Prominent Nenagh Volunteer returns home
One of Nenagh’s most prominent Volunteers, Bill Hoolan, returned home to Nenagh following an eventful six month stay in Belfast Prison this week.
Whilst Tipperary GAA hero, Frank McGrath, may have been the most visibly prominent Volunteer in North Tipperary, the RIC noted that it was Hoolan who was ‘the leading spirit in the movement’.
Along with Frank McGrath and Ned O’Leary, Hoolan was instrumental in the re-development of the Volunteer movement in North Tipperary in 1917. Following the death of Thomas Ashe in September 1917, and the decision of the National Executive to order all Volunteer Corps to drill in public for the first time since 1914, it was Hoolan who took the lead in Nenagh and addressed the movement in Courthouse Square before leading them in a rendition of the Soldier’s Song.
Like McGrath, and several other prominent Volunteers in the Nenagh area, Hoolan had been earmarked for arrest in April 1918. However, he received a tip-off from a friendly RIC Officer that North Tipperary County Council, where he worked, was going to be raided. Hoolan subsequently went on the run until 18 June when he was finally arrested and sentenced to six months in Belfast Prison.
Hoolan’s confinement coincided with one of the most infamous prison riots in the history of the Crumlin Road Gaol. Hoolan was interred with several prominent republicans, including a group of Kerry Volunteers, led by Austin Stack. Stack had been organising a mass-break out of the prison for early December to coincide with the General Election, during which he was elected to the Kerry West constituency. However, an order from Michael Collins in Dublin blocked the plan, much to the dismay of Stack and, indeed, Hoolan. En-route back to Nenagh from Belfast, Hoolan called to Collins in his base on Bachelor’s Walk in Dublin and asked for the reasons why plans for prison break were scuppered. He was told in no uncertain terms ‘where to get off’, and that as Stack had not shared enough details of the plans with him, he would not authorise an operation that could have risked the lives of so many prominent Volunteers.
However, shortly afterwards, another opportunity for the prisoners to generate some propaganda presented itself. The authorities in Crumlin Road had done their very best to avoid situations that the Volunteers and Sinn Féin could use for propaganda. They had given the inmates such special attention during the outbreak of Spanish Flu in the city, that not a single prisoner died of the outbreak, a near-unique survival statistic among His Majesty’s Prison Service at the time.
In November, a young Volunteer from Down, John Doran, was brought to the prison. He was awaiting trial by court martial and was kept away from the other Republicans in the prison. They were usually housed together in a separate wing of the prison. Austin Stack learned that Doran was soon going to be transferred to the criminal wing of a prison in Derry. He was determined to prevent this and wanted to secure Doran within the Republican wing.
The Sunday before Christmas, Doran joined the Republicans at morning mass and afterwards they smuggled him into their wing of the prison. When the Governor of the prison noticed, he told Stack that they were going to take Doran back by force if he was not given up. Stack was unrelenting and they duly barricaded themselves in. When they heard that the military were about to come in and seize Doran by force, Hoolan joined his fellow Volunteers in demolishing as much of the republican wing of the prison as they could.
Fionán Lynch, another prominent Kerry Volunteer in the prison at the time described the scene;
Prior to these events we had been mixing freely [with other prisoners] during the daytime and we arranged all kinds of sports and athletic contests amongst ourselves. We were allowed to have a fifty-six-pound weight for weight throwing and this ‘half hundred’ was soon to be brought into service for quite another purpose.
Amongst our number was a hefty young Kerry blacksmith who was easily the best of us at throwing the weight. His name was Tadhg Brosnan and he hailed from Castlegregory. To him was assigned the leading part in the destruction of the stairs and railings, and for this purpose he decided to use the weight.
He slung it by strong towels which he had bound together and pushed through the loop on top of the weight and it was an unforgettable sight to see him swing that half hundred as though it were no more than a light sledgehammer.
After Brosnan had wrecked the stairway he then proceeded to break six or seven of the main posts of the railings. A number of us grabbed these and gave them a big pull and push that sent them, railings, and all, hurtling to the ground below, smashing through the floor wrecking gas and water pipes, to the accompaniment of shouts of triumph … Whilst the demolition of the stairway and railings was in progress, Doran and a number of other six-footers were ordered to the attic to destroy the roof. This they accomplished most effectively by using broom handles to push out the slates along the entire wing. As one can imagine, the place was a shambles after it had been given the complete treatment, and we were effectively cut off from the jail authorities and their forces.
Once on the roof, the republican prisoners began to sing ‘Soldier’s Song’ among other nationalist airs but were faced by a decidedly unfriendly crowd outside who began to throw stones at them. The riot lasted for a number of days, before a settlement was reached.
 NLI, Reports of Information received by the Special Branch, RIC, 1914-1917, (CO 904/122).
 Nenagh Guardian, 22 June 1918
 BMH WS 1,553, Bill Hoolan, p. 5.
 O'Donoghue, Florence. IRA Jailbreaks 1918-1921, p. 105.