In Memory of Seán Sabhat and Fergal O’Hanluain

On a bleak new years day in 1957, two brave soldiers of the republic were brutally shot dead by RUC members, in a raid that had gone drastically wrong, the two men are now forever remebered in word, poem and song.

Sean Sabhat was born John South on the 8th of February 1928, in 47 Henry Street, Limerick City, contrary to the song Sabhat was not from Garryowen, but poetic liscense gave rise to that, to better fit the song.

Sean was named after his father, John South, and was known as Jack growing up, in later years he began to use the irish form of his name. Much to his disappointment he found that the name South originated in Wiltshire, England, it is though his great grandfather had come from Wiltshire, to Wexford and worked as a copper, in the fishing villages, as was common practice at the time. His great grandfather later settled in Limerick and opened a grocers. Sean’s father died when he was only 3 years of age, and when his mother was 6 months pregnant with his younger brother Gerard, leaving her to run the grocers, his father had been in ill health before this with TB. Despite the conditions Sean was able to attend both primary and secondary, the primary not too far from his home, and then the CBS in Sexton Street. He completed his leaving cert in 1945.

While attending the CBS Sean came in contact with a teacher by the name of Tadgh Kelly, he instilled in Sean a sense of reverence for the Irish language, Seán from this point on reintroduced Gaeilge to his here was known as Sean Sabhat, even writing to the genealogical office in Dublin in 1953 to find the origins of the name.

Before involvement with the IRA Seán had joined the local defense forces at age 17, this was a precursor to militant activity with the IRA and served as highly sophisticated training, particularly with the bren gun, which was an important weapon to the Republican movement and specifically to operation harvest. Sean was first lieutenant at the time of his self dismissal in 1955.

Seán earlier in 1949 had applied and was accepted to Conradh na Gaeilge, the gaelic league which throughout the years of its existence stood by the Republican movement, and sought to promote the re-emergence of Gaeilge over the dominant and imposed English language and culture. Sean was known to be a keen consumer of literature, film and song, many of the books in his library were in Irish, books included, ‘Irish citizen army’ ‘tone and emmet’ ‘Irish Labour movement’ and James Connollys ‘workers Republic’.

In 1954 Sean formally resigned from all organisations he was involved in, primarily the FCA, this marks the point where Sean officially joined the IRA, it was a decision Sean did not take lightly, or out of sheer adventurism, being a devout Catholic and given the churches stance on the IRA meant Sean considered this greatly.

As 1954 progressed and into the summer Sean began drills and training with the IRA column in his area, his influence was such that he made the column an Irish speaking one, under local commander Willie Gleeson. Like many other men involved, before his time and after, seans family were not fully aware of his activity.

The IRA had been ramping up for operation harvest with sometime arms raids had occurred in preparation for commencement, on British army arms dumps, such as Gough barracks in Armagh, and the Arborfield depot in Berkshire England. The success of these raids proved as a boost to morale, and influenced many to join.
Such raids were a complete embarrassment to the British, Ebrington raid in Derry is one such example. Seans training continued and this is where Fergal O’Hanluain is introduced.

Fergal was born into a Republican family in Ballybay, County Monaghan, on the 2nd of February 1936, he was just turning 20 years old when gave his life for the all Ireland Republic. Fergal attended the local Primary school, and then the CBS, transferring to St. Macartans seminary for 1 year.

He and Sabhat had many similarities, both devout catholics and both totally fluent in the native language. An astute language activist, Gaeilge was the only language ever spoken in his house. His brother Eigneahchan, along with Ruari O’Bradaigh and 2 others contested the 1957 election to leinster house, on abstention, and won 4 seats. His younger sister Pádraigín, who served as a sinn féin Town Council on Monaghan Urban district, remembers the night leading up to the raid, and Fergal commenting to his mother ‘give these men a good meal, because there are faces here you will never see again’.
His mother was in full support of his IRA activity and refused down through the years to accept any twisting of Fergals narrative, such as consequent sell outs she was deeply hurt as the mother of an Irish martyr, that there was even a suggestion to an alternative to militant republicanism.

Fergal like his comrade Sabhat was memorialised in Dominic Behans song ‘Patriot Game’.
It seemed fitting that both Sabhat and O’Hanluain formed part of the Pearse flying column.
On the night of the 11th of December 1956 operation harvest was officially opened, with the destruction of a BBC relay tower at Rosemount, Derry, this was followed by another embarrassment to the British army with the destruction of a Depot being built in Enniskillen, and further setting light to Magherafelt county courthouse, throughout December actions were taking place with a short break at Christmas.

The men of the Pearse column assembled in a house in Drimnagh in Dublin, being led by Sean Garland, and were briefed by then chief of staff, Tony Magan. The men were then drove onto County Meath in a van, and were then divided up into separate cars, headed to the monaghan Area.

A subsequent meeting was held in Fergal O’Hanluains House in Ballybay and then again the men were split up into different houses for the night. The following day they again assembled in O’Hanluains House for a meal and briefing, food would be scarce in the days before the raid, they moved then from Ballybay to Knocktallon to an arms dump, where arms and ammunition were divided out, included were a Bren gun and three magazines, eleven Lee Enfield mk 4 rifles, two sub machine guns, rounds for all arms were scarce but enough to complete the raid. Each rifle had 60 rounds and the sub machine guns had four magazines each, they were provided also with gelignite, taken from a quarry in the 26 counties, among them only one man was properly trained to handle explosives, and a second man appointed his assistant, the bombs were improvised, gelignite packed into biscuit tins, molotov cocktails were sourced.

The Pearse column had men from all over the country, Dublin, Galway, Fermanagh, Limerick, Monaghan, Armagh, Wexford and Cork. There was no common uniform and all consisted of surplus military and workwear.
The column drove closer to the boundaries between Monaghan and south Fermanagh, here they proceeded by foot into mountainous routes worn by smugglers.

The weather began to change and the men had to be back across the border by the 4th of January, they had no specific target until plans of BrookeBorough village and the RUC station were acquired by IRA supporters close to Enniskillen Town Hall. They had a final hot meal in a house not far from Brookeborough and then filed into a Bedford tipper, commandeered by Vincent Conlon, Seán Sabhat was selected as the operator of the Bren gun, there was some confusion surrounding the plans and the lorry was first parked on wrong side of the road.

Phil O’Donoghue who was the bomb assistant disembarked and approached the door of the barracks to set the bomb but was foiled when the RUC constable opened the door O’Donoghue escaped but here the fire fight began.
The bren gun was trigger tested and set aims on the Barracks, immediate return fire from the barracks came and it became appearant that the RUC too had a bren gun, a ricocheted grenade injured Phil O’Donoghue seriously.

Sean Garland saw how the raid had opened disastrously and called for a retreat, but a bullet pierced Sean Sabhats back and he immediately fell to the bed of the lorry.
Fergal O’Hanluain was shot in the legs and he too fell to the ground, moaning as he was pulled up into the lorry bed, the men scrambled and left in the lorry heading back towards Monaghan through Roslea, the men who weren’t injured were ordered to reload in preperation for defense.

The men spotted the lights of cars giving chase, Sean and Fergal lay in the bed of the lorry, Sean was unconscious and Fergal losing blood quickly, the men abandoned the lorry at a crossroads some 5 miles from the site of the raid, the column knew they could not continue with Sabhat and Hanluain.

Sean was presumed dead and Fergal dying they approached a quiet and empty farm house owned by a Baxter family and left the two martyrs in the byre. The others in the column wounded and shook left on foot across the border, through smuggling routes, they turned to view the byre being peppered with gun fire. It is well known that if not already dead Sabhat and O’Hanluain were battered to death by the RUC and B-specials.

The IRA took charge of the funeral arrangements in accordance with both families wishes. A large attendance was expected but not as large as did show, over 20,000 mourners filed past Sean’s coffin as he lay repose in St.Michaels Church in Limerick City, this is testament to the fact that the IRA contrary to revisionist historians and press had huge mass support, mourners lined towns and villages as the martyrs cortege passed through. And when Sean’s cortege reached Limerick city it took them and hour and a half to reach St. Michael’s church, a distance of just under a mile. Shops closed and workers took a solidarity strike. The men were handed over to the families at Enniskillen and the IRA paid for and organised an undertaker to bring the coffins to Ballybay in County Monaghan.

Both men were reposed in St. Macartans Cathedral, the next day Fergal O’Hanluain was buried in Rathlurcan cemetery, as Paddy Kavanagh gave the oration ending with, ‘I ask you to erect a monument to this volunteer, I ask you to erect a monument which can be seen all over the world. I have in mind a monument Fergal would like, that monument would be the Irish Republic.

On the afternoon of January 6th Sean was to be buried, bohemians rugby club played a game in Thomond Park out of sheer disrespect, and refused to lower the flag half mast, Alderman Russell refused a civic funeral for Sean, most members of the city Council attended in official garment, ignoring Russell’s order.
Diarmuid O’Donnachada delivered Sean’s oration As Gaeilge ‘his sacrifice on the altar if freedom is encouraging to us.’ He died for freedom, for my sake and yours, and for the generation that are to come, not only did he follow in the footsteps of Pearse and Emmet and Tone, but he made a study of his Irish heritage from the beginning.

In memory of Óglach Sean Sabhat & Fergal O’Hanluain

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