Éamonn Ceannt: from clerk to commandant
Ceannt is traditionally seen as one of the more shadowy figures of 1916. But primary sources reveal much about the man
Portrait of Éamonn Ceannt by Mick O’Dea
Éamonn Ceannt’s participation in the Easter Rising, both as a signatory to the Proclamation and as commandant of the 4th Battalion of the Irish Volunteers in the South Dublin Union (now St James’ Hospital), has been characterised as somewhat of a mystery. He has been described as a shadowy figure, a frustrated Dublin clerk fanatically devoted to the cause of Irish independence, and more naturally a physical force man than any of the other leaders.
In recent years easier access to a wide range of original source material about his life has made it possible to better understand the influences that set Ceannt, the son of an RIC head constable and the brother of a company sergeant major in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, on the path to conspiracy and rebellion.
Some aspects of Ceannt’s life are well known – that he was a committed cultural nationalist, passionate about the restoration of the Irish language, and that, as a founding member of the Pipers’ Club, he was influential in reviving the fortunes of the Irish piper.
However, Ceannt’s own papers, available online from the National Library of Ireland’s 1916 digitisation project The Seven Signatories and their World, his articles and speeches reveal a man of many parts, widely read, committed to a variety of causes, and not shy about communicating his evolving political views to as broad an audience as he could reach.
Éamonn Ceannt was born in Ballymoe, Co Galway, in September 1881, to James Kent, a constable in the Royal Irish Constabulary, and his wife Johanna. When Ceannt was two , his father was promoted and the family moved to Co Louth, initially Drogheda and later Ardee. In 1892, it moved to Dublin where Ceannt learned his Irish history from the Christian Brothers.
After school Ceannt was appointed a clerk in the city treasurer’s office of Dublin Corporation, a position he retained until Easter Week 1916. He was an intelligent, capable and meticulous bureaucrat, engaged in work that involved the receipt and payment of considerable amounts of money. In later years he would put the same skills to use in accounting for, and concealing, the purchase of arms and ammunition for the Irish Volunteers.
Ceannt was an early member of the Dublin Metropolitan Officers’ Association – a forerunner of today’s Impact trade union – and later its president. He remained deeply committed to the right of workers to organise. In August 1911, when the Wexford foundry owners locked out their workers over membership of the ITGWU, Ceannt, by then in Sinn Féin, publicly disassociated himself from his party leader, Arthur Griffith, insisting that “the right of free speech, of public meeting and of organising for a lawful purpose ought to be unquestioned and unquestionable”.
Shortly after school Ceannt joined the apolitical Gaelic League. It was on a league outing to Galway in 1901 that he met the love of his life, Frances O’Brennan – later known as Áine. She would keep his letters, frequently written in both Irish and English. They record their relationship from their first kiss on the strand at Shankill, Co Dublin, to Ceannt’s last, poignant letter to her from his cell in Kilmainham Jail.
During his early days in the league, Ceannt was a diligent student, an efficient administrator and a well-liked teacher. His friends remembered him as a man constantly exploring ideas and searching for novel and interesting challenges. As a young man he researched the possibility of setting up a small enterprise, manufacturing laundry whitener as a substitute for the imported English product.
He kept hens, experimented with growing mushrooms and wrote about modern soil cultivation. By his mid-20s, however, his diaries and correspondence provide little to suggest that his interest in all things Gaelic would necessarily translate into any radical form of political activity.
The first steps in Ceannt’s increasing politicisation came when he joined the Sinn Féin League in 1907. His sister in law later recalled that the new organisation’s commitment to the Irish language and to the development of Irish industry meshed closely with his own principles.
By then, Ceannt was finding his public voice and, in an article in the Gaelic League’s journal An Claidheamh Soluis Ceannt upbraided the league for forgetting its “propagandist” methods and becoming too inwardly focused. He was appearing on league publicity platforms and soon afterwards was elected to the coiste gnótha (executive committee).
Later that year, when Ceannt accompanied the Catholic Young Men’s Society (CYMS) to Rome as their official piper, his appearance before the pope received widespread coverage in the newspapers.
During the following years, with the Irish Parliamentary Party holding the balance of power in Westminster, the prospects for home rule improved. Sinn Féin imposed a “self denying ordinance” to give the Parliamentary Party a fair chance to achieve the long-awaited goal of independence. When the home rule Bill came before Westminster in April 1912, it failed to convince the Ulster Unionists that they would be able to opt out of a quasi-independent Ireland under home rule, and, crucially for many constitutional nationalists, it left control of external affairs – war and peace – and of taxation revenue largely in the hands of Westminster.
Ceannt attended a special delegate conference of Sinn Féin at which the party accepted the principles of the Bill but refused to accept its provisions as the final settlement of home rule, insisting “that the taxes imposed by the Irish Parliament must be collected by its officers and paid into its own exchequer”.
By this time, Ceannt’s views were more extreme than the political party with which he had publicly associated himself. In a speech to the Socialist Party of Ireland on “Constitutional Agitation”, he criticised the constitutional nationalists, including Sinn Féin, for abandoning Ireland’s claim to nationhood and of being willing “to take her part in the Empire on which the sun never sets”.
In an important evolution in his political thinking, he claimed that “all laws made by . . . foreign powers are void and are not binding on the conscience of the people of Ireland”, and that “agitation should be confined to constitutional methods only where the laws of the country have been made and are being administered by the people of that country”.
He highlighted the influence that the threat of violence by the Ulster unionists had had on the politics of England. “Force is winning in Ulster, winning a political battle. It is up to the nationalists of Ireland to adopt similar means for emphasising their views. An armed opinion will prevail when opposed only by an unarmed opinion. It is the duty of all men to be skilled in the use of arms. Preparation for war is the best guarantee of peace.”
In March 1912, Patrick Pearse had also become more preoccupied with politics and launched a new weekly newssheet, An Barr Buadh (The Trumpet of Victory). Ceannt became one of the most regular contributors to the publication, which relied for its readership on the small advanced-nationalist community. In one of his articles, Ceannt praised James Stephens, the founder of the secretive Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), and those who took an oath to the Brotherhood. The evidence suggests that at the end of 1911, Sean MacDiarmada had recruited Ceannt into the IRB.
At a meeting of the National Council of Sinn Féin on January 20th, 1913, Ceannt proposed a resolution “That the council of Sinn Féin is of the opinion that it is the duty of all Irishmen to possess a knowledge of arms”. Áine Ceannt later recalled that Arthur Griffith, who missed the meeting, was indignant over the resolution and wanted no “tinpike soldiers” in his organisation.
Ceannt’s increasing politicisation was also evident from his role in the Gaelic League. He was one of a number of advanced nationalists, mostly members of the IRB, who were losing patience with the refusal of the league to abandon its apolitical stance.
In November 1913, Ceannt was invited to meet Eoin MacNeill and others in Wynn’s Hotel. MacNeill, one of the founders of the Gaelic League and a professor of early and medieval Irish History at UCD, had recently written an article for An Claidheamh Soluis entitled “The North Began”, advocating the formation of a national volunteer force along the lines of the Ulster Volunteers.
The establishment of the Irish Volunteers in November 1913 meant that Ceannt had an Irish army that he could join. He reported in the Irish Volunteer that “the object was the establishment of a volunteer force to defend the rights and liberties of the whole people of Ireland”. As captain of “A” Company, 4th Battalion, Ceannt participated in the landing of rifles at Howth on July 26th and at Kilcoole, Co Wicklow, on August 1st, 1914.
It was the outbreak of the war in Europe in September 1914, and the immense propaganda campaign that resulted in thousands of Irish men joining the British army, that finally convinced Ceannt of the inevitability of armed conflict. Once, together with Patrick Pearse and Joseph Plunkett, he had been appointed to the military council of the IRB, he was irrevocably committed to a policy of physical force.
The war changed everything. The third home rule Bill was rushed through the House of Commons but was suspended for the duration of the war.
John Redmond unilaterally committed the Volunteers to participation in the war thereby splitting the Irish Volunteers into two camps. The original founders of the Volunteers, which included Ceannt, retained the name of the Irish Volunteers while Redmond’s followers, by far the majority, became the National Volunteers.
As the war dragged on, Ceannt and his colleagues on the IRB military council led a double life. Publicly Ceannt was reorganising his Irish Volunteer battalion into a disciplined force. He was also a member of the Volunteer central executive with responsibility for paying the bills and keeping the books. Some time later he was appointed to the military headquarters’ staff as director of communications.
Simultaneously, he continued his secret role as a member of the IRB inner circle. The military council had been extended to include Clarke, MacDiarmada and later Connolly. They were planning, unknown to Eoin McNeill and the rest of the leadership, to use the Irish Volunteers to stage an insurrection before the end of the war.
Frustratingly, although many of their meetings took place in Ceannt’s home, little or no evidence of the activities of the IRB military council survives. By early 1916, however, the stage was set for the Rising and plans were made to land the German arms on the south coast.
The Irish Volunteers continued to engage in manoeuvres around Dublin and in the Wicklow mountains. The Dublin Castle authorities watched carefully but didn’t interfere.
Meanwhile, the military council was continuing with its plans. Ceannt was responsible for reconnoitring the locations chosen by the military council for their designated garrison areas during the planned Rising.
In the weeks immediately before Easter, Ceannt and the other battalion commandants in the Volunteers and the ICA began alerting their senior staff to the likelihood of action. When the military council met in Ceannt’s house on Friday, April 14th – a week before the planned Rising – they were all in “very good spirits and laughing and talking with each other”.
Their high spirits would be short lived. During the following week – Holy Week – events conspired to derail their plans. The German arms failed to arrive; Roger Casement, en route from Germany, was arrested; the “Castle document”, which had been circulated to show that the authorities were planning to arrest the leadership of the Irish Volunteers, was cast into disrepute; and Eoin MacNeill, having eventually realised what the military council was planning to do, issued an order later on the night of Holy Saturday, cancelling the scheduled mobilisation on Easter Sunday.
When news of MacNeill’s countermanding order reached him, early on Easter Sunday morning, Ceannt met the other members of the military council in Liberty Hall. They decided that, since they mightn’t ever get a better chance, they would go ahead with the Rising but defer it until the following day, Easter Monday.
On Easter Monday morning, Ceannt and his battalion gathered in Emerald Square. As a result of MacNeill’s countermanding order, Ceannt had only 120 Volunteers out of the Battalion’s full strength of 700.
Leaving smaller garrisons in Jameson’s Distillery in Marrowbone Lane, Roe’s Distillery in Mount Brown and Watkin’s brewery in Ardee Street, the main body of men entered the strategically located South Dublin Union, their arrival timed to coincide with the storming of the GPO in Sackville Street.
During the following week, on Easter Monday and the following Thursday, the 4th Battalion in the South Dublin Union held off attacks by numerically superior British military forces. Throughout the week the site, cut off from its outposts and with limited contact with the Volunteers in the rest of the city, remained under sniper fire from the Royal Hospital Kilmainham.
On the Wednesday, Ceannt told his men that the Irish Times, a copy of which had been pitched over the wall by a sympathiser, was reporting that “there was a rebellion in Dublin . . .”. Ceannt welcomed the news because “he and the executive were afraid that it would be called a riot and treated as such”.
On Sunday April 30th, under direct orders from the Provisional Government, Ceannt reluctantly surrendered. His cool leadership under pressure, and that of his vice commandant Cathal Brugha, was praised by his men and has been recognised by recent historians of the period. Militarily, the Union provided a strategically and highly defensible site but the morality underlying the choice of the Union, a workhouse housing some 3,000 inhabitants, many of whom were mentally and physically vulnerable, must remain questionable.
During a hastily convened field court martial Ceannt defended himself in his usual calm, methodical way, but was found guilty as charged.
He was executed at daybreak on Monday May 8th, on the same morning as Con Colbert, Sean Heuston and Michael Mallin. In his final letter to Áine, he wrote: “I die a noble death, for Ireland’s sake”, and to the Irish people, Ceannt expressed the hope that “ . . . in the years to come, Ireland will honour those who risked all for her honour at Easter in 1916.”
Mary Gallagher, the grandniece of Éamonn Ceannt, is the author of 16 Lives: Éamonn Ceannt (O’Brien Press, 2014). She has an MA in Modern Irish History (2011) and spent her public service career in the IDA, Enterprise Ireland and the National Sports Campus Development Authority.