AN ESTIMATED 2,000 people turned up on Sunday for the unveiling of the monument erected at the site of the Dromkeen ambush to honour the leaders and volunteers of the East and Mid Limerick brigades of the old IRA, who took part in one of the bloodiest and most effective battles of the War of Independence.
In a magnanimous gesture, one of the speakers, Fr Liam Ryan, former Professor of Sociology at NUI Maynooth, said that it was proper to honour the men who struck "an important blow for Irish freedom" and to invoke God's blessing on the monument, but it was also right to remember the 11 RIC men and Black and Tans who were killed at the scene, three of whom were Irish and four Catholics.
The men of the East and Mid Limerick brigades may have known what they were fighting for and knew what they were willing to die for, but the 11 men who died did not know either what they fought for or what they died for, which said Fr Ryan was "sad, tragic and a terrible waste of human life".
Politicians from all sides of the political divide in East Limerick attended the ceremony, including the Cathaoirleach of Limerick County Council, Cllr John Gallahue; Deputy Niall Collins and the Fine Gael East Limerick TD, Deputy Kieran O'Donnell.
The latter's granduncle Dick O'Connell led the men of Mid Limerick on that momentous day, February 3, 1921, and his name is inscribed on the monument with the East Brigade leader, Donnchadh O Hannigan.
MC was Tom O'Sullivan of Doon, chairman of the memorial committee, and secretary Catherine Quish, a relative of one of the men who took part - Maurice Meade - introduced the proceedings. The Liam Lynch Pipe Band, Anglesboro, led the procession.
Wreaths were laid by Marion Blackwell in honour of the part played by Cumann na mBan and her grand-aunt Nell Blackwell; by Al O'Connell, son of one of the leaders Dick O'Connell and by Donal Malone from Nenagh, son of Tomas Malone, who was known as "Sean Ford", commander of the East Limerick Brigade who was in prison at the time of the ambush.
There were several stirring and inspirational addresses. Local historian, Tom Twomey gave the history of the ambush, told of the brutal regime that prevailed before the event and the reprisals that followed, and spoke of "a special generation to whom we are all indebted".
UL History lecturer Dr Eoin O'Donnell, who described as "a myth" claims that there was no connection between Soloheadbeg and the first Dail, said that those who fired the opening shots of the War of Independence at Soloheadbeg were following through "a mandate they had to respect".
Irish Republicans had been forced to take up arms, he said, because of Britain's initial refusal to even grant them "white settler status" as they did in Canada and Australia, the gross mishandling of 1916, and because of the repressive regime that followed the 1918 vote.
He also claimed that the Republican response had been restrained, and had not included a mass campaign of bombing on "the mainland".
"It would have been possible to inflict more casualties," he said.
The fact that some of those who died in the War of Independence were Irish was "immaterial" he said. "They had taken the British writ".
But it was Fr Ryan's speech that bridged the dichotomy.
It was right to honour the men of Dromkeen, and right to ask God's blessing on the monument which was "a monument to freedom, he said. "There is no greater value, no greater human value, no greater Christian value than freedom."
"But," he went on, "it is right too, at least today, that we should remember the 11 men who died here. Incidentally, three of them were Irish, four of them were Catholic.
"But we do not remember them for reasons of faith or fatherland, but for this reason: the men of the East and Mid Limerick Brigades knew what they were fighting for and knew what they were willing to die for.
"The 11 men who died here never knew what they were fighting for, and certainly never knew what they died for. That is sad, that is tragic, that is a terrible waste of human life," he said.
In "a spirit of generosity and ecumenism" he asked that "everyone who fought at Dromkeen that day" be included in the prayer at the blessing of the monument.
Fr Ryan said that his mother often recalled that, as a young woman, she had heard the guns of the Dromkeen ambush.
"But in a wider sense, the guns of Dromkeen were heard around the world, because the Irish War of Independence inspired liberation movements in places like India, Kenya, Nigeria, Egypt, Cyprus, Israel and many other countries."
But he described Dromkeen and similar monuments in Ireland as "unfinished business".
"Political freedom is never an end in itself, only a means to an end, a stepping stone to other freedoms. True, some of the men who fought here and many in the War of Independence, looked no further than the old IRB slogan 'An Irish Republic shall be established by force of arms'.
"But for many of their leaders, as for Pearse and Connolly and the men of 1916, the vision went much farther, to the vision of the kind of Ireland that political freedom would make possible, a vision of the other freedoms that make life worth living.
"Freedom from want and poverty, freedom from disease and ill health; freedom from idleness, unemployment and emigration; freedom from ignorance and illiteracy; freedom from squalor and slums in our cities and above all, freedom from fear, from injustice, from inequality and discrimination - the freedom that treats all children of the nation equally.
"While some, maybe many, in our country still suffer from want, from unnecessary ill-health, from unemployment, from illiteracy, from squalor, from inequality and injustice, Dromkeen and similar monuments in Ireland will always represent unfinished business," he said to loud applause.