‘Twas On A Dreary New Year’s Eve

With it being the festive period, I deemed it necessary to pen this piece about two Irish martyrs – Sean South and Fergal O’Hanlon. This decision made, with New Year marking the untimely death of both 63 years ago, and Sean South being one of the mainstays of the Celtic songbook since the 50s.

Thanks in part to the tremendous Irish Republican tradition of commemoration through ballad and song, these two great men have been immortalised. Their memory endures in the hearts of the Celtic support, their names preserved in Irish patriotism.

Coupled with celebration and commemoration in Irish musical culture, is the ability to turn physical defeat into spiritual victory. As such, the youth within the Republican movement and avid young Celtic fans will be as aware of the Irish Republican Army’s Border Campaign, as the generations that preceded them.

There’s certainly a burgeoning pride as you hear the familiar old song from the Celtic faithful. One can’t help but raise a fist and join in “Brave O’Hanlon by his side, they have gone to join a gallant band of Plunkett, Pearse and Tone, a martyr for old Ireland – Sean South of Garryowen.” It is a little known but noteworthy fact that Sean South was the song being belted in unbridled joy at the full time whistle in Lisbon on 25 May 1967. Though, Sean South is one of the best known songs in the Irish Rebel genre, Dominic Behan’s ballad ‘Patriot Game’ tells O’Hanlon’s tale and is popular in its own right.

With romanticism explored, I’ll delve a little deeper in to the lives of both heroes and explore the events leading directly into the Brookeborough Raid.

Fergal O’Hanlon was born into a staunchly Republican family in Ballybay, County Monoghan. He was an Irish language activist and soon joined as a volunteer with the Irish Republican Army. This decision was somewhat natural, for Fergal’s mother was firmly committed to the then small militia’s activity.

Some 300 kilometers to the south, Sean South was born on O’Connell Avenue in Limerick. Similar to O’Hanlon, he was actively involved in the promotion of the Irish language and joined the Gaelic League. South was a devout Catholic and a fervent Republican. It is therefore, none too surprising that he joined with numerous parties, groups and sects to further his beliefs and ideological standing. Where his faith was concerned, South was notably a member of An Realt – the Irish speaking division of the Legion of Mary. However, it is perhaps most telling and indeed damning, that he founded a branch of Maria Duce, an ultra-conservative Catholic Organisation, in Limerick.

After a spell with the Irish Army Reserve, where he received military training, South would join the Irish Republican Army and became leader of a Flying Column. It is also interesting to note that South’s biographer claims Sean was a member of the Fascist party Ailtiri Na hAiseirighe. This point has caused debate about whether or not Sean South is an appropriate song to sing at Celtic Park. The song itself does not detail anything about this appalling ideology though, and it should be stressed that these claims are just that, and not completely substantiated as of yet.

The ill fate of O’Hanlon and South during a raid on Brookeborough Barracks was of course just one of many attacks during the Border Campaign or Operation Harvest as it was codenamed.

The campaign can be traced to the reorganisation of the Republican movement after the Second World War. Indeed, it was born of political fall out and a change in military tactics among other factors. It was decided that the Irish Republican Army should shape its focus on the occupied six counties, to challenge British Crown Forces. The reasons for this are many, but more suited to a political publication than an article such as this, which seeks to tell the story behind a popular song amongst the Celtic support.

On 12 December 1956, the Irish Republican Army announced the star of its renewed resistance campaign. The said announcement was proclaimed in less than phlegmatic fashion, signifying the revolutionairies’ intent: “This is the age old struggle of the Irish people versus British aggression. This is the same cause for which generations of our people have suffered and died. In this grave hour, all Irish men and women, at home and abroad, must sink their differences, political or religious, and rally behind the banner of national liberation.”

After failing to make much of an impact, the campaign first caught public attention at the end of the month. O’Hanlon, South, and 14 other volunteers had been lying low in the Fermanagh area for some time. Led on this occasion by Sean Garland, the group would hit the RUC barracks at Brookeborough. The operation was however, flawed in many ways, which would ultimately contribute to the fate that “lay in store” for O’Hanlon and South.

The first major mistake was that the unit were unaware of just how strongly guarded the barracks was. Little did they know that the post provided security for the hometown of the Northern Ireland Prime Minister Sir Basil Brooke. None the wiser, Garland et al hijacked a lorry from a building firm and ordered the driver to take them toward Brookeborough. The strategy was to park the lorry by the barracks and make a direct assault. The unit was split in two: an assault party to lay mines and a fire party to provide cover. Two lookouts were dropped at the outskirts and instructed to give signals should RUC patrols or reinforcements approach. This was the second error.

Neither of the two lookouts had knowledge of the area and nor did they have satisfactory mapping to cover unknown roads. The next flaw was that the Barracks location had not been suitably pinpointed. As such, the driver of the lorry had difficulty in locating the station! Eventually the driver parked up outside the Police Barracks, but he positioned the truck too close to the building, which meant that the firing party had insufficient room to cover the upper windows.

Despite a catalogue of errors, the first member of the assault team laid a mine at the front wall. At this moment an RUC Sergeant spotted him and immediately ran inside to alert his colleagues and fetch weaponry. The police staff fired largely from the upper floor, which was of course problematic due to the volunteers’ lorry position and Sean South in particular was hindered in his ability to find a clear firing position.

At this point, the unit was to learn of their ultimate failure when the most major of all their mistakes occurred. The detonation of the first mine did not work! Next, a volunteer was required to make a suicidal dash in front of a rain of bullets. He succeeded in his requirement and his endeavour meant that he was able to lay a second mine. However, incredibly, that second mine also failed to detonate! Frustrated beyond belief, the said volunteer furiously fired a number of shots at the devices yet they still did not explode. It could soon be deduced that they had been incorrectly wired. The mission was a complete disaster.

With little other options, the unit sustained their fire and managed to shoot out the lighting of the upper floor. This made the Cordner’s search for his sten gun somewhat frantic and lengthy. The volunteers showed little sympathy for his plight and rained in heavy gunfire. In an attempt to capitalise on the Cordner’s disarment, South fired relentlessly with his Bren gun, whilst O’Hanlon threw a hand grenade that looked to be deadly in accuracy. Rather iniquitously, the grenade clipped the window sill and bounced to safety. Had it gone inside, the threat would have been eliminated.

Inevitably, the Cordner found his weapon and showed little hesitation in returning fire. With a number of bursts on the offensive, he showed a lack of effectiveness. His last offensive would turn out differently though, as he fired four well aimed shots, striking South, O’Hanlon, Garland and another volunteer by the surname of O’Regan.

Sporting a wound to the leg, Garland limped to the lorry and ordered the unit to withdraw. Once in the bullet ridden truck, it was the job of volunteer Vincent Conlon to drive the unit to safety. This was far from simplistic, for Conlon too had been shot in the foot and the tyres and gearing had been severely impaired by the firing it had come under.

Courageously, Conlon managed to drive five miles, before it was decided to escape on foot. Another Barracks lay ahead and they’d undoubtedly have been alerted to the unit’s getaway attempt. This gave the unit no other option. It clearly transpired that South and O’Hanlon were in no fit state to make an escape. It was with great regret that Garland carried the men to a nearby cowshed and reluctantly left them inside it, whilst the remaining volunteers continued their escape.

Moments later, two RUC vehicles arrived, their intent chilling and clear. They made way for the shed and opened fire. It was claimed by the RUC that this was standard procedure and that gunshots served as protection for fellow officers to close in on the premises. Further to this, they claimed that the positioning of the bullet holes indicated that O’Hanlon and South could not have been struck, except by way of ricochet. These claims have been strongly contested by Republicans ever since. Indeed, the Irish Republican Army members making their escape that day were utterly convinced that the RUC gunfire was a deliberate and unfortunately successful attempt to finish off both men.

Remarkably, the other volunteers managed to evade the pursuit of 500 RUC officers and B-Specials. This was even more incredible when one considers that hounds and air borne assistance was used. The volunteers trekked along the Slieve Meagh Mountains and took refuge in the natural landscape to avoid detection from the sky. Having ditched their arms, using just a compass to head towards Monoghan, the unit crossed the border back into the Free State after six hours.

The group was soon arrested and the wounded were taken to hospital prior to their trial. Each was sentenced to six months imprisonment for offences against the state.

Sean South and Fergal O’Hanlon immediately achieved martyrdom. Their story made headlines. As their coffins were carried back across the border, emotion and support for the cause soared. In excess of 40,000 people were at the funerals, with both men being described as intelligent, likeable, talented writers and patriots. Sinn Fein went on to secure 70,000 votes as a result of the emotion aroused through the funerals and the tale of the two men who had much to offer in their short lives.

Within a week of South’s death, Sean Costello composed the famous ballad Sean South of Garryowen. It was set to the tune of another famous song – Roddy McCorley. Later, Dominic Behan wrote the beautiful ballad – Patriot Game.

The tale relived through this article provides a backdrop to one of the best known songs at Celtic games. Not only is it a fantastic song in its own right, but it is intrinsically connected to the Irish political heritage of our club. Whatever you are doing this New Year, spare a thought for these martyrs and enjoy the songs – Sean South and Patriot Game!

About Author

Hailing from an Irish background, I grew up in Bournemouth with the good fortune to begin watching Celtic during the Martin O'Neill era. Still living on the south coast, I have a season ticket at Paradise and also travel to European away matches when possible. I have written four Celtic books since the age of 19: Our Stories & Our Songs: The Celtic Support, Take Me To Your Paradise: A History Of Celtic-Related Incidents & Events, Walfrid & The Bould Bhoys: Celtic's Founding Fathers, First Season & Early Stars, and The Holy Grounds of Glasgow Celtic: A Guide To Celtic Landmarks & Sites Of Interest. These were/are sold in Waterstones and official Celtic FC stores, and are available on Amazon.

1 Comment

  1. I first heard this song on September 1 1962 at Tannadice Park, Dundee when we went out of the 1962/63 Scottish League Cup in a feckless 0-0 draw against Dundee United. We just couldn’t score, although Charlie Gallagher had the ball over the line in the first half and the ball was hooked clear by left half Fraser of Dundee United. Modern technology would have given the goal.
    However, I fell in love with the song and its lovely tune. It must have been sung before then. Can anyone recall it being sung earlier? I don’t remember it at all during the 1961/62 season.