“for dusting the flies off the peelers on hot summer days” was The Irish Republican Sean Treacy’s, reply to a question, asking him why he had a machine gun, as recalled in the Irish Press in 1939. Treacy was killed in Dublin in 1920. I found this article filed away in an old copy of hamlet that was untouched for years. It is a fascinating social and political window into Ireland in 1939.

I don’t have time myself (podcast number three is on the way) to write a full article on it so I decided I would put it up and see what everyone else thinks. I’m really interested in other people’s opinions on it. Below is my initial opinion followed by the transcript of the entire article

The article

It was published in The Irish Press* on the 21st of October 1939. Interestingly The Irish Press, which was the Fianna Fail paper in Ireland at the time, published this article celebrating a militarist like Treacy as they were actively persecuting their former comrades in the IRA (the IRA was proscribed in 1937). It seems they were trying to claim some republican credit by associating themselves with Treacy. The choosing of republicans to compare Treacy to is interesting – they are all martyrs (i.e. dead) appeal to all sections of the republican movement Connolly, Pearse, Colbert and Mellows. Finally its also a really good insight to what was considered what it was to be a “decent man” in Ireland in 1939.

*The Irish Press was owned by the De Valera family. Eamon De Valera was leader of Fianna Fail and Taoiseach at the time this article was published.


Tipperary remembers Sean Treacy

A few days ago the anniversary of Sean Treacy’s death was commemorated in his native place. The following article is from the pen of Desmond Ryan, the distinguished Irish writer, who is at present engaged in collecting materials for a biography of this gallant soldier of the war of independence.
On January 21st, 1919, Sean Treacy fired the first shot in the Anglo-Irish war on the winding, ditch-lined road near Soloheadbeg Quarry, and knew better than any other man that a winding and more tragic road lay before him, a road that wound through all the foot hills of Tipperary, through Ashtown, through Talbot Street away back from the Tipperary hills again to the peace of Kilfeacle Cemetery.
To-day[sic] you can read there on a high stone cross the summary of Sean Treacy’s life; behind the English letters and in front in Irish the same terse wording:
Le dil-cuimhnear SheanMac Allis Ua Treasaidh Fo thaoiseach i n-Arm na hE’n do marbuigeadh i gcath le Arm Sasana. Vice Commandant of teh 3rd Tipperary Brigade, October 14 1920 killed in action by British Crown Forces in Dublin.
***
But across the Tipperary hills where he rests, a living tradition fills in the fuller story. In many a little farmhouse like that in which he was born at Solohead in the early months of 1894, the best-known portrait is on the wall in speech and memory he still lives on. It is hard to realise that little more than twenty-five years cover his birth and death or that a man so young could do all he did and leave so deep an impression. Like Pearse, like Connolly he was a man who knew his mind very early; like Mellows and Colbert, the flame of Irish Ireland [sic] caught him young.
Wherever he passed, Sean Treacy left his mark on the minds and hearts of the people. One of his relatives was very indignant with his first companions in the Irish Volunteers. She thought, as he was an only child, and an excellent farmer into the bargain, he ought to devote himself to his fourteen good acres at Solohead, and not be taken up with wild fellows who drilled on the hills. “She thought” said one of them afterwards “that we were misleading her young nephew, and all that time her young nephew was leading or misleading us”
***
Long before that, the tradition goes, Sean Treacy had started leading or misleading in the Gaelic League. The record still exists of how, even when his knowledge of the Irish language was very adequate, he would attend the three classes, elementary , middle , and advanced in the Technical school at Tipperary town to persuade others to keep the classes alive. In the same spirit, he would buy up all the copies of the Irish- Ireland papers left over in the newsagents, even when he was so busy that he had little time to read.
Sean Treacy’s life is the record of a man of action. Soloheadbeg, Knocklong, Rere Cross, Hollyford, Cappawhite, Doon, Drangan, Oolagh are the names that flash across his life towards the close, a tale of barracks attacks, ambushes and, often saved by his….. and courage before the unexpected. Yet about him, all those who served under him agree there was nothing of the military martinet or swashbuckling bully. “He never seemed to give an order” says one of them “yet he was always obeyed”. He never terrorised his men or shouted order. Even if you failed him, Sean Treacy would only give you a look from under his glasses, and perhaps a week later you might hear about it.
***
All his recorder sayings have a terse quality. Once some friends met him going across a field with a machine gun. “What’s that for?” they asked him. “That” answered Sean Treacy, with a smile, “is only for dusting the flies off the peelers on hot summer days”. He was more serious when his friend, Sean Horan, First Lieutenant of the Lisheen Grove company, asked him: “Do you think Sean the fight will soon be over? I am deaf, stupid and blind from travelling and working for Irish freedom.” Sean took off his glasses and said: “Jack the fight could last a hundred years – one hundred years!” “Tell those fellows” He replied once when it was reported to him that a barrack’s garrison was slow to surrender “that if they don’t put up their hands quick , they’ll put their hands and their feet up”
Sean Treacy comes to life in such sayings. The inner fire seems to break through his reserve and silence often with a faint barb of irony behind it all, as when he told a group of Dublin men on one of his first visits to the capital “Excuse me if you want me to talk polite, because I can’t. I just want so many guns for South Tipperary and I must have them!”
“Damn it” he said in an argument with Terence Mc Swiney in Dundalk jail in 1918, “I would rather one peelers barracks than all your moral victories.
***
Yet to the Sean Treacy still alive in people’s memory there is a gentler side. He buried much of it when he sent away all of his books in a long box to some undiscoverable location in the months before his death. As a boy he read into the small hours at his uncles fireside, mostly histories of Ireland. On the run he carried an Irish grammar and the Irish library that escaped that long box still exists to prove how far he had gone in his schooldays with the Irish language; the range of the books he discussed around the firesides of Tipperary while on the run was wide and deep. It would be no exaggeration to dub him “the Pearse of Munster”. If there were any point of honour in comparing him with a man so similar to himself. Like Pearse he had a horror of cruelty to animals and a love for children, with one reservation. Sean Treacy runs the unwritten chronicle of Tipperary, would unlock doors to release bold children and take them out of range of their parents wrath, but if a baby cried in the room where he poured over his military text-books or wrote his dispatches, Sean Treacy asked the mother to remove it.
“the spirit of freedom” he told his friend and comrade Pa…. Dwyer of Hollyford “is in…. mountainy men”. It was cert… in Sean Treacy himself and ………. with adventure and strife ……was, no fact is more sure…..he walked with open eye………..bending will the winding………. Solohead to Kilfeacle not for…fighting, not from lust of war for love of Ireland alone

3 comments on ““for dusting the flies off the peelers on hot summer days”

  1. Claire on

    Thank you for transcribing and scanning this article. That type of article is not unique to the Irish Press or the 1930s. People had an insatiable interest in the characters of the revolution.

    The Pearse of Munster – that’s an interesting characterisation, and it probably has some truth. Treacy *was* the War of Independence in Tipperary, really. He was determined to put the war on a professional basis. By the bye, while Dan Breen insists that Treacy went to Soloheadbeg with the intention of creating casualties, I have read differing accounts, and the evidence is that he only fired when the RIC men were in the act of firing.

    My mother was at the 50th anniversary commemoration of his death in 1970 with my grandfather, who was in the South Tipp Brigade. President de Valera attended.

    I don’t agree with the term “militant” for Treacy. The Irish government recognises the IRA as national veterans, so there would be no reason for the government of the 1930s to regard him as some kind of renegade.

    Reply

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