Proud sons of Tipperary
Commemoration planned for Sunday
On March 27, 1923, two Republican volunteers, Matt Ryan of Boher and John Sheehy of Killalane, Ballinahinch, were killed by Free State forces in a raid near ‘The Rebel’s Den’ in Foilduff, Rearcross.
Matt Ryan grew up on a small farm in Boher. Born in 1893, the son of Con and Mary (née Powell) had three brothers and three sisters and attended Ballynahinch school. As a teenager, he worked in Tom Hogan’s grocery in Castle St in Nenagh before going on to manage Musgraves in Cork city. Unfortunately, the family had to sell the farm and his mother and sisters left Boher for America. Matt and his brothers, Con Óg, John and Ben were deeply involved in the IRA and stayed to fight for independence. (In later years, the women of the house returned and bought the farm back.)
John Sheehy of Killalane was the son of Michael and Nora (née Ryan [Curraghmore). He, his sister and three brothers also grew up on the family farm. John’s house was strongly Republican. His bother Paddy was interned in the Curragh where he spent 45 days on hunger strike. During the Civil War, Free State forces threw the Sheehy family of Bushfield out of their house, commandeering it as their headquarters in the area.
Both Matt Ryan and John Sheehy joined the local IRA units and the fight for Irish freedom.
Matt was imprisoned on Spike Island after taking part in many IRA engagements.
After the treaty of 1921, both men maintained their Republican stance and fought in opposition to the Free State. At the start of the Civil War, John was tasked with acquiring weapons. He was appointed by his brigade to go to Dublin with a considerable amount of cash. He succeeded in bringing a large consignment of weapons to North Tipperary. Their anti-treaty position meant a life on the run from ‘The King’s Men’, where they took refuge among the local community.
The families in the townlands of Kilcommon provided safe houses to the volunteers. Indeed, when a local tailor named Farrell left Knockahopple, he approached the IRA and offered them his house for their use. It soon became the IRA headquarters in the area, known as ‘The Rebel’s Den’.
Both Matt Ryan and John Sheehy were billeted in the hills of Foilduff on the night of March 26, 1923. John Sheehy was staying at the Kane’s house with fellow volunteers Patrick Hughes and Stephen Davern (Dublin). Fifty yards away, Matt Ryan (who was wounded in a Free State ambush at Tullamoylan, Dolla just two weeks previously) was at Tim Hayes house, with Sean Gaynor and Jim ‘Jennet’ Murphy. (Not far away, Sonny O’Neill and Paddy Ryan Lacken lodged at O’Dwyer’s house.)
The following morning was foggy as a detachment of 24-25 Free State soldiers moved out from Silvermines barracks to raid the houses around Curryquinn, Bolingbrook, Knockahopple and finally Foilduff. Many were ex-British soldiers. The fog provided excellent cover for the soldiers who would normally have been spotted from a distance away on the hills. Because of this, they were upon Hayes house before Tim’s niece, Elieen Murphy, who was doing chores in the yard saw them and raised the alarm. The soldiers opened fire on her as she fled inside the house. Taken completely by surprise, the half-dressed Republicans fled the house, exchanging fire with the soldiers. It was in this exchange that John Sheehy was mortally wounded, suffering a horrific head wound – probably from a dum-dum bullet.
Over at Kane’s, Matt Ryan had managed to make it from the house and retreated across the open mountain with Pat Hughes and Stephen Davern. It was a dangerous path they followed as they were very exposed. Unfortunately, they were spotted by an advance party of Free Staters about a mile away. The soldiers rained fire upon the IRA men from their high position at the height of the Prisiun hill. As the men ran, Matt cried out “I’m struck” and fell to the ground. Pat Hughes returned to help his comrade but was pinned down by enemy fire. The soldiers captured him at that spot, where they found Matt had died. Making a stretcher out of a cape and rifles, a soldier and Hughes carried him back to Hayes’ house. As they returned, Sonny O’Neill and Paddy Lacken had come from O’Dwyers to assist their comrades. They were in position to attack the Free State soldiers but refrained when they saw Pat Hughes amongst them.
Later, both fallen men were laid out in Kane’s house by locals. It was decided to wake them that night. However, the soldiers returned, commandeered the bodies and returned to Nenagh barracks with them on the back of their lorry. Locals reported how the bodies were left exposed in the yard throughout that cold, frosty night.
Commandant-General Matt Ryan and Commandant John Sheehy were proud sons of Tipperary who fought for a better future for their people. They died defending the Republic. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.
*The North Tipperary Republican Monuments Committee will hold a commemoration at the site of the Foilduff Engagement (Eircode: V94CH2P) on Sunday, March 19, at 2pm. All are welcome.