Royal Irish Academy

A Revolution in Profiles - Co. Offaly

In association with The Royal Irish Academy

Sean/John/Johnny Robbins 1892-1960

Sean Robbins was born at Erry, Clara in 1892. After his father’s death he was raised by his mother Mary, a domestic servant. Robbins worked as a labourer in Clara’s main employer the Goodbody Jute factory. A noted athlete, he competed in 220- and 440-yard races and went on to represent Offaly at senior football.

Robbins helped organise an Irish Volunteers company at Clara in 1917. As a result, he was frequently imprisoned and lost his employment at Goodbody’s. While imprisoned in Belfast Gaol in August 1918, he took part in the GAA’s Gaelic Sunday and was one of a combined Leinster-Connacht team which lined out against a Munster-Ulster side on the prison’s exercise yard.

Shortly after his release from prison in 1918, the delayed 1917 county football was played at Clara. At the game, Sean Robbins hosted a tricolour manufactured by his neighbour Mary Margaret Bracken, herself an employee at Goodbody’s and Cumann na mBan member. This is believed to have been the first occasion at which a tricolour was flown during an Offaly County Final.

Arrested and imprisoned in late 1918, the following March he took part in the mass escape of 20 republican prisoners from Mountjoy.

Operating on the run he was elected to County Council in 1920. During the War of Independence, he participated in raids for arms, sabotage operations.  As a Battalion officer Robbins took part in a series attacks and hold ups on trains between Clara and Ballycumber. He was a member of the party which attacked Clara RIC Barracks in June 1920.

Sean Robbins and Mary Margaret Bracken were married at Killina in September 1920. By the Truce he had been appointed Quartermaster of the IRA’s Offaly No. II Brigade.

Opposing the Treaty, Robbins was involved in a confrontation with pro -Treaty soldiers in April 1922 at Athlone, when George Adamson was killed.

He was part of the anti-Treaty forces who fought National Army troops in West Offaly early in the Civil War. Promoted to O.C of the Anti-Treaty Offaly No. II Brigade, he was captured at Borrisoleigh in January 1923. Interned at the Curragh he participated in the camp hunger strike later that year.

Appointed a Home Assistance Officer for south Offaly, Robbins moved to Birr shortly after his release from internment. Reengaging with Gaelic games he captained Offaly to a Leinster Junior hurling title for the 1924 season. 

He refereed the first All Ireland minor football final played at Birr between Clare and Longford and went on to officiate at numerous All Ireland hurling deciders including to two of the legendary  Cork, Kilkenny games held in 1931.

A longstanding Chairman of Birr GAA, Robbins was one of the driving forces behind the purchase and development of St Brendan’s Park. Chairman of the Offaly County Board on several occasions, he was appointed its Life President in 1960. From 1936-38 he served as President of the Leinster Council. Throughout his administrative career he remained a vocal supporter of the GAA’s ban on foreign games.

A prominent Fianna Fail supporter, he helped form a Birr Sluagh of the Volunteer Force in the 1930s. During ‘The Emergency’ he served as commander of the Local Defence Force in south Offaly.

On his death in 1960, he received a military funeral to Clonoughill cemetery where Tom Malone provided the oration. When the Offaly Senior Footballers returned to the county after the appearance in the 1961 All Ireland final, they were led into Tullamore behind the flag which Robbins had unveiled at Clara in 1918. The flag remains in the care of Clara GAA club.

The Sean Robbins trophy is presented to the winners of the Offaly Senior Hurling Championship. The Leinster council also acquired a trophy the Robbins cup, which is awarded to the Leinster under 21/20 hurling champions.


Sources:

1901 and 1911 Census. Search online at http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/search/

Bureau of Military History Statements. Sean O’Neill Witness 1219. Search online at https://www.militaryarchives.ie/collections/online-collections/bureau-of-military-history-1913-1921/bmhsearch/

Military Service Pension File. Sean Robbins MSP34REF11307. Search online at https://www.militaryarchives.ie/collections/online-collections/military-service-pensions-collection-1916-1923/search-the-collection

Magic Memories Birr GAA through a lens. (2012) Birr.

Michael Byrne. The King’s/ Offaly County Council election of June 1920: ‘remarkable, memorable and revolutionary. Offaly History online at offalyhistoryblog.wordpress.com

John Burke. Athlone 1900-1923: politics, revolution, and civil war (Dublin) 2015.

Padraig Foy & Ciaran Reilly. Faithful Pioneers. (2011) Edenderry.

John Gibney. The killing of George Adamson, 25 1922. Online at https://www.westmeathcoco.ie/en/ourservices/planning/conservationheritage/decadeofcentenariesblog/thekillingofgeorgeadamson25april1922.html

Humphery Kelleher. GAA family sliver. The people and stories behind 101 cups and trophies. (Dublin) 2013.

Ian Kenneally ‘A Medium for Enemy Propaganda: the press, Westmeath, and the Civil War’, Journal of The Old Athlone Society, number 10, 2015.

 Pat McLoughlin. ‘The Railwaymen: 1st Battalion, Offaly No. 2 Brigade the War of Independence and attacks on trains in the Ballycumber – Clara area.’ Online at https://offalyhistoryblog.wordpress.com/2021/07/28/the-railway-men-1st-battalion-offaly-no-2-brigade-the-war-of-independence-and-the-attacks-on-trains-in-the-ballycumber-clara-area-by-pat-mcloughlin/

Irish Press. 20 January 1939.

Midland Tribune. 6 February 1960.

Nenagh Guardian. 10 August 1918.

Offaly Chronicle. 24 August 1960.

Offaly Independent. 10 November 1940.

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