Hollyford Barracks as depicted in an old postcard
The barracks was attacked on May 10/11 1920 in an operation involving over 300 men.
The most important military operation undertaken by the volunteers of the Third Tipperary Brigade in 1920 was the destruction of rural RIC barracks and the expulsion of the police from the countryside.
That was important for a number of reasons. Firstly, it destroyed the British presence in large swathes of the country. Secondly, it deprived the crown forces of an immediate and accurate source of intelligence. Thirdly it enabled Dáil Éireann to replace the British administrative machine with its own. Fourthly, it enabled the volunteers to move around the countryside in much greater safety.
The first barracks destroyed in the Third Brigade’s area of operations was that of Hollyford. That occurred on the night of May 10/11 1920. It was a major operation undertaken by over 300 men from the three Tipp brigades, reinforced by members from the East Limerick one. They shared not only manpower but also arms, ammunition, explosives, and know how.
The operation itself was relatively successful. The barracks was set alight and mostly destroyed. A few days later the police garrison was withdrawn from the area, never to return. From that day onward the detested Union Jack never again flew over the valley of the Multeen. Yet, as they departed the scene, the volunteers had a sense of failure. They’d failed to kill a single Peeler. They’d failed to force the garrison to surrender. Worst of all they’d failed to capture valuable arms, ammunition, and explosives.
But they’d also learned some valuable lessons. One was that the best way to attack a well-defended, fortress-like barracks, was through its roof. Another was to start the attack as soon as darkness fell and thus extend the length of optimum time for the assault. Yet another was to eliminate shouted taunts and threats, thus encouraging the garrison to surrender.
The volunteers must have been quite disappointed when they read the reports on their achievement in the next edition of the local media. On page 5 of its May 15 edition the Tipperary Star reported,
HOLLYFORD BARRACKS ATTACKED.
The attack lasted about three hours. The garrison of ten in charge of Sergeant ------------ replied to the fire. Houses in the vicinity were occupied, the inmates ordered to leave and the fire was directed upon the barracks from these houses and from a bridge close by. One of the attackers is said to have got onto the roof of the barracks and to have dropped bombs and burning petrol through the roof. When the barracks was partially in flames the garrison was called on to surrender, but this they refused, and the battle went on. It was half past six in the morning, and broad daylight when the attackers, who were not in any way disguised, drew off. None of the garrison injured.
If the “Star’s” report was a monument to brevity, that of The Nationalist bordered on insulting. The very circumspect and non-informative news item had been submitted by “Clanwilliam”, the paper’s chief correspondent in west Tipperary who enjoyed a very long journalistic career. His skeletal report on page 8 of the May 15 edition, read,
Barracks Attacked – Hollyford R.I.C. barracks was attacked by an armed force early on Wednesday morning, but after a couple of hours firing the attackers withdrew without attaining their object. They, however, succeeded in partially burning the barracks. No casualties resulted.
Obviously both correspondents failed to grasp the significance of the event. But the volunteers weren’t looking for headlines or publicity. They were engaged in a life or death struggle for independence. Using their woefully limited resources, they’d opened another front in the war. They’d pursue it relentlessly and ruthlessly until victory.
Kevin O'Reilly, PRO Comóradh na nÓglach