The Sacking Of Thurles Co Tipperary & Fr Ted

Today, Thurles, Co Tipperary is a quiet, historic, picturesque, busy rural town, situated on the edge of the Golden Vale, latter the richest agricultural farmland in Europe. However on the night of January 20th, 1920, nothing could have been further from the present situation.

Tipperary, under English rule during this period, was fast becoming even more politically rebellious. On Tuesday January 21st, 1919 two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (R.I.C,), namely Constable James McDonnell aged 56 and Constable Patrick O’Connell aged 36, were both shot dead when ambushed by a group of armed men at Soloheadbeg, some three miles from Tipperary town. The two R.I.C. men had been placed in charge of escorting and guarding a cart containing 160 lbs of gelignite and thirty electric detonators, together with two civilians, Patrick Flynn latter a Tipperary County Council employee and their horse drawn cart driver, one Edward Godfrey. A short distance from the quarry at Soloheadbeg they were halted by a group of armed masked men and the two armed police officers murdered. The shots fired here were the first retorts marking the beginning of war for independence against the then British establishment.

On Monday the 23rd of June 1919 District R.I.C. Inspector Michael Hunt, aged 46, was shot dead in Market Square, (Now Liberty Square) Thurles, County Tipperary. Hunt was hit twice by large calibre, blunt nosed revolver bullets, latter which travelled diagonally through his torso, resulting in instant death. First cousins Jim and Tommy Stapleton from Finnahy, Upperchurch, and Jim Murphy (Latter known as “The Jennett”) from Curreeney, Kilcommon, would be later named as responsible for his killing, in a statement made by James Leahy, Commandant No.2 Irish Republican Army (I.R.A.) (Mid) Tipp-Brigade.

On the 2nd of September 1919, a 48 year old R.I.C. Sergeant, Philip Brady, was shot dead in an ambush between the villages of Carrigahorig and Lorrha, County Tipperary. Sergeant Brady was killed outright and another Constable named Foley travelling with him, was badly wounded. Sergeant Brady belonged to the County Fermanagh R.I.C.Force and had only arrived in Lorrha to take up duties on the previous Friday.


Pictured above: (Left) Cathedral Street, Thurles, Co Tipperary around the year 1920. (Centre) Constable Luke Finnegan with sisters Mary and Bridget. (Right) Constable Luke Finnegan’s now forgotten headstone.

On the night of January 20th, 1920 at about 10.00pm to 10.15pm, Constable Luke Finnegan was shot dead as he walked from the R.I.C. barracks in Market Square, Thurles to his home on The Mall a short distance away. Approaching his front door he was fired on by four men.  They had been standing some 10-15 yards from his front door, close to a street lamp which had been conveniently extinguished. His killers would be later named in a statement to the Bureau of Military History (Document No. W.S. 1454.) by Tubberadora Co. Tipperary born James Leahy, (Formerly, Commandant No. 2 (Mid) Tipp-Brigade) as Jerry Ryan, Mick Small and John McCarthy (Coorty) and the former James Leahy, himself.

Leahy in his statement claims: “On the night of 20th January 1921, Jerry Ryan, Mick Small and John McCarthy (Coorty) and myself, all armed with revolvers, watched for Constable Finnegan in the vicinity of his own home in the Mall. He was returning from the barracks at about 10 o’clock and was about 10 yards from his house when we fired at him. He was badly wounded and died the following morning.” (Here Leahy’s statement is incorrect: Constable Finnegan was pronounced dead on January 22nd, two days later.)

Shot in the stomach, the Constable staggered some steps to his front door calling his wife and stating “Mary, I’m shot!”  Mary’s own screams could soon be heard by neighbours throughout the street. Collapsed now at his door, some neighbours rushed to assist. The Constable again uttered the words “Mary, I am done for, what will you and the babies do?”

Word of this shooting was quickly conveyed to the Thurles R.I.C. barracks and a section of the military known as the Sherwood Foresters, (Latter regimental name was based on the fact that they hailed from Nottingham and Derbyshire, England.) together with members of the local R.I.C.constabulary, appeared on the streets, armed with rifles. The R.I.C. and military now ran amok in Thurles town. They fired shots at random and went through the streets discharging shots through the doors and windows of the houses and business places of known Sinn Féin supporters. Windows in the nearby Sinn Féin Hall were also smashed and Crown Forces also fired a number of volleys down the Mall. No one was reported as injured although the disturbances lasted several hours.

This action would become now assigned to the history books as “The Sacking of Thurles”.

One of the houses targeted by the RIC that night was opposite the Ursuline Convent on Cathedral Street, then home to Denis Morgan (Irish: Donnchadh O’Muireagain). On January 15th, 1920, Denis, a known member of Sinn Féin and then a teacher of Irish and Mathematics at Thurles CBS, had been elected Chairman of Thurles Urban District Council. Watched in horror by some of the Ursuline Nuns awoken by the disturbance on Cathedral Street, the rented abode of Denis was attacked. Denis was forced to lay spread on the stone basement floor, together with his heavily pregnant wife Margaret and his five year old son Seamus, while R.I.C. bullets blazed through his windows, showering plaster and glass splinters all around. (This same Denis Morgan of course today would be best known as the grandfather of the late Dermot Morgan of  “Fr Ted” Channel 4 sitcom fame.)

Constable Finnegan was taken to Dr Steevens Hospital, one of Ireland’s most distinguished eighteenth-century medical establishments in Dublin. In an attempt to save his life, the then latest and newest concept of transfusing blood was attempted, the donor one Constable Patrick McGirr. However same was to no avail, and Constable Finnegan died of his wounds two days later.

Constable Finnegan’s body was taken by train, first to Ballinlough in Co. Roscommon were it was met by Patrick Kelly, himself an ex R.I.C. Sergeant. His body then travelled to nearby Williamstown in Co. Galway, accompanied by a Funeral Party representing officers from R.I.C. Dunmore barracks, before being buried on January 29th, 1920. Today his headstone reads; “Oh Holy Cross Under the Shadow I Will Rest. Of Your Charity Pray for the Soul of Luke Finnegan (of Gorthduff) Who died January 22nd 1920, Aged 32 Years.”

In his statement to the Bureau of Military History, Commandant James Leahy states; “Constable Finnegan, called on me at O’Connell’s (Mixey’s) and told me that they knew in the barracks which of the Thurles Volunteers were out that night and that these men would be rounded up in a few days. This Constable Finnegan knew everyone in Thurles well as he was the policeman who dealt with the Sugar Ration Cards during the First Great War. For some time previous to his visit to me, he had shown himself to be very hostile to the Republican Movement and was known to us, to have been busy making inquiries concerning the activities of members of the I.R.A in the town. After Finnegan’s conversation with me, I had a chat with another of his colleagues, Sergeant Hurley, who was friendly towards the I.R.A. and from time to time gave valuable information to us. The sergeant told me that Finnegan was compiling a list of men whom he suspected of being involved in the recent attacks on the R.I.C. barracks (Holycross). I decided it was time to put Constable Finnegan out of action.”

Up until this latter killing, the R.I.C. had endured assaults and attacks on their membership, countrywide. This night would now be the first time in Irish history that a police force would retaliate in frustrated anger at the killing of one of their officers, but same event would now also set a pattern of unofficial reprisals, which would be mirrored elsewhere in the country, as R.I.C. officers continued to be killed.

In the words of the now deceased Seán Moylan, latter Commandant of the Irish Republican Army, a member of Sinn Féin and later a Fianna Fáil politician, speaking about R.I.C. officers, stated; “They were of the people, intermarried among the people. They were generally men of exemplary lives and of a high level of intelligence. They did their often times unpleasant duty without rancour and often times with a maximum of tact.”

Maybe now is the right time to remember all those who lost their lives tragically, on all sides, during this dark period of Irish conflict.


17 comments to The Sacking Of Thurles Co Tipperary & Fr Ted

  • Michael

    Great reading, thanks George.

  • Patrick Kenehan

    Many thousands of good men and women gave their lives so that their country might be made whole and free from outside tyranny. Do you think that this endeavour of theirs will ever come to fruition?

  • Proinsias

    Good article thank you, I enjoyed that in as much as one can or might ‘enjoy’ the unpleasant unpalatable truths associated with conflict, particularly guerrilla type conflict and civil war with all the nasty dirty business associated with taking sides and being expected to kill.

    The history of mankind might be interpreted as a continuous sequence of forcing issues through killing, even the great pacifist Gandhi experienced bloodshed in India’s push for independence.
    Mandela’s ANC had a particular gruesome mechanism for informers affectionately known as the ‘necklace’ where a car tyre filled with petrol was hung around the neck of the individual and set alight. Tito’s partisans in Yugoslavia murdered Croat civilians as did Serbian Chetnicks (sanctioned by allied intelligence)

    Irish Blue Shirts under the ‘absent’ command of Eoin O’Duffey, fighting with General Francesco Franco’s Nationalist fascists in Spain 1936-1939 may have been implicated in the mistreatment of civilians and the execution of suspected Republican sympathisers.

    Killing in the name of…

  • Paul Fogarty

    Another great article, Your paper is my link to our past. Don’t ever stop publishing. Paul

  • George Willoughby

    Patrick, Merry Christmas. In answer to your question; until our politicians no longer have the power to induce voters to choose representatives based on the grounds of sham patriotism and party affiliations, rather than on individual personal abilities, qualifications and relative experience, this country will continue to be invaded on an almost annual basis. Germany may have left temporally, but I fear greatly they will very shortly return.

  • Dan Graham

    I enjoyed reading your articles on The War of Independence,excellent pieces. I am researching a District Inspector Michael Hunt who died in Thurles on 23/6/1919 on Markey Square. As an R.I.C. officer, he resided in Greys Lane, Dingle, Co. Kerry, at the time of the 1901 Census, with his family. I am a native of Greys Lane and am researching the R.I.C. barracks and its police in my town between 1885-1922. Can you assist with any photo /data/etc on this officer please? Indeed, he lived in a large building opposite my own family home in 1901. Thank you.

  • George Willoughby

    I will see what I have in my archives early next week. In the meanwhile see E-mail due shortly.

  • James

    I am the Great Grand son of James McDonnell. I was born in America, my mother was from the UK. Grand daughter of James. I would be very interested in learning more about the ambush. From what I know they didn’t have a chance. James had 5 children he left behind.

    James Zink

  • Terry Manning

    James Zink, I wonder if you would mind sharing a bit more of your family history on James McDonnell, his wife and children are shown, but no grandchildren or spouses of his children. Also, do you know his exact birth date?
    Terry Manning

  • Terry Manning

    James Zink, I was contacted by a Kathryn Murphy on with the following message:

    “Hi my name is Kathryn Murphy and am a genealogist/researcher. I have been asked by someone to research the above name. I have found newspaper clippings of his tragic death 1919 in Tipperary. I would appreciate any information that you may have on this person. This person who has asked me to research James along with a few more people are putting up a plaque both for James and his colleague who were shot dead.

    Looking forward to hearing from you.”

    Please contact me if you have further information regarding the genealogy of your great grandfather. As I mentioned in a previous reply, James, his wife and children are shown on a small family tree on, but no further information is shown. I will pass along your email if you would like through the internal message system to the person who messaged me. Then you can contact them directly to share what you would like.

    My name is Terry Manning and my email is

    I am not related to your family but to other McDonnells in County Tipperary. I was entering information from into in an attempt to find connections to my McDonnell family and entered yours because of the births in Tipperary.

  • Joseph Hunt

    Dan Graham, I am wondering if you had any luck researching District Inspector Michael Hunt? I believe I am Michael Hunt’s grand nephew. We were not aware that Michael Hunt was stationed in Dingle.

  • Paul Kirby

    Joseph Hunt can you contact me regarding Vincent Joseph Hunt, son of Michael Hunt?

  • Neville

    The below book has some good biographical information on Michael Hunt and also has a photo of him.

    The Black and Tans in North Tipperary: Policing, Revolution and War, 1913-1922 by Sean Hogan

    I also came across numerous letters written by DI Hunt in the national archives in Kent, London. Please send me an email if you would like copies of these letters.

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