange, Donohill, Co Tipperary. He was an iconic IRA figure in both the War of Independence and also the Civil War.

On 21st January 1919 under the leadership of Séamus Robinson his unit launched an ambush at Soloheadbeg in Tipperary killing two RIC Officers, the first action of the Irish War of Independence. He opposed the Treaty and left Ireland from 1927-33 running a speakeasy in New York and trying to rent himself out as a gun for hire, an already crowded field in America. Coming back to Ireland in 1932 after his Gangster Days in America he was elected Fianna Fáil TD for Tipperary a position he held until 1965.

Breen was an iconic IRA figure in both the War of Independence and also the Civil War. He was involved in what is accepted as the first action of the War of Independence 1919-1921 when with Sean Treacy and others, he ambushed and killed two RIC constables James McDonnell and Patrick O’Connell, both of them Catholic and reputedly popular in the community in what has become known as the Soloheadbeg Ambush (Co Tipperary). The British government offered a reward £1,000 for Breen and later raised it to £10,000. Breen later wrote:  “Nobody ever tried to earn it with the exception of a few members of the RIC. They failed; many of them never made the second attempt.”

Breen was married on 12 June 1921, during the War of Independence, to Brigid Malone, a Dublin Cumann na mBan woman. They had met in Dublin when she helped to nurse him while he was recovering from a bullet wound. Seán Hogan was best man and the bride’s sister Aine Malone was the bridesmaid. Photographs of the wedding celebrations taken by 5th Battalion intelligence officer Séan Sharkey are published in The Tipperary Third Brigade a photographic record. Breen was at the time one of the most wanted men in Ireland, and South Tipperary was under martial law, yet a large celebration was held. The wedding took place at Purcell’s, “Glenagat House”, New Inn, County Tipperary. Many of the key members of the Third Tipperary Brigade attended, including flying column leaders Dinny Lacey and Hogan.

Yeats may well have had men like Dan Breen in mind when he lamented the conditions in post-revolutionary Ireland. The preeminent I.R.A. tough guy, Breen regarded his enemies, whether British or Irish, with contempt. The hated Black and Tans were “sadists.” All Irishmen who did not support the cause were “traitors.” Throughout the remainder of his life, Breen held fast to this view. In a 1967 interview he asserted, “I make no apology for killing.” He dispatched informers, R.I.C. constables, Black and Tans and even tried to kill John French, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Using the language of an American gangster in the interview, Breen growled that Ireland’s enemies needed to be “rubbed out.” 

The Soloheadbeg Ambush is regarded as the opening battle in the War of Independence, the ambush and killings amounted to Breen’s attempt to start a war in a country not yet ready for an all-out fight. In his memoir, My Fight for Irish Freedom, Breen asserted that too many so-called nationalists “preferred the political resolution rather than the gun as their offensive weapon.”  Although roundly condemned at the time, Breen’s ambush anticipated many similar attacks on the R.I.C. and later the Black and Tans. It must be acknowledged that these tactics won the war, and Dan Breen proved to be a fearsome guerilla fighter.

Dan Breen’s single-mindedness is understandable. Crown forces looted and burned homes and businesses, tortured and killed prisoners, summarily executed dozens of suspects, and brutalized Irish women and children. While the notorious Black and Tans carry most of the burden for this violence, the R.I.C. contributed to the mayhem. They were the eyes and ears of the Crown forces, and some of them killed, burned and looted as well. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that these Irish policemen died by the hundreds in barracks, along country lanes, in their homes. A great number resigned from the force. After the war, many immigrated to Canada and Australia or took refuge in Northern Ireland. For decades afterwards, these men remained the unmentionables, or if named, the traitors.

As much as Dan Breen’s toughness and considerable military skills contributed to Britain’s defeat in Ireland, his memoir was also crucial. It helped to ground the narrative of the Irish war in an unambiguous heroes and villains account. Published in 1924, My Fight for Irish Freedom offered the Irish people the clarity they doubtless sought after a desperate struggle with Crown Forces and a wrenching civil war in which the good guys and the bad guys may never be sorted out. Singularly self-serving and bombastic, Breen’s memoir nonetheless presented a popular persona. At times he is a cowboy whose blazing guns “make sweet music in my ears.” Breen’s story inspired not only Irishmen, but also those in other nationalist movements, notably India’s, where it was studied as a primer for guerilla warfare. Interestingly, Breen met and was impressed by Gandhi, heard his appeal for non-violence, but chose to support those in India who “favoured armed revolution.”

Following the War of Independence and the Civil War, Breen, fought a decades-long battle to win the pension rights he believed to be his due. His bestselling book My Fight for Irish Freedom, first published in 1924 less than a year after the guns went silent, is still in print and is a compelling account of the revolutionary period. However, he could have written another volume entitled My Fight for a Military Pension, (not to mention “My years as an American Gangster”) given the voluminous files on him which have been released from the Military Service Pensions Collection.

In particular, he chafed at the demands for proofs of his involvement in the Independence struggle, particular since his books had already begun to sell in numbers. “I should imagine my case would not require months to investigate as the back numbers of the Daily Independent would give the proofs needed,” he wrote to the pensions board in 1924. One of the most wanted man in Ireland during the War of Independence with a £1,000 bounty on his head, Breen revelled in the notoriety created after Soloheadbeg. He had quickly acquired a reputation for ruthlessness.

He was not shy in reminding the pensions board of his contribution to the struggle, writing at one stage: “How many men were wounded and suffered as much as I did? How many were wounded six times and still came back for more?” His claims were corroborated in later life by his surgeon Dr John F Fleetwood who found that Breen’s right hand was severely handicapped as a result of bullet wounds and blood vessels had been damaged. He suffered from chronic bronchitis and had a severe degree of coronary arteriosclerosis. His wounds contributed to his death at the age of 75, the doctor concluded.

Breen was not satisfied with his award and wrote to the minister for defence Frank Aiken in 1933. “What use is £150 to me? What I want to get and I claim for is my doctor’s expenses. I am told by the best doctors in the world that I may not live another year and at the outside two years. “ What use is £150 to me when I won’t live to draw it? Do you think it is fair that I should spend my hard earnings and not be repaid?” Breen stated that he wanted something for his wife and two children. “When I pass on, I don’t want to leave them to starve.” He lived for another 37 years.

An atheist he was also a supporter of the Nazis who thought Hitler was made of the right stuff and would sort out the British. In 1946 he became secretary of the Save the German Children Society. He attended the funeral of Nazi spy Hermann Goretz on May 27 1947. Irish-American John S. Monagan visited Breen in 1948 and was surprised to see two pictures of Adolf Hitler, a medallion of Napoleon and a radio which was a Telefunken. Breen told him “the revolution didn’t work out,” and “to get the government they have now, I wouldn’t have lost a night’s sleep.” He also said that he fought for freedom, but not for democracy. In 1943 Breen sent his “congratulations to the Fuhrer. May he live long to lead Europe on the road to peace, security and happiness”. He really did nothing for Tipperary as a TD actually living on his salary in considerable comfort in St. Kevin’s Park, Dartry in Dublin until his death.

Breen died in Dublin in 1969. Brought back to Tipperary for burial, he was buried in Donohill, near his birthplace. Ten thousand people gathered to mourn him, the largest crowd, it was believed, since Breen’s comrade Seán Treacy was buried in Kilfeacle in October 1920.

Dan Breen is a distant relation and my father met him several times. He remembers him as a surly, scowling, bitter person.

Daniel “Dan” Breen (Irish: Dónall Ó Braoin; 11 August 1894 – 27 December 1969) volunteer in the Irish Republican Army during the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War and Fianna Fáil TD for Tipperary.

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