By Eamonn Duggan
The best known and probably the most notorious of the ‘Big Four’ was undoubtedly Dan Breen who managed to maintain a presence in Irish republicanism for decades even beyond the War of Independence and the Civil War as a Fianna Fáil member of Dáil Éireann. He was totally committed to the republican ideal throughout his life and he abhorred the very notion that there should be any British influence on the island of Ireland.
Dan Breen was born on 11 August, 1894, in Grange, Donohill, County Tipperary, into a very poor family and he lost his father when he was just six years old. He had a minimal education in the local school before becoming a plasterer and subsequently a linesman with the Great Southern Railway.
He joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1912 and the Irish Volunteers in 1914 and he always saw himself as “a soldier first and foremost” and he would become an iconic figure in both the War of Independence and the Civil War.
Breen’s first involvement in the independence conflict came on 21 January, 1919, when he participated in the Soloheadbeg ambush of a RIC convoy transporting explosives to a local quarry. Two RIC constables, James McDonnell and Patrick O’Connell, were killed in the ambush which is generally accepted as the first engagement of the War of Independence.
The deaths of the policemen upset many people but Breen saw their demise as an inevitable cost of the conflict. He later recalled that they “took the action deliberately, having thought over the matter and talked it over between us. Treacy had stated to me that the only way of starting a war was to kill someone, and we wanted to start a war, so we intended to kill some of the police whom we looked upon as the foremost and most important branch of the enemy forces….The only regret that we had following the ambush was that there were only two policemen in it, instead of the six we expected.”