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This summary of Seáns life story is a paper which is adapted from a lecture given in the Thomas Ashe Hall, Ballinalee, on 15 June 2013, as part of the Seán MacEoin Commemoration on the 40th anniversary of his death.  The author Mr. Martin Morris, Longford County Archivist who has kindly given his permission to publish it on, delivered the lecture to a packed audience.  (Download the lecture footage here)


This paper was subsequently published in Teathbha –  the Journal of County Longford Historical Society, vol. iv, no. 1 (2013).


Seáns life story is also very well documented in his own words in "Autobiographic Record's".




The year 2013 is an appropriate one during which to commemorate Lieutenant-General Seán MacEoin. It marks the fortieth anniversary of his death and the 120th anniversary of his birth. It is also at the beginning of the so-called ‘decade of centenaries’, during which Ireland will mark many key events that led to the independence of this state. Seán MacEoin played a leading role in those events at local and national level. It is a daunting task to attempt to summarise an extraordinary life such as his. The best I can do is to examine some aspects of it, namely: his early influences; his involvement in nationalist movements as a young man; his role in the War of Independence, particularly in leading the North Longford Flying Column; and some important moments in his political career.


The essential facts of MacEoin’s public career are worth outlining at the outset. Taken from his joining the Volunteers in 1914, when he first assumed a leadership role, to his defeat in the 1965 general election, he held a succession of public positions over fifty-one years. His service in the Volunteers, the I.R.A. and the Irish army spanned fifteen years (1914-29), during which he rose through the ranks to become Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces in 1929. He was a member of Dáil Éireann for thirty-eight years in total (1921-3 and 1929-65); a cabinet minister for over six years, in the first two inter-party governments (Justice, 1948-51; Defence, 1951 and 1954-7); and presidential candidate on two occasions – in 1945 and 1959.


Early influences

MacEoin’s leadership qualities were obvious; otherwise he would not have had such an extraordinary career in both military and political spheres. However, an important question to pose is: what inspired him to become involved in the nationalist movement to begin with?


Seán MacEoin himself provided some important insights into his motivation in his witness statement to the Bureau of Military History, submitted in 1957.[2] He spoke of three men who influenced him in his childhood: Edward Killane, a mill owner and farmer; Joe Dowling, who had been in the British army in India; and Thomas Kenny, an old Fenian. Each of the three went walking at a different time during the day, and young Seán often accompanied him and seemed to soak up the stories he heard, especially Dowling’s and Kenny’s. Dowling talked about the life of a soldier and the battles he had been in; Kenny told the boy of rebellions and battles in Irish history, including the Battle of Granard in 1798. [3]  


Young MacEoin then went home and repeated the stories to his parents, as children do, and they told him other stories, some involving relatives of theirs. In particular he recalled hearing about Treacy brothers from Bunlahy, who were relatives of his mother.  ‘Some of the Treacy boys’ went to fight with the French and Irish in 1798. A brother who remained at home saw a group of horsemen coming towards Bunlahy and went to greet them taking his pike, assuming they were French or Irish. However, they were British troops and they put him to death at the ‘big tree’ of Bunlahy.[4]  MacEoin said that such stories made a great impression on him, and he ‘longed for the day to come when I would be a man and be able to do something against these terrible people the English’.[5]


The oral tradition of 1798 is important. Dr Marie Coleman has referred to it helping to inspire some of those who were prominent in north Longford in the revolutionary period including Frank Davis and Seán Connolly, as well as MacEoin.[6]


Like so many others who were nationalistic in outlook, Seán MacEoin was involved in organisations that could be described as ‘nurseries of the revolution’. These were the Gaelic League, the Volunteers and the Irish Republican Brotherhood. At the age of eleven in 1904, he had begun using the Irish version of his name,[7] indicating that even then, he understood the link between language and identity.  Later, he attended classes run by the Gaelic League.[8] MacEoin and his father Andrew were also involved in the United Irish League.[9]


Growing political involvement

The year 1913 was an important one for Seán MacEoin. His father died at the early age of forty-nine, and he and his brother Michael then took charge of the forge. MacEoin was also keenly aware of political developments as the year progressed. Volunteers were formed on both sides of the divide over Home Rule. At that time, the third Home Rule Bill was being debated in parliament in London, and it was certain to become law. The Ulster Volunteers were founded to oppose it, while the Irish Volunteers were established in support of it. In 1914, MacEoin joined the Clonbroney company of the Irish Volunteers, and very soon his promotion through the ranks commenced, with him becoming a section commander and then a second lieutenant.[10]


Late in 1914, MacEoin was sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood by John Cawley of Granard.  By 1917, the I.R.B. was organised throughout the county. In the following year, the first ‘county circle’ was formed, with MacEoin as ‘county centre’ or head. Within a few years, he was a member of the Provincial Circle, with a place on the Supreme Council.[11] The brotherhood was one forum in which he had contact with Michael Collins, who was president of the Supreme Council during some of the War of Independence. MacEoin felt bound by his oath throughout his life, and so there were aspects of the I.R.B. he never spoke about, a point I will return to later.


The 1916 Rising, or more specifically, the executions of the leaders in the weeks following it, sparked a transformation within nationalism. Gradually, the Home Rule Party’s support declined thereafter and a new separatist party emerged – Sinn Féin. Its position was enhanced through a series of by-election victories in 1917 and 1918. The second of them was in South Longford in May 1917, when Joe McGuinness was elected. Seán MacEoin was involved in the organisation of Sinn Féin in the county after the election and he helped to arrange a meeting in Ballinalee at which both Michael Collins and Thomas Ashe spoke. [12] Ashe was arrested soon afterwards, accused of making a seditious speech at the Ballinalee meeting. He was imprisoned, went on hunger strike and was force-fed, resulting in his death.


The War of Independence

Sinn Féin’s dominance in Irish nationalism was confirmed with its performance in the general election of December 1918, and it convened the first meeting of Dáil Éireann on 21 January 1919.  On the same day, there was an ambush at Soloheadbeg, Co. Tipperary, organised by local Volunteers. That incident marked the beginning of the War of Independence. However, there was little activity until much later in the year.

The same could certainly not be said about the next year. In January 1920, General Headquarters of the Volunteers sanctioned attacks on R.I.C. barracks. They were obvious sources of arms and ammunition, and also symbols of British rule at local level.


Longford was quiet in 1919, except for some raids for arms. At that time, the Volunteers were organised into battalions and a brigade. Seán MacEoin was commandant of the first battalion of the Longford Brigade of the I.R.A., as the Volunteers became known in 1920. That September, he was appointed vice O/C of the brigade and director of operations for Longford and parts of Leitrim and Cavan. [13] MacEoin played a leading part in raids on four R.I.C. posts through the year: Drumlish (6 January), Ballinamuck (10 June), Ballymahon (19 August) and Arva (26 September).[14] There was also a raid on the artillery or ‘top’ barracks in Longford on the night before the attack on Ballymahon.[15]


The most intense phase of the conflict in Longford involved the North Longford Flying Column, which MacEoin mobilised on 1 November 1920. Over the following five months, some of the best-known incidents of the entire war took place in the north Longford area. The column consisted initially of about thirty men,[16] each armed with a rifle and about fifty rounds of .303 ammunition.[17] Its strength and membership varied depending on circumstances, but research has verified the names of forty-nine members[18] who were in the column at different times up to its disbandment at the Truce on 11 July 1921.


The column’s initial aim was to prevent reprisals following the shootings of District Inspector (D.I.) Philip Kelleher and Constable Peter Cooney.[19] Kelleher was shot in the The Greville Arms Hotel, Granard, on the night of 31 October[20] and Cooney on the road between Ballinalee and Granard on the following day.[21] In the first few days of November, column members were involved in defending both Granard and Ballinalee against attack. While Granard was burned on the night of 3 November, Ballinalee was saved after a fierce battle that raged into the following morning.[22] Despite that initial success, Crown forces returned to Ballinalee in the second week of December and destroyed a large area of the village, mostly on 13 December, following an attack on them. The homes of the MacEoin family (and forge), Seán Duffy and Seán Connolly were also razed at that time. [23] 


A lull in hostilities over the Christmas period ended dramatically in early January.  On 7 January, MacEoin, and column members Mick Gormley and Jim Sheeran were in Martins’ cottage, a safe-house near Ballinalee, where MacEoin met family members and dealt with correspondence. The house was soon surrounded by police. With his comrades providing covering fire, MacEoin escaped through the front door. D.I. Thomas McGrath died in the accompanying shoot-out and MacEoin was accused of his murder.[24]


At that stage, north Longford had been the scene of intense activity for a couple of months. In order to relieve the pressure on the area, the column organised an ambush at Terlicken, near Ballymahon, on 15 January. The target was a convoy travelling from Longford to Athlone. However, the mines failed to explode, and there was a shoot-out followed by the withdrawal of the column.[25]


The Clonfin ambush on 2 February is the incident that is most synonymous with Seán MacEoin and the flying column. I will not describe it in detail because it has been well-covered elsewhere.[26] Twenty-one column members ambushed two lorries carrying Auxiliaries at Clonfin on the road from Ballinalee to Granard. From a military perspective, it was a classic example of how to plan and carry out an ambush. It also stands out because of the humane treatment of the wounded and survivors at a time when there was very little restraint in the conflict.


MacEoin’s arrest at Mullingar on 7 March was a turning point in the war in Longford. He and James J. Brady had been in Dublin, where MacEoin met Collins and then Cathal Brugha, Minister for Defence. They were returning by train when at Mullingar station, they and all others in civilian dress, were made to assemble on the platform. A policeman recognised MacEoin and he was arrested for the murder of D.I. McGrath. On the way to the police barracks, he tried to escape but was shot in the chest at close range. He was transferred to Dublin on the following day, where he was treated for his wound, and then sent to Mountjoy Gaol to await trial.[27]


After MacEoin’s imprisonment, Seán Connolly, who was then an I.R.A. organiser in Leitrim, was asked to return to Longford to take command of the flying column,[28] but before he could do so, he was mortally wounded at the Selton Hill ambush on 11 March – he died the next day.


The establishment of Dáil Éireann was the democratic basis of the War of Independence, and Seán MacEoin asserted that point at all times. One of the most striking images from his service in the war is the discussion he had on the road at Clonfin with Francis Worthington-Craven, the commander of the Auxiliaries. Craven, a decorated naval officer, was mortally wounded in the fighting and in his dying minutes, he and MacEoin had a frank exchange. In reply to being described as a murderer, MacEoin said that he and his men were acting on the proper authority and were fighting for independence, which was their right to do. In the end, Craven accepted the validity of that argument, wished MacEoin well and asked him to be kind to his men.[29]


In his speech at his trial for the murder of D. I. McGrath, on 14 June 1921, MacEoin again justified his actions, and stated that he had behaved at all times ‘in accordance with the usages of war’. [30] Significantly, three of the Auxiliaries who had been at Clonfin - Maddocks, Smith and Wilford - gave evidence in his favour.[31] However, MacEoin was convicted and sentenced to death.


MacEoin the politician

Seán MacEoin was elected to the Dáil in the general election of May 1921.  On 6 August, following initial contacts with Sinn Féin about peace negotiations, the British government announced the release of all members of the Dáil who were then imprisoned, with the exception of MacEoin. When the Sinn Féin leadership made his release a pre-condition for convening the Dáil, the British relented and MacEoin was freed.


MacEoin’s two-year membership of the Dáil, 1921-3, is easily over-shadowed by his military service, though it should not be.  His contributions included two that were made on crucial occasions in the chamber. On 26 August 1921, he proposed Eamon de Valera as ‘President of the Irish Republic’,[32] the first time that title was used. In his witness statement, MacEoin said that he was directed to do so, but would not say by whom,[33] because of the oath he had taken on joining the organisation. However, it is now assumed that Michael Collins was that person.[34] Collins was then President of the I.R.B. Supreme Council and MacEoin was a council member.


This raises the important issue of how MacEoin viewed the Supreme Council: he regarded it as the government of Ireland in the absence of a properly constituted alternative. When the Dáil was convened in 1919, it appointed ministers who were recognised as the legitimate government by the I.R.B. However, there was no head of state nominated and so the President of the Supreme Council continued to claim to be head of state until the nomination of de Valera as president in August 1921. In that context, MacEoin viewed his proposing of DeValera as a key moment: the smooth and voluntary handing over of power by the I.R.B.  to the civilian authority. [35] This was MacEoin’s view throughout his life, despite being challenged on it by others, including following his television interview with Terence de Vere White in 1964.[36]


On 19 December, MacEoin was central to another historic moment in the Dáil when he seconded Arthur Griffith’s motion that the house should adopt the Treaty,[37] which had been signed a couple of weeks earlier. In his speech, he referred to the fact that the Treaty would mean the withdrawal of British troops from Ireland and the formation of an Irish army, which would itself be a guarantee of independence. This, it can be argued, was a pragmatic approach by a military man.


A little known episode of Seán MacEoin’s political career is his visit to Geneva in mid-1923 in connection with the Irish Free State’s application to join the League of Nations. Membership of the League was a priority for the government in the foreign policy arena because it was an assertion of Ireland’s independence. Soon after his return, MacEoin wrote a letter to William T. Cosgrave, President of the Executive Council, in which he outlined some of the actions he regarded as urgent. The first was to authorise the Irish consul in Geneva (Michael MacWhite) to act as the state’s representative at the League. Another matter was the appointment of a delegation of six to the League. They should bring a copy of the Treaty to have it registered as an international agreement and then distribute copies to the delegates from other member states.[38] In doing this, Ireland’s position would be highlighted and it would achieve equality with other member states in that very important international forum. The Free State was admitted to the League in September 1923[39] and was an active member of it.


In 1929, after resigning from the post of Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces, MacEoin entered parliamentary politics on a full-time and long-term basis. He was elected in Leitrim-Sligo in a by-election in June 1929. In 1932, he won a seat in Longford-Westmeath and retained it until 1965. There can be no doubting MacEoin’s senior position within Cumann na nGaedheal and then Fine Gael.  When W.T. Cosgrave resigned as party president in 1944, he was succeeded by Richard Mulcahy, who was then a senator, having lost his Dáil seat in 1943. MacEoin was asked to take the positions of party chairman and leader in the Dáil, but he declined. Dr T.F. O’Higgins accepted both instead.[40]


MacEoin stood in the first presidential election, which was held in 1945, and his performance was significant in opening the way for the inter-party government a few years later. His opponents were Seán T. Ó Ceallaigh of Fianna Fáil and Dr Patrick McCartan, an independent Republican, who had the support of Clann na Talmhan and Labour. MacEoin finished second on 30.9% of the vote. Ó Ceallaigh won with 49.5%, and McCartan secured 19.6%.[41] MacEoin received far more transfers from McCartan than Ó Ceallaigh did – 118, 000 compared with 27, 000.[42] The outcome was considered a good omen for co-operation between the opposition parties.  Interestingly, McCartan wrote to MacEoin after the election and referred to the suggestion that had been made to him by some people that the two should found a new political party.[43] He was not interested, and neither was MacEoin.


After the 1948 general election, negotiations on the formation of a coalition government were successfully concluded. The government was composed of Fine Gael, Labour, Clann na Poblachta, Clann na Talmhan, National Labour and Independents, and its contribution in breaking the political mould should not be underestimated.


Some final reflections

It is clear from the views of some of his colleagues and contemporaries that Seán MacEoin was generally respected and liked in political circles.[44] His was obviously a hard-working constituency politician judging from his papers, now in U.C.D. They include numerous requests for assistance from constituents. Among them are hundreds from former members of the I.R.A. and Cumann na mBan asking for references in support of their applications for military service pensions.[45] Many had taken the opposite side in the Treaty split, but MacEoin dealt with all of them.


According to Séamus Helferty, the archivist who processed MacEoin’s papers, MacEoin was possessed of ‘a roundedness and depth of character that does not necessarily emerge from the public persona.’[46]  As evidence of this, he refers to MacEoin’s part in a plan to develop a commercial television channel. In September 1953, he and Charles Sweeney of Federated Trust and Finance Corporation Ltd prepared a memorandum for the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, Erskine Childers, in which they explained the proposal in some detail. They anticipated getting technical personnel from England and a manager and station director from the U.S.; the board would have government representation; and the government would have 28% of the air-time. While there was some correspondence with the minister, there is nothing to show what the final response to the plan was.[47]


Seán MacEoin’s last visit to Longford was in February 1971 when he unveiled the monument at Clonfin on the fiftieth anniversary of the ambush. From symbolic and personal viewpoints, it was a very important occasion for all concerned. Old comrades from the North Longford Flying Column met to mark an event of historic importance for them and their country. In early 1921, they had trusted one another with their lives, but the Treaty resulted in division and some had not met for decades. The commemoration gave them an opportunity to meet again, and as Sr Maeve Brady has said in her piece in the commemorative booklet, to have some closure.[48]


In conclusion, I can do no better than to quote from Dr Brigid Lyons-Thornton, herself a veteran of the Revolutionary period, who had this to say about Seán MacEoin after his death in 1973:


Like Collins, Seán MacEoin was a soldier at heart, and like Collins, he risked his life and limb – even to death itself for the cause of Ireland. He suffered more than is generally known from the grim after-effects of his war injuries and prison privations, but I never heard a word of recrimination.  Seán MacEoin’s vision and generosity of mind overcame any shred of bitterness there might have been.  The tragedy of the Civil War, when former comrades became bitter enemies, affected him no less than the rest of us. In the role of solder he was gallant, and the bravest of the brave, but his steely militarism was always tempered with tenderness. He observed a strict sense of justice, of mercy, of forgiveness.[49]



In proposing the vote of thanks after the lecture, Sr Maeve Brady, daughter of Tom Brady, a member of the North Longford Flying Column who opposed the Treaty, spoke powerfully and movingly. Among other things, she referred to her grandmother’s contacts with MacEoin in the Revolutionary period.




[1] This paper is adapted from a lecture given in the Thomas Ashe Hall, Ballinalee, on 15 June 2013, as part of the Seán MacEoin Commemoration. For a brief biography of MacEoin see Marie Coleman, ‘MacEoin, Seán’ in James Maguire and James Quinn (eds), Dictionary of Irish biography (9 vols, Cambridge, 2009), v, pp 998-9; for a fuller treatment see Padraic O’Farrell, The Blacksmith of Ballinalee: Seán MacEoin (Mullingar, 1993), a revision and reprint of The Seán MacEoin story (Mullingar, 1981).


[2] Bureau of Military History, Witness Statement (BMH WS) 1716, Seán MacEoin (Military Archives, Cathal Brugha Barracks, Dublin; available at [accessed on various dates in 2013]). The statement is autobiographical up to 1921. It runs to 213 pages and has ten appendices.


[3] MacEoin’s  statement, pp 2-3. A search of the household returns from the 1901 and 1911 censuses failed to locate either Edward Killane/Killeen or Joe Dowling; both may have been dead by then. Thomas Kenny, aged sixty, lived at Kilshrewley, Ballinalee, in 1901, and is most likely the man MacEoin knew. Census of Ireland, 1901 and 1911, available at [accessed 25 September 2013].


[4] MacEoin’s  statement, p. 3.


[5] Ibid., p.4


[6] Marie Coleman, County Longford and the Irish Revolution, 1910-1923 (Dublin, 2003), p. 160. See also Ernie O’Malley, Rising out:  Seán Connolly of Longford, edited by Cormac K. O’Malley (Dublin, 2007), pp 20-1. The centenary of the rebellion in 1898 was the occasion for many commemorations and would have contributed to nationalist sentiment.


[7] O’Farrell, The Blacksmith of Ballinalee, p. 15.


[8] Ibid., p. 17.


[9] MacEoin’s  statement, pp 5-6.


[10] Ibid., pp 7-8.


[11] Ibid., pp 8-9.


[12] Ibid., pp 10-11.


[13] Ibid., pp 16-20 for details of organisational changes and senior personnel in the period 1918 to 1921 and  appendix A.


[14] See The Longford Leader issues of 10 Jan., 12 June, 28 Aug. and 2 Oct. 1920 for coverage of the attacks. There are detailed descriptions of the planning and execution of each in MacEoin’s statement and some others in the Bureau collection, including Seamus Conway’s (BMH WS 440) though dates are generally vague.


[15] The Longford Leader, 21 Aug. 1920.


[16] MacEoin’s statement, p. 107.


[17] BMH WS 438, Michael Francis Reynolds, p. 10.


[18] The key sources consulted include the military service pension applications in the Seán MacEoin Papers, P151, U.C.D. Archives (U.C.D.A.), and various Bureau witness statements, particularly those of MacEoin himself, James McKeon [Seamus MacEoin] (BMH WS 436), Séamus Conway and Michael Francis Reynolds.


[19] See Coleman, County Longford and the Irish Revolution, pp 122-5 for consideration of the general background to the column’s formation; the shootings of Kelleher and Cooney; and their aftermath.


[20] MacEoin’s statement, pp 103-6 and BMH WS 1165, Bernard J. Kilbride, pp 2-3 have background information and descriptions of the incident.


[21] MacEoin’s statement, pp 108-9 and BMH WS 496, Francis Davis, pp 18-19 have accounts of the incident.


[22] MacEoin’s statement, pp 107ff for a detailed account of events in and around Ballinalee in late 1920.


[23] Ibid., p. 133; The Longford Leader, 18 Dec. 1920 has extensive coverage of the occupation and battle in Dec.


[24] MacEoin’s statement, pp 140-1.


[25] MacEoin’s statement, pp 143-5 and The Longford Leader, 22 January 1921.


[26] Ibid., pp 148-57 and John Carthy, ‘The Clonfin ambush’ in Teathbha: Journal of the Longford Historical Society, i, no. 2 (Dec. 1971), pp 83-94.


[27] MacEoin’s statement, pp 171-83.


[28] An Éireannach Aontaithe, June 1964, cited in Coleman, County Longford and the Irish Revolution, p. 129,  n. 79 (p. 213).


[29] MacEoin’s statement, pp 152-3.


[30] Quoted in Farrell, The Blacksmith of Ballinalee, p. 60.


[31] Appendix F, accompanying MacEoin’s statement.


[32] Dáil debate, 26 Aug. 1921 at  [accessed on various dates, Oct. 2013].


[33] MacEoin’s statement, p 25.


[34] Tim Pat Coogan, Michael Collins: a biography (Dublin, 1990), p. 225.


[35] MacEoin’s statement, pp 25-6.


[36] See Farrell, The Blacksmith of Ballinalee, pp 125-130 for a discussion of the matter.


[37] Dáil debate, 19 Dec. 1921 at [accessed  on various dates in 2013]


[38]  Seán MacEoin, Custume Barracks, Athlone to W.T. Cosgrave, 19 July 1923 (National Archives of Ireland, Department of the Taoiseach, S.3332; also available at, on the website of the Documents on Irish Foreign Policy project [accessed on various dates in 2013]). See also U.C.D.A., Seán MacEoin Papers, P151/225.


[39] See Michael Kennedy, Ireland and the League of Nations 1919-1946: international relations, diplomacy and politics (Dublin, 1996), pp 18-42 for an account of the application process and admission.


[40] David McCullagh, The reluctant Taoiseach: a biography of John A. Costello (paperback ed., Dublin, 2011), p. 146.


[41] Ibid., p. 155 and David McCullagh, A makeshift majority: the first inter-party government 1948-51 (Dublin, 1998), p. 16.


[42] J.J. Lee, Ireland: 1912-1985: politics and society (Cambridge, 1989), p. 294.


[43] Patrick McCartan, Newtownmountkennedy, Co. Wicklow, to Seán MacEoin, 5 July 1945 (U.C.D.A., Seán MacEoin Papers, P151/570).


[44] For example, see Noël Browne, Against the tide (Dublin, 1986), pp 6, 130.


[45] U.C.D.A., Seán MacEoin Papers, P151/954-1488; 1550-1725.


[46] Séamus Helferty, Introduction to the descriptive list of the Seán MacEoin Papers, P151, U.C.D.A., p. viii.


[47] U.C.D.A., Seán MacEoin Papers, P151/1993.


[48] Sr Maeve Brady, ‘Canon Francis Gilfillan and Clonfin memorial’ in General Sean MacEoin: the Blacksmith of Ballinalee (MacEoin Commemoration Committee, 2013), pp 31-3.


[49] Extract from a longer tribute that formed part of ‘Wherever green is worn: a symposium of tributes in memory of Lt-General Seán MacEoin’, edited by John Carthy, in Teathbha, i, no. 3 (Dec. 1973), p. 179.

Seán Mac Eoin (1893-1973), Soldier and Statesman [1]
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