Remembering Vols Sean South & Feargal O'Hanlon
On December 12th 1956 the IRA launched operation harvest with simultaneous attacks by around 150 IRA members on targets on the 'Border'.
A BBC relay transmitter was bombed in Derry, a courthouse was burned in Magherafelt as was a B-Specials post near Newry and a half-built Army barracks at Enniskillen was blown up. A raid on Gough barracks in Armagh was beaten off after a brief exchange of fire.
These attacks were then followed up on December 14th with attacks on RUC stations in Lisnaskea, Derrylin and Roslea. On the evening of December 30th, Derrylin RUC barracks was attacked again, killing RUC constable John Scally, the first fatality of the campaign.
The next target on New Years Eve 1956 was the joint RUC/B Specials barracks at Brookeborough Co Fermanagh. Around 14 volunteers were picked for the attack from counties such as Dublin, Cork, Fermanagh, Monaghan and Tyrone including prominent Republicans Sean Garland & Dáithí Ó Conaill, but their leader that night was Limerick man Sean South.
The plan was to detonate two improvised mines to breach the barrack’s defences while the truck containing the rest of the raiders would pull up and secure the building and weapons, However, things went terribly wrong. Sean South and Feargal O’Hanlon went to plant the mines but they failed to detonate. This gave the RUC Officers inside time to return fire injuring at least four of the IRA Vols in a fierce shootout.
The decision was made to abort the mission, and escape in the lorry which had been badly damaged in the firefight. After a few false starts, the vehicle made off down the street, wobbling crazily and only stopping to pick up the lookouts.
There was little doubt that South was dying and that O’Hanlon was almost gone too. Somehow, they drove on for five miles. They stopped at a place called Altawark (also known as Baxter’s Cross) and those who were able stumbled out. It was realised that the RUC would be in pursuit and that the barracks at Roslea, which lay ahead, would be alerted.
The men had to make a quick decision about South and O’Hanlon, who plainly could go no further. The rest of the journey would be on foot, over rough terrain towards the border. A deserted farmhouse and cowshed were spotted; it was decided to leave the wounded men in the shed and request local people to call a doctor and a priest.
This was done, but Garland became reluctant to leave. He wanted to stay in the shed with a gun, so that he could make a fight of it with the oncoming RUC and gain time for the rest to get away. With difficulty, Garland was dissuaded, and with the rest retreated up a hill in the direction of the border.
Ten minutes later, the RUC drove up in two Land Rovers and moved in on the abandoned lorry. From the hill, the men could see the RUC raking the vehicle with machine-guns. A few minutes later they heard a long burst of gunfire from the direction of the cowshed.
The survivors successfully evaded pursuit by getting into the Slieve Beagh Mountains; on taking a compass bearing they headed for Monaghan. It was a long and hard slog; the RUC set off flares over the area and helicopters hovered overhead. Some of the wounded had to be carried and they often had to lie in the bracken to avoid being spotted.
The ordeal lasted six hours before an advanced scout reported that they had crossed into the Republic. They had successfully avoided 500 RUC men and B-Specials who had scoured the mountains with baying hounds and airborne units.
On leaving the wounded in a friendly house, the remaining eight were picked up by a Garda patrol, but not before they had dumped their arms. The wounded were taken to the hospital to recover and await trial, the others to the Bridewell in Dublin. All twelve refused to recognise the court and got six months in Gaol under the Offences Against the State Act.
Feargal O'Hanlon and Séan South died rom thier wounds on New Years Day 1957. O'Hanlon aged 20 from Ballybay, County Monaghan was a draughtsman employed by Monaghan County Council. He was a Gaelic footballer and a keen Irish language activist. A devout Catholic, O'Hanlon spent one year at the Seminary in St. Macartan's and considered entering the priesthood.
South from Limerick aged 29 he had been a clerk for some time before joining An Rialt the Irish speaking chapter of the Legion of Mary. South received most of his military training during his service with An Fòrsa Cosanta Áitiúil (F.C.A.) The Irish Army Reserve. Both men joined the Irish Republican Army believing that Britain had no right to be in any part of Ireland.
Thousands attended the funerals of both men, and a marble monument now stands at the spot where South and O’Hanlon lost their lives, the ballads "Sean South" & "The Patriot Game" have immortalised both men into Irish Republican folklore.