Early Years and Influences
Seán Mac Eoin was born in John Treacy's, his maternal grandfathers', house in Ballinlough, Ballinalee, Co. Longford on 30th September 1893. He was named John Joseph McKeon but he later started to use the Irish version of his name, Seán Mac Eoin, which he used for the remainder of his life.
His father Andrew McKeon, the fourth eldest of a family of seven, was from Molly, Aughnacliffe, Co. Longford. His mother Katherine Tracey was the youngest daughter of John Tracey's second marriage to Rose McCabe. The McKeon family had been blacksmiths for generations and also farmed three small holdings at Molly. The Tracey's were larger farmers for generations in the parish of Granard. Seán's father Andrew left the family home aged 18 to go to Dublin to gain experience in his trade as blacksmith. He returned to Longford and built a forge in the village of Bunlahy near Granard. He married Katherine Tracey in 1892. At the time Andrew did not have his own house and Katherine therefore lived with her family after the marriage and thus the reason for Sean's birth at his grandfather's house. Andrew was about to build a house in Bunlahy in 1893 when a forge and house became available near Ballinalee. He moved into this forge on 1st November 1893 when Seán was just over a month old. He did a good trade there as blacksmith and himself and his wife Katherine had the remainder of their family there.
Seán wrote in his witness statement for the Bureau of Military History that aged about four years, he became a "great favourite with three peculiar old men. These were Edward Killane, a Dominican layman, a large farmer and mill-owner, a very pious, clever, industrious old man; Joe Dowling, an ex-British Sergeant-Major of the Royal Irish Rifles and Indian Army, who had a grocer's store and hardware shop and, of course, sweets. The third man was Thomas Kenny, an old workman of Killane's, who was a Fenian local leader, a stern old nationalist and a great reader of the Old and New Testaments and could recite at will any chapter or verse of either".
In the morning the young Seán would walk with Killane from one of his mills to the other. Kilane's ambition was to teach Seán his prayers, etc. on this walk. At eleven o'clock, Dowling would call for Seán. He would tell Seán of his battles in India and tell him all about a soldier's life. Dowling's ambition was to educate Seán and to encourage him to save his pennies to buy a nice alarm clock, which he had for sale in his shop. Kenny went for a walk at two o'clock, and Seán would go with him and back to his house, "where he would tell me of the Fenians, Ribbon-men, Molly McGuires, and all the things that happened in the parish of Clonbroney in these times, of their fights and activities to get Ireland free. He described the Battle of Granard to me, and told me of Farrell and Deniston, local leaders, and of Farrell's jump on his black mare at the white gates near Granard, Stirring up my young blood to boiling point that there could be such bad people in the world as the British... All this made an indelible impression on my young mind, and I longed for the day to come when I would be a man and be able to do something against these terrible people, the English."
Seán started going to school at five years of age and continued to go until he was fourteen, although during his last two years he only spent 57 and 36 days at school respectively. As a result his school master did not want to let him sit his final exams stating "You will disgrace the school, and all your comrades are far before you, having full days at school". Seán decided that he would sit the examination anyway. Even though his attendance at school had been poor, he had not neglected his education and was studying at "at the anvil" at home. To his school masters surprise, Seán came first in his class and wanted to keep him in school to make a scholar out of him. However at this time Sean's father was having problems with his workmen at the forge and decided that he needed Seán to help out. Therefore at the early age of fifteen, Seán started to serve his time as an apprentice blacksmith. He still did not neglect his education and continued to study at night up until the age of eighteen. At that point he decided that "a blacksmith did not require so much education after all".