Brookeborough: Failed IRA attack and republican legend

By Robin Sheeran and Bernadette Allen

  • Published
Media caption,

BBC Rewind takes a look at the IRA's border campaign of 1956-62

On New Year's Day 1957, two IRA men were killed as they attacked Brookeborough police station in County Fermanagh.

A new BBC Radio Ulster documentary, The Brookeborough Raid, takes a look at the attack with the aid of witnesses and participants, some of them speaking for the first time.

The border attack was a military disaster for the IRA but it proved a major propaganda coup.

The two dead men, Seán South and Fergal O'Hanlon, were hailed as republican martyrs.

Their funerals were attended by thousands of people and their lives immortalised in republican ballads.

Police officers and their families have also spoken about their experience of the six-year conflict, dubbed Operation Harvest by the IRA.

Image caption,
Ex-IRA men Micheal Kelly, Phil O'Donoghue and Paddy O'Regan had a role in the Brookeborough raid

The Brookeborough raid was the central action in the IRA's border campaign of 1956-62, yet it was over and done within a matter of minutes.

The aim was to unite Ireland by setting up "liberated zones" in Northern Ireland and overthrowing the Stormont government.

The campaign was preceded by a series of raids carried out by republican splinter group Saor Uladh.

An attack on Rosslea police station in Fermanagh in November 1955 resulted in the death of Saor Uladh member Connie Green.

Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officer Gordon Knowles found himself on the sharp end of the assault as the republicans blew the front wall from the barracks.

"I was blown right across the guard room," he says.

Image caption,
Retired RUC officer Gordon Knowles still carries bullet splinters in his body

"The only thing I felt was like somebody hitting me in the back and that was the bullet going in through the left-hand side of the spine, round the back of the spine and lodging one inch from the back.

"They shone a torch in my face and said: 'Oh, let's go, he's had it.'"

Mr Knowles was lucky to be alive - medical staff discovered 13 bullet holes in his body.

He recovered to resume his police career and, 64 years later, still carries bullet splinters in his body.

The Brookeborough raid, involving 14 IRA men, was planned along identical lines to the Rosslea attack, with very different results.

The IRA aimed to explode a bomb in front of the police station and to seize RUC weapons.

Image caption,
Proximity to the border left many Fermanagh police stations vulnerable to attack

Just two days previously, the police suffered their first death of the border campaign when Constable John Scally was killed in an attack on Derrylin barracks, another Fermanagh border station.

Ahead of the Brookeborough attack, the men gathered at a house in County Monaghan - the family home of Fergal O'Hanlon, who took part in the raid.

O'Hanlon's sister Pádraigín Uí Mhurchadha describes the scene.

"I remember Fergal, on the night, saying to my mother: 'These men, give them a good meal because there are faces here tonight you won't see again.'

"Now it turned out that he happened to be one of the men that she would not see again."

The BBC has spoken to three of those IRA men involved the raid.

Image caption,
The exchange of fire between the RUC and IRA men left Brookeborough police station marked with bullet holes

Micheal Kelly, now 80, has never given an interview before about his role in the attack.

"The objective was to attack the barracks, take their guns from them and if necessary, if we had the time and space, to actually destroy the barracks," he says.

Phil O'Donoghue was also part of the IRA unit.

Today, he is honorary president of the 32 County Sovereignty Movement, which is believed to be closely aligned to the Real IRA.

He insists the Brookeborough operation was about taking arms rather than killing police officers.

"We had strict orders - under no circumstances were we to take on the B Specials (Ulster Special Constabulary) or RUC.

Image caption,
IRA men in the back of the truck were sent sprawling as the tipper mechanism failed.

"We were, if at all possible, to try and take their weapons but we were not in any way to attack them."

The IRA men arrived in Brookeborough in a stolen tipper lorry but the driver was unfamiliar with the village and stopped in the wrong place.

Paddy O'Regan, from Dublin, was in the back of the lorry.

His job was to assist Seán South in operating a Bren light machine gun.

"When the truck actually stopped and I got up off the floor and looked over the side of the truck I was looking into a shop - no sign of a barracks."

It was the first in a series of errors - the bomb placed by the station door failed to explode.

Image caption,
RUC officers examine the bullet-riddled lorry abandoned by the IRA after the Brookeborough raid

Barry Flynn, who has written a history of the border campaign, says he saw Brookeborough as a kind of tragic fiasco.

"It became like the Keystone Cops," he says.

"There were a number of grenades thrown at the police station when they found it.

"One bounced back underneath the lorry and actually damaged the lorry very badly."

RUC Sgt Kenneth Cordner was quick to react to the attack.

The truck was eventually parked up close to the barracks, allowing Sgt Cordner a clear field of fire from an upstairs window.

Image caption,
The sleepy village of Brookeborough was flooded by reporters and heavily-armed police on the day after the IRA attack

Using a Sten sub-machine gun, he opened up with deadly effect on the IRA men below.

Paddy O'Regan was wounded in the ensuing firefight.

"We started to return fire on the barracks," he says.

"And after a while I looked down and I saw Seán South lying flat on his face and I felt two thumps in my hip.

"I knew I was wounded but it didn't hurt particularly bad.

"It's just like somebody hit you a couple of digs and it was just my hips started going numb."

Image caption,
RUC officers armed with rifles set off on patrol following the Brookeborough attack

The order was given to withdraw, according to ex-IRA man Micheal Kelly.

"Fergal, the last thing I heard him say: 'Oh, my legs, oh, my legs!'

"He was shot in the legs and bled to death.

"Seán South, I would say, was dead at this stage."

The attackers fled across the border leaving the two dead men at a remote farm building where they were found by police.

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The 12-year-old Bobbie Hanvey hid under a bed but will never forget the flashes from the guns

Bobbie Hanvey is a well-known broadcaster and photographer - in 1957 he was just 12 and living across the road from the Brookeborough barracks.

He remembers hiding under a bed with two of his friends as the attack unfolded.

"The bedroom lit up - it was like daylight with the flames coming out of the guns.

"That image and the sounds of those guns and that experience has stayed with me to the present day - I'll never forget it."

Image caption,
A memorial to Seán South and Fergal O'Hanlon in the remote Fermanagh countryside

Historian Barry Flynn explains that the Brookeborough raid was also a symbolic moment for the republican movement.

The lives of the dead IRA men were subsequently remembered in two famous ballads, Seán South From Garryowen and the Patriot Game.

"People were writing the songs and, regardless of what was going to happen in the rest of the campaign, the names of Seán South and Fergal O'Hanlon were there forever as the martyrs of Brookeborough", says Mr Flynn.

The border campaign never again reached the intensity of the Brookeborough incident but police officers and IRA men continued to die.

The IRA called a ceasefire in 1962 - by then it was clear that its strategy for overthrowing the Stormont government had failed.