The Breahig Dugout Escape – A Century Ago Today

Éamonn Ó Braoin (left) with Tommy O’Connor and Tom Prendiville at the scene of the Breahig Dug-out on Saturday. Today, February 2nd, marks the centenary of the great escape by local volunteers just ahead of a Black and Tan raid on the area and on the dug-out in particular on Wednesday,  February 2nd 1921. Photograph: John Reidy
Volunteer Jack Shanahan who brought messages and a firkin of stout on his back from Castleisland up through Firie Bog to the dug-out in Breahig in the dark of a winter’s night in 1921.
Volunteer, Timothy Tadhg O’Connor (left) pictured with his mother, Margaret O’Connell and his cousin, Maurice O’Connor.
Three local men who took and active parts in the War of Independence. From left: Mike O’Leary, Moss Carmody and Din Prendiville and, inset, Davy McCarthy the man who returned to the dug-out to save sensitive information from falling into the hands of the Tans and narrowly escaped with his life.

There are many stories about the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence and, around Castleisland, the most remarkable is the one about the Breahig Dugout.

Breahig is a townland of the Cordal district where the tight knitted community worked together in tough times.

By Éamonn Ó Braoin

There was always a tradition of freedom and independence embedded in them, they remembered the Desmond Rebellions of 1579 and 1583 and the headless body of Gearóid Iarla laid to rest in Cill an Anama, Boic Ó Gráda and Tadhg Ó Dálaigh from 1798 and of course the Land War and The Moonlighters.

Not surprisingly it was difficult for me to locate the dugout and only for the help of the O’Connor family, the Tadhg Mags and James Drumm I could not locate it.

The location of the site is perfect, beside a stream between two double ditches and most importantly an escape flight in many directions.

The Jack Shanahan Tapes

The following is a description by Jack Shanahan a man who was connected with events of the dugout in a tape recording made in the fifties.

“The dug-out was between two double ditches, 35ft. In length and 10ft. wide, the inside was sheeted with timber and covered with corrugated iron, the iron was again covered with natural scraws of earth on which heath and brambles grew and were very much in sympathy with the surrounding area.

“Even at a very short distance it could not be recognised. All along one side was a settle bed, constructed of timber, covered with loose straw and needless to say the whole set up was not luxurious.”

Flying Columns Formed

Towards the end of 1920 the flying columns were formed and the leadership of the volunteers at G.H.Q. wanted to set up a Flying Column in every brigade area. A representative of G.H.Q. Andy Cooney alias Jim Browne was sent to the Castleisland district in early January 1921.

Dan O’Mahony was replaced by Humphrey Murphy as the new commanding officer. The dugout now had a key role in affairs as it was here the flying column came together for the first time, again we have an account by Jack Shanahan:

Cold And Damp In January

“When we arrived, in the month of January the place was crowded, 10 or12 including our organiser from G.H.Q., Dr. Andy Cooney whom we knew under the alias of Jim Browne. It was very cold and damp especially in the month of January.

“Whatever food we got had to be brought along from the local people as we had no means of cooking.”

What sustained these full time fighting men was the good will and support of the local community often at great personal risk.

A Firkin Of Porter

The young men were young men and they liked a few drinks, one day Jack Shanahan was ordered to go to the nearest town Castleisland to do some shopping, the most important item on the list was a firkin of porter.

Having secured his messages Jack set off on foot in darkness for Breahig in through Firie bog and between falling into bog holes and dykes with the firkin strapped on his back eventually made it to the dugout to the welcome of his comrades at around one o’clock.

A Loud Bang

“Everybody got on with what they were doing when suddenly there was a loud bang at the back of the dugout and the firkin was shattered in pieces. Apparently, Andy Cooney was doing some repair work to a ‘Parabellum’ pistol commonly known as a ‘Lueger’ when it accidentally discharged and the bullet hit the roof and then went in the direction of the firkin, if the bullet had gone direct it would have gone through five or six bodies”

“The miraculous escape was the least of their worries and the tragedy of the loss of the contents of the broken jar of Guinness seemed to be all that mattered,”Jack Shanahan tapes.

Black and Tans Surprise Raid

Life carried on as usual until early morning Wednesday, February 2nd. 1921 when the Black and Tans made a surprise dawn raid on the dugout.

As fate would have it there was a fair in Castleisland on this day also and before daybreak Andy O’ Leary and Jack Prendiville where driving cattle to the fair when they observed the lights of the military in the distance coming out from Castleisland.

Warning his Comrades

One of the men, Jack Prendiville ran as quickly as he could in a direct route to the dugout to warn his comrades. The Tans had to take the longer route via Cordal Church and when they got to the dugout the volunteers had escaped.

We have the following account by Nora McCarthy, Breahig:

“It so happened that February 2nd. 1921 was a fair day in Castleisland and three of the men who belonged to the secret army were on their way to the fair.

“They were walking along with the cattle, long before dawn broke, when one of the men saw a faint glimmer from the lights of the oncoming lorries of Tans.

A Narrow Escape

One of the three, Jack Prendiville – who later gave his life in the fight for freedom, left the other two to take care of his animals while he ran as fast as he could to the dug-out. The boys barely scrambled out and dashed away on time.”

It was a narrow escape for the volunteers none more than Davy McCarthy who had to return to the dugout to recover important documents and negatives which he managed to do and had just got clear and looking back saw the Tans at the dugout.

Indiscriminate Firing

When the Tans reached the dugout they firstly fired indiscriminately into it and when they discovered it was empty searched it and then set fire to it. They then focused on the nearby house of Davy McCarty and his sister Nora who, again, gave the following account of what happened:

“After the military had searched the dug-out, stolen all the furniture or useful articles there, they burned all that remained.

Then they proceeded to do the same to our house, out-houses, and farm machinery.

Shot The Poor Dumb Animals

Having stolen, or wrecked, all of our property, they set fire to everything that remained, they shot the poor dumb animals that they did not steal.

“It was heart-breaking to see the dead bodies of the animals strewn around the farm-yard. My father who was an invalid, was forced to sit by and behold the fruits of his life’s work and efforts all going up in flames.”

In compiling this account I had access to the Jack Shanahan tapes and the account by Nora McCarthy who later became a nun, I was moved by her closing words:

‘That Rock From Which We Were Hewn’

Through all the years, the memory of the events of that day have remained fresh in my mind and they will always remain with me.

Now-a-days I often contemplate the long, hard, struggle through which our nation passed before we could feel those lasting joys of peace and freedom.

My heart is often filled to overflowing. When that wonderful emotion called patriotism wells up inside us, we want to cast aside all vain and selfish feelings and live for the true, the pure, the beautiful.

It tells us we are a chip of a mighty rock and, as the Bible reminds us, we remember that rock from which we were hewn.”

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