Major General Joe Sweeney

Joe Sweeney Donegal

Major Joe Sweeney

Joseph Aloysius Sweeney (c. 1897 – 25 November 1980) was an Irish politician and Army Major.

As the Sinn Féin candidate, he was elected to the British House of Commons as Member of Parliament for West Donegal in the 1918 general election, defeating the sitting nationalist Hugh Law. He did not attend (aged 21, he would have been the youngest MP), and instead participated in the First Dáil. He was closely associated with Michael Collins

In 1921 he was one of six Sinn Féin candidates elected unopposed to the Second Dáil. In June 1922 he was re-elected as a Pro-Treaty Sinn Féin candidate and participated in the Third Dáil.

He was born in Burtonport, a town in The Rosses, a district in the north-west of County Donegal. He died in 1980 aged 83.

While much of the province of Ulster was either heavily protestent or mixed with a minority of Catholics,

Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan stand out with their large catholic majorities at the time of the War of Independence. In this article, Liam Ó Duibhir looks at the first shots fired in that war in Donegal and reminds us that despite it’s now forgotten role in the war, Donegal and it’s norther neighbours were not sleepy backwaters during those years of violence and strife.

The first shots of the Irish War for Independence were fired at a place called Soloheadbeg in county Tipperary in an ambush carried out by members of the Irish Volunteers 3rd Tipperary Brigade. This was on Tuesday 21 January 1919 as the newly elected TDs were meeting as Dáil Éireann at the Mansion House in Dublin. The Tipperary Volunteers including; Sean Treacy, Seamus Robinson, Dan Breen, Sean Hogan, Tadhg Crowe, Paddy McCormack and Paddy Dwyer ambushed two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary escorting a cart of gelignite to a nearby quarry. Not only were the first shots fired at Soloheadbeg, but this event also recorded the first casualties with both RIC men being killed in the ambush. The actions of the Tipperary Brigade were somewhat frowned upon by certain members of Sinn Fein who were not in favour of attacks on the RIC. However, the killings at Soloheadbeg were to others namely Michael Collins and Richard Mulcahy the result of three years of reorganising and training the Irish Volunteers to engage in a war with the British establishment in Ireland to be precise the Royal Irish Constabulary, the British military and later the Auxiliaries and Black and Tans. This was to be a different type of war and would include tactics known as guerrilla warfare, something that was to frustrate even the might of the British Empire.

Some eleven months later the first shots between the Irish Volunteers and the RIC occurred in County Donegal. The chain of events that led to the first shots being fired by the Irish Volunteers in County Donegal began on Thursday evening 11 December 1919. On that occasion a party of Dungloe based RIC men affected the arrest of two local Irish Volunteers; Anthony McGinley and Charles McBride. The reason for the two men’s arrest was for distributing leaflets at Dungloe Chapel on Sunday 2 November advocating the Dáil Éireann loan bonds, which was a means of raising the finances to administer the new underground government. Dáil Éireann had been proscribed in September 1919 under the provisions of the Criminal Law and Procedure (Ireland) Act 1887 as a ‘dangerous organisation’. Therefore any person known to be associated or promoting the development of Dáil Éireann was subject to arrest. Following the arrest of Anthony McGinley and Charles McBride the local Volunteers under the command of Joseph Sweeney T.D., considered breaking the two prisoners from Dungloe barracks. However, due to the lack of sufficient weapons Joseph Sweeney decided that a rescue attempt could endanger the lives of the two prisoners.

Sweeney received word later that night that the two prisoners were to be transferred to Letterkenny the following morning to be formally charged before the Crimes Court.

Sweeney then consulted other officers and came to the decision that the local Volunteers would ambush the RIC escort party on their return to Dungloe. On Friday morning 12 December the prisoners were escorted by a four man RIC party, consisting of a District Inspector, a sergeant and two constables, to the terminus at Burtonport and entrained to Letterkenny. They arrived at Letterkenny Station at approximately 11.30 am that morning and were immediately taken to the RIC barrack on the Port Road. Earlier that morning a party of RIC constables under the command of Sergeant Grattan arrested Dr. J.P. McGinley at his home on Asylum Road (High Road), Letterkenny. A warrant had been issued for Dr. McGinley’s arrest following a speech delivered by him advocating the Dáil Éireann loan at Rosnakill, Fanad on 12 October 1919. The three prisoners were held in a cell at the No. 2 barrack on the Port Road, adjacent to the courthouse.

In anticipation of trouble a party of 25 British military had arrived on the 9 a.m. from Derry and a further 15 military arrived a short time later by lorry to reinforce the RIC in the town. The three men were brought before the Crimes Court later that day. All three men refused to recognise the court and when offered bail; Dr. McGinley said; “The suggestion that I be given bail is an insult.” He went on to say; “I wish to make it absolutely clear that I deny the right of this court or any other foreign court to try me.” While the hearing of the three prisoners was being heard in the courthouse a large hostile crowd had gathered outside such was the popularity of Dr. McGinley. Someone had even tried to sabotage the engine of the military lorry, but it started without any problems. When the lorry started one of the Letterkenny Volunteers in a moment of fury smashed the windscreen with a hurly. At the conclusion of the hearing the three men were remanded in custody to appear before Burnfoot Court the following week and were later taken to the Letterkenny Railway Station in the military lorry from where they entrained to Derry under a heavy military escort. As the prisoners and their military escort entrained to Derry the four man RIC party from Dungloe were preparing to return to their barracks on the evening train. The whole time members of the Letterkenny Volunteers were monitoring their movements and when they boarded the train a coded message was sent to Dungloe informing Joseph Sweeney that the RIC men were on the return journey. With that Sweeney convened a meeting of the local Volunteers and a plan was set in motion to ambush the RIC men on their return.

The Volunteers had to cover the possibility of the RIC men getting off the train at any of the four local train stations; Crolly, Kincasslagh Road, Dungloe Road or at the Burtonport terminus. John Gorman was instructed to drive his car to Crolly Station and wait there until the train arrived and if the RIC remained on the train to drive to Kincasslagh Road Station. Another Volunteer was instructed to wait at the Dungloe Road Station to monitor the movements of the RIC party. At approximately 10 p.m. that night the train arrived at Dungloe Road Station and the RIC party got off. The Volunteer posted at that station immediately cycled to the location of the ambush party to inform them that the escort party were walking back to Dungloe, a distance of three miles. The road leading to the ambush positions was very dark and to ensure the correct targets were approaching a scout was instructed to walk in their direction and to whistle a certain tune when they passed him. The ambush party was mobilised at a place on the road leading into Dungloe town called the Fairhill, also known as the Rampard, which was an old school house situated approximately two miles outside the town. The members of the ambush party were divided into three sections – No. 1 section; Patrick Breslin, Bernard Sweeney and James McCole were positioned behind the schoolhouse wall – No. 2 section; Joe Sweeney, Patrick (Kit) O’Donnell and Frank O’Donnell were positioned several yards along the road in the direction of Dungloe and No. 3 section; Patrick McCole and John Molloy was positioned a few yards further on. The remaining Volunteers; George Meehan, John Gorman, Joseph Walsh and Denis Houston were positioned at various locations as scouts and to observe the ambush as this was the first engagement with the enemy.

The plan was to allow the RIC party to walk into the ambush position before opening fire. Before long the ambush party heard the scout whistling his tune and then they could make out the silhouette of District Inspector Wallace and Sergeant Farrell and closely followed by the two constables Cunnane and McGinley walking in the direction of their position. The Volunteers were very poorly armed having only three weapons, a revolver, a shotgun, a rifle, taken from the RIC in January 1918, and a grenade. Each section had a weapon and as the RIC approached their positions James McCole fired his revolver, then two shots from the shotgun held by Patrick McCole followed by the exclamation; “Good God, I’m hit!” and followed with; “But I can’t be bad, there’s no blood.” Patrick McCole had never handled a self-ejecting shotgun before this and when he opened the breach after firing the two empty shells struck him in the face causing him to think he was shot.

Patrick Breslin was also firing a rifle, but the grenade was not used as John Molloy had let his cigarette die out and this was to be used to ignite it. Sergeant Farrell was hit in the leg in the first volley of shots and had to drag himself behind a rock at the side of the road. At the same time the District Inspector and two constables returned fire as they ran from No. 1 section into No. 2 and No. 3 sections the Volunteers fired as the RIC-men ran. The Volunteers continued to fire at the RIC until they were forced to retreat due to lack of ammunition. As they retreated over the nearby fields they could hear the remaining RIC members running over the bridge towards Dungloe. Constable Cunnane had been badly wounded with shotgun pellets and had to be helped along the road by the other two RIC. The result of the ambush was one RIC man seriously wounded while the others were peppered with shotgun pellets. The next day Denis Houston was in a shop in Dungloe town when District Inspector Wallace entered and began telling the shopkeeper about the previous night’s events. He showed him the pellets that had lodged in the collar of his coat. Denis Houston sympathised with him and praised him on his escape.

The ambush had an amusing sequel resulting in some members of the ambush party receiving a reprimand from the local Sinn Fein Officer Board a few days later. The local Sinn Fein Cumann had passed a resolution the previous week, which stated that no member should attend or support any function sponsored by the local branch of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. However, immediately after the ambush some of the Volunteers considered it necessary to establish alibis and decided to attend a dance organised by the A.O.H. at a local hall that night. While there they heard that the RIC were looking for the local doctor and it was then the Volunteers realised that some of their shots had hit their targets. The following week the Volunteers who attended the dance were reprimanded, but were obliged to sit and listen as they could not give an explanation for their presence there. Later that month sergeant Farrell and the two constables, Cunnane and McGinley lodged claims amounting to £4,000 in respect of personal injuries received during the ambush. Sergeant Farrell subsequently had his injured leg amputated. In the days following the ambush Dr. J.P. McGinley, by then a prisoner at Derry jail wrote to his friend, Sean Mac Longsigh, Convoy and in the letter referred to the Dungloe incident; ‘What did you think of Dungloe? Donegal is awake in earnest now…..’

The RIC report on the incident greatly exaggerated the event stating that there were between twenty and thirty men involved in the ambush and the majority were armed with shotguns. The facts were that there were twelve Volunteers with three weapons and one unused bomb.

The Irish War for Independence featured many similar incidents as hostilities escalated between the Irish Volunteers and the British establishment. The Irish Volunteers of county Donegal played a significant role in this war and were involved in many daring episodes until the Truce was declared between Ireland and Britain on Monday 11 July 1921.

Liam Ó Duibhir is a native of Donegal and the author of Mercier’s recently published The Donegal Awakening. The book is the first fruit of his efforts to tell the real history of Donegal’s War of Independence and Civil War experiences. He is currently completing a follow up running from the Truce period that tells the story of Donegal during the Civil War.