Seán MacDiarmada, single-minded separatist
Seán MacDiarmada was a professional republican for his entire adult life, and his unswerving determination to take up arms against the British led to his being one of the first names on the Proclamation
Portrait of Sean Mac Diarmada by Mick O’Dea
There is only one homestead of the seven signatories of the Proclamation still standing. Appropriately, it is Seán MacDiarmada’s home outside Kiltyclogher, where he was born, grew up and then, like generations of Leitrim people before and after him, left to make his life elsewhere.
MacDiarmada’s is an old three-room whitewashed thatched cottage at the end of a long driveway. It is located in the shadow of Thor Mountain, known by legend as Gráinne’s bed. From the top of Thor Mountain, the land falls precipitously to Lough MacNean, which marks the Border between the Republic and Northern Ireland.
The scenery is heartbreaking, a panorama of magnificent bleakness with rolling bogland and rushy acres. The only sound, aside from passing cars, is the bleating of sheep. Sheep inhabit poor land.
This photogenic cottage, currently being renovated by the Office of Public Works, is where MacDiarmada lived with his father and mother, Donald and Mary McDermott, and his nine siblings. The children slept in an attic loft accessed by steep wooden stairs. It is a stunning place, The Quiet Man’s White O’Morn Cottage as the birthplace of the Irish revolution.
It is not dissimilar to Patrick Pearse’s cottage in Connemara, but Pearse was essentially a middle-class Dublin boy who wished to get in touch with an imaginary rural Ireland. MacDiarmada needed no such reminder.
Kiltyclogher is so close to the Border that if you stand at MacDiarmada’s dominating statue in the centre of the village, you are likely to get a roaming signal. The Border is just 150 metres away. Throughout the Troubles the Border road was closed, cutting Kiltyclogher off from its natural hinterland. How would MacDiarmada feel about the country he died for still being partitioned 100 years after the Easter Rising?
Signatories not typicalThe signatories of the Proclamation were not typical of Irish people at the time and were more mixed up with their hated enemy than they cared to admit. James Connolly spent seven years in the British army. Tom Clarke was born into the same army, his Leitrim-born Protestant father spending 40 years in the service of queen and country. Éamonn Ceannt’s father was in the Royal Irish Constabulary, an agency of the British state in Ireland. His brother William Kent was killed at the Battle of Arras in 1917, serving in a British uniform. Joseph Mary Plunkett, an English public schoolboy, was in the Officer Training Corps at Stonyhurst College in Cheshire, the incubator for the British army training corps.
Patrick Pearse had an English father, Thomas MacDonagh an English mother. One wonders if these inconvenient facts may have led to a degree of overcompensation among these men in their dedication to the cause of Irish nationalism.
Not MacDiarmada though. There was nothing inconvenient or ambivalent about his background. If James Connolly represented the urban poor, MacDiarmada represented the rural poor, the majority of Irish people at the time. He was typical of those who grew up in large families and small houses, who left school early and who saw their siblings emigrate. Their prospects were few, their futures uncertain.
From the time he was fired from his job as a tram conductor in Belfast for smoking, MacDiarmada was a professional republican. His whole life, particularly as the circulation manager of the Irish Freedom, the mouthpiece of the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood (IRB), was dedicated to the cause of freedom, meaning total separation from Britain, a radical idea before the Easter Rising.
MacDiarmada cleaved to the idea that once the British were gone, things would turn out all right, but in his native county things have not turned out all right. In the census of 2011, the population of Leitrim was 32,000, precisely half of what it was before independence, when the 1911 census recorded 64,000 people living in the county. The population of Leitrim declined in every census since the foundation of the State until 1996.
In Kiltyclogher, it is still declining, falling from 254 to 232 between 2006 and 2011. In 1841, the parish of Kiltyclogher had a population of 3,256. A change of flag brought no change in fortune for this part of Ireland.
ImponderablesOne of the great imponderables of MacDiarmada’s life is what would have happened had he succeeded in his original ambition to become a teacher. Would his republican instincts have been becalmed? Would he have channelled his fierce energy and drive into the cause of education as he did into the cause of Irish freedom?
He was born in January 1883, the eighth of 10 children. His father was a small farmer and carpenter who had been involved in the Land League and “took his place in the ranks of the IRB”, according to an obituary of Donald McDermott published in the Irish Freedom newspaper in 1913.
From the back wall of the cemetery where MacDiarmada’s parents are buried one can see in the valley below the spire of St Michael’s Church, Glenfarne. The pews are said to be the work of his father.
MacDiarmada was born as John McDermott, or Dermott, according to his entry in the school roll. He was known as that until the last couple of years of his life, when he went by the Gaelic version of his name. To the authorities, who tailed him, he was always John McDermott.
There is a photograph of the MacDiarmada family, two parents and 10 children, together in 1890. The family look so prosperous that some doubt the provenance of the photograph. Shortly afterwards, the first calamity of MacDiarmada’s life occurred: his mother died when he nine years old.
His life as a revolutionary began when he failed the King’s Scholarship to become a teacher. He went to Belfast, then a thriving industrial town, to find employment. There he met Bulmer Hobson and Denis McCullough, almost exact contemporaries and two of the abiding influences in his life.
MacDiarmada, with his single-minded determination to foment an armed rising against the British, come what may, would later fall out with these men, but they were critical influences on his republicanism. MacDiarmada’s first full-time role was as an organiser for the Dungannon Club, which was dedicated to Irish separatism.
Electoral politicsHis first and only foray into electoral politics was at a byelection in Leitrim in 1908, when MacDiarmada was Sinn Féin’s election agent. It was a bruising encounter, in which the Sinn Féin candidate was beaten by the Irish Parliamentary Party candidate by three to one.
MacDiarmada found out the hard way on his own doorstep that the majority of Irish voters were more concerned about putting food on the table than the nuances of republicanism versus home rule.
MacDiarmada, though, was not discouraged by this. Ostensibly the circulation manager of the Irish Freedom, he was a tireless organiser for the IRB. He had been co-opted on to the supreme council of the IRB shortly after meeting the most important influence on his life, Tom Clarke.
It is not a coincidence that the first two names on the Proclamation are Tom Clarke and Séan MacDiarmada. It is their tireless, indefatigable and sometimes unscrupulous determination to strike against Britain while she was at war that would lead to the Easter Rising.
Tom Clarke’s wife, Kathleen, said of MacDiarmada: “As a worker he was head and shoulders above PH Pearse, but, not being a writer, is not known to the people of Ireland”.
The two men met in 1908, when Clarke (50) was twice MacDiarmada’s age (25). Clarke was a grizzled old Fenian returned from the United States. He was out on licence, so had to tread warily. He also had a young family and a business to look after. MacDiarmada had no such commitments and had the energy of a young man.
The years before the first World War were difficult ones for separatists, then in a minority among nationalist opinion. In 1911, MacDiarmada sought to rally nationalist Ireland against King George V’s visit to Ireland. He worked himself to complete exhaustion and contracted polio, a disaster for such an energetic man. MacDiarmada spent several months in hospital. When he emerged, he was a shrunken figure who walked with a limp for the rest of his life.
The passage of the Home Rule Act and the setting up of the Ulster Volunteer Force, followed by the Irish Volunteers in late 1913, presented Clarke and MacDiarmada with an opportunity. For the first time they had a determined cadre of volunteers ready to fight, but for home rule, not for the separatism that both espoused.
MacDiarmada managed to ensure that the supreme council of the Irish Volunteers had an IRB majority, but the Irish Parliamentary Party, the dominant force in Irish nationalism at the time, gained control of the organisation in the summer of 1914. This was a betrayal as far as MacDiarmada and Clarke were concerned. They despised John Redmond and home rule. Never again would they trust more moderate elements within the IRB.
When war broke out, MacDiarmada’s response was typically pithy: “To hell with England. Let her fight her own battles”. In September 1914, a month after war was declared, the supreme council of the IRB agreed to plan for a Rising while Britain was preoccupied by the war.
Clarke and MacDiarmada made their own plans for the Rising. Their philosophy was twofold: sideline those within the IRB who might dissent from the plans to stage an armed rebellion, and tell as few people as possible. As a result, Eoin MacNeill, the founder of the Irish Volunteers, and Denis McCullough, the president of the IRB Supreme Council, did not know what was going on until it was too late.
Military councilClarke and MacDiarmada founded the military council of the IRB in February 1915, independent of and unknown to most of the members of the organisation’s supreme council. The military council would become what was famously described as the “minority of a minority”.
MacDiarmada toured the country priming loyal volunteers on the Rising while keeping the rest in the dark. In January 1916 he had Connolly “kidnapped” when rumours spread that Connolly was going to stage his own uprising with his tiny Irish Citizen Army.
As the Rising approached, MacDiarmada took further peremptory measures. He had Bulmer Hobson, an opponent of armed rebellion, detained until the evening of Easter Monday. He managed to persuade Eoin MacNeill that a document, purportedly from Dublin Castle and advocating the arrest of the volunteers, was real and that the Germans were coming to the rescue. MacNeill was persuaded to join in the Rising on Good Friday when MacDiarmada told him the Aud was on the way with a cargo of German munitions.
When the Aud and the landing of the guns went awry, MacDiarmada was undeterred. Volunteer Seamus Gubbins recalled years later: “From the outbreak of the European war, McDermott’s life had been dedicated to the cause of an Irish insurrection. Physically frail, he had been working on his nerves during the previous week. Any suggestion that the Rising should be postponed was intolerable to him.”
Ironically, MacDiarmada took no part in the fighting during Easter week, though he was in the GPO. His work in organising the revolt was done. He was one of the last to be arrested after the Rising and, on May 12th, 1916, the last, along with Connolly, to be shot.
Such was the consternation over the continued executions that many believed his life would be spared, but Gen Sir John Maxwell was determined that all the signatories of the Proclamation would be shot.
In 1914 MacDiarmada had prophesised that would it be necessary for “some of us to offer ourselves as martyrs if nothing better can be done to preserve the Irish national spirit and hand it down to future generations”.
He went to his death serene in the belief that the example of his life would inspire future generations to seek Irish freedom. In his last letter to his family, he wrote: “The principles for which I give my life are so sacred that I now walk to my death in the most perfectly calm and collected manner. I go to my death for Ireland’s cause as fearlessly as I have worked for that sacred cause during all my short life.”