South (Sabhat), Seán (1928–57), republican, journalist and Irish-language activist, was born 8 February 1928 at 47 Henry St., Limerick, one of three sons of John South, grocer, and Mary South (née O'Donovan). His father died when he was 13. Educated locally by the Christian Brothers, after obtaining his leaving certificate he worked as weighing clerk in the office of a Limerick timber-importing firm (c.1946–56). In the late 1940s he became active in several Irish-language, nationalist, and catholic lay organisations. After working for Clann na Poblachta in the 1948 general election, he soon drew closer in sympathy to Sinn Féin. A member (1948–57) of Cairde na Gaeilge (‘Friends of Irish’), he served on the committee of the Limerick branch of Conradh na Gaeilge (the Gaelic League). His devotion to language revival becoming ever more zealous, he co-founded both the militant Séadairí na Saoirse (‘Pacemakers of Freedom’) to battle for Gaelic cultural regeneration and, subsequently, its youth wing, Giollaí na Saoirse (‘Servants of Freedom’; giollaí has added connotations of youth); he contributed articles, cartoons, and drawings to the twin organisations’ newsletter. Speaking Irish whenever possible, he attacked English-language advocacy of Irish as an unpardonable compromise. Treasurer of the Catholic Boy Scouts, in 1949 he founded a Limerick branch of Maria Duce, a staunchly anti-communist, ultra-catholic movement. Fervently devout in his religious practice, he was prominent in An Réalt, the Irish-speaking affiliate of the Legion of Mary, and was president of its legion presidium. Ardent and grave in his many convictions and abounding in energy, he painted and played the violin. From January 1951 he wrote a regular column in the Limerick Weekly Echo and in the mid 1950s edited and published his own magazine, An Gath. Profoundly influenced by the ideas and example of Patrick Pearse (qv), by 1953 he was writing of the necessity of another 1916 to redeem Ireland's soul. Long active in the FCA and appointed a lieutenant in 1953, he resigned in April 1955, probably joining the IRA at that time. Declaring in the last issue of An Gath (November 1956) that ‘the time for talk has ended’, he left home on 9 December and served in a flying column commanded by Sean Garland that over the next few weeks operated in counties Armagh, Monaghan, and Fermanagh in the IRA's border campaign. It is likely that South participated in attacks on Gough army barracks, Armagh (11 December), and Lisnakea police barracks (13 December). On the early evening of 1 January 1957 he was in the fourteen-man contingent that raided the RUC barracks at Brookeborough, Co. Fermanagh, three miles from the country home of the Northern Ireland prime minister, Lord Brookeborough (qv), who was in residence at the time. South operated a Bren gun in the rear of a commandeered lorry as part of the cover party that fired on the barracks while an assault party planted successively two mines, neither of which exploded. Under withering fire from a first-floor window, South and Fergal O'Hanlon (b. 1936) were mortally wounded and several other of the raiders injured. Left in a shed five miles from the town by their retreating comrades, South was dead when discovered by an RUC patrol; O'Hanlon died soon after. The surviving members of the IRA column eluded an intensive manhunt and crossed the border into Co. Monaghan, where they were swiftly apprehended.
There followed ‘a week of all but national mourning’ (Bell, 299) as the funerals of the two men were occasions for a massive outpouring of nationalist sentiment. On 4 January large crowds lined the route of South's funeral cortege from Monaghan town – where O'Hanlon had been buried earlier in the day – down the east coast through Dublin and across the country to Limerick, where 20,000 mourners, including the city's mayor, received the remains at midnight. The following day (5 January) a silent procession of 50,000 accompanied the remains to burial in Mount Saint Lawrence cemetery.
Widely known in Limerick and in the Gaelic movement nationally even before his death, South embodied physical-force republicanism at its most Gaelic, most catholic, most single-minded and self-sacrificing, its most fanatically pure and uncompromising. A native of Monaghan town, O'Hanlon was a draughtsman in the offices of Monaghan county council, a Gaelic footballer at club (Monaghan Harps) and county level, and an accomplished handballer. Assumed into the calendar of republican martyrology, the legacy of the two men animated a generation of enlistees to the movement. While South was commemorated in such pieces as Criostóir Ó Floinn's poem ‘Maraíodh Seán Sabhat aréir’ (also the title of a biography by Mainchín Seoighe) and, most famously, in the martial ballad ‘Sean South of Garryowen’, it was the tender-yeared O'Hanlon who inspired the most poignant evocation of the hapless border campaign, the iconoclastic song ‘The patriot game’ by Dominic Behan (qv).