Of the seven signatories to the Proclamation, all but one left vast paper trails of letters, diaries, photographs, speeches, newspaper articles and pamphlets. The National Library of Ireland has 28,000 digitised items relating to their papers, but only 16 belong to Seán Mac Diarmada.
Mac Diarmada was a doer, not a talker or a writer. He also had sound reasons not to commit his thoughts to print, as police frequently tailed him. But, with Thomas Clarke, Mac Diarmada was a prime instigator of the Rising. Their signatures appear first on the Proclamation. They were ruthless in sidelining anybody who did not agree with their plans to stage a rising even when it had no chance of success.
Clarke, an older Fenian, had returned to Ireland from the United States in 1908. He had spent 15 years or so in British prisons and could not afford to return to jail. So he entrusted to Mac Diarmada the role of promoting Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Mac Diarmada was single and could devote all his energies to the task.
But Mac Diarmada suffered a calamity in 1911. After organising opposition to the visit of King George V to Dublin in July 1911 he contracted polio, a rampant and feared disease at the time. He spent four months in the Mater Misericordiae hospital.
Overnight Mac Diarmada went from a vigorous man of 29 to one who looked like a “delicate, bearded, middle-aged man” walking on a crutch, according to Madge Daly, a cousin of Clarke’s wife, Kathleen. He lost the use of his right leg and spent the rest of his life with a walking stick.
Seán Mac Diarmada, the eighth of 10 children, was born in Kiltyclogher, Co Leitrim. He inherited his radical tendencies from his father, Donald, a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Land League. Donald died in 1913; although his father had been elderly, the news came as a surprise to Mac Diarmada.
In December 1913 he wrote to Joe McGarrity, a prominent republican in the United States, on paper from the IRB newspaper Irish Freedom, whose circulation manager Mac Diarmada was. It reveals his feelings about his illness and his father's death.
“Well, about my health. I’m very much better but unfortunately still very lame. My general health is good and if I were to keep on the treatment I’m on, the leg would be much better than it is,” he writes.
“While I was getting massage the improvement was very noticeable but I have not been attending that for the past eight or nine months. I was away a great deal during the summer. My father’s death knocked me about a good deal of course. He was an old man.
“I only wish to God I had half the physical strength he had when he was a young man. I could do work. It was great to see how hopeful of the national cause he was up to his death. There was something wonderful in the faith of the men of their generation.”
Mac Diarmada kept up his activism at the expense of his health and admits in the letter that he has been neglecting his leg because he has been so busy. The letter alludes to the home-rule Act, which Mac Diarmada and other radicals opposed. “We’ve had hard pegging for the past 18 months or more, but things are looking well.”
He also expresses reservations about the solidarity shown by English unions for those affected by the lockout of 1913. He writes that English businesses would profit from the disruption in Dublin.
“I believe that before the present trouble the ‘English working man’ will have spent itself and we will have learned a lesson not to place our faith in the English working man any more than the English lord.”
Mac Diarmada was at the GPO during Easter Week, although he was in civilian clothes and took no part in the fighting. He and James Connolly were the final two of the signatories to be shot, on May 12th, 1916.
On May 23rd Mac Diarmada’s sisters Kate and Rose wrote to Joe McGarrity’s wife, thanking her for her expression of solidarity. “All the family deeply and gratefully appreciate your very kind words of sympathy and comfort. Even in our most extreme grief we are conscious of the suffering the tyrant’s blow has inflicted on all. Oh it all seems like a dream at times, but we can sit and listen to Seán’s clear voice from his unknown grave and he bids us be of good cheer that all this blood was not shed in vain.”
Seán Mac Diarmada's letters will be available from Monday at catalogue.nli.ie