Thomas MacDonagh: one of the most fascinating characters behind the Rising
As the last man co-opted onto the military council, it is wrongly assumed that Thomas MacDonagh knew nothing of the Rising until a few weeks beforehand
Portrait of Thomas MacDonagh by Mick O’Dea
Thomas MacDonagh is one of the most fascinating characters behind the Easter Rising. He was born in Cloughjordan, Co Tipperary, in 1878, the child of a peculiar marriage of two national school teachers. His father was a jovial drunkard with little interest in politics, and his mother a devoted convert to Catholicism who instilled in her children a devotion to just causes.
As a child, MacDonagh enjoyed “running little manuscript magazines, playing paper and pencil games and reading improving books”. He was described as a “small, sturdily built boy with curly brown hair and large grey eyes” with a mischievous humour and a love of ghost stories.
Educated by the Holy Ghost Fathers following the death of his father in 1894, MacDonagh developed a decided inclination for the missionary priesthood and applying to join the order.
“I like its rules and customs and particularly the great object of all its members, and for which it has been founded,” he said. “I first learnt of it from some of my friends, and now, having tried by every means in my power to find out to what life I have been called, I have concluded that I have a vocation for this congregation, and a decided taste for the missionary and the religious state.
“It has always been my wish to become a priest and now that wish is stronger than ever, and it is to become, not only a priest, but a missionary and religious.”
At no point in the history of the Easter Rising did MacDonagh become a priest or take any religious vows. He enrolled as what the order termed a “surveilliant”. This was a means of preparation for young boys who, during adolescence to adulthood, showed potential to go further within the church.
If they so chose to continue on to a religious life, they were recommended to begin a novitiate in Paris. As MacDonagh’s studies progressed within the junior scholasticate, he began instruction of junior students, and seemed to relish the role of teacher with a special interest in humanities, particularly English, Latin and classics.
At Rockwell, however, MacDonagh drifted away from the church and battled a crisis of faith, doubting the existence of a God and the afterlife, and rejecting church teachings in favour of a harrowing Catholic heterodoxy.
Unable to stay at Rockwell, he left for Kilkenny. There he worked as a teacher of English and French at St Kieran’s College. It was here that he developed a lifelong love for the Irish language and experienced what he termed “a baptism in nationalism”, when he attended a meeting of the Gaelic League – which he had intended to disrupt for “a lark”.
MacDonagh was deeply moved by how the native speakers used the language and recollected how it dawned upon him that he was “the greatest West Britisher in Ireland and suppressed the Irish language”. Immersing himself in the language through the league’s social and cultural activities, he attended summer language classes on Inishmaan, Co Galway, and became a fluent speaker and writer.
His enthusiasm for the language, and disagreement within the local Conradh, forced him to leave Kilkenny, however. Making his way for Fermoy he settled at St Colman’s College which he described as “Gaelic to the spine”. He was thrilled to find that the president of the college was progressive and that its teachers were “scholars and gentlemen”.
MacDonagh had also been working on a musical cantata in collaboration with the Italian composer Benedetto Palmieri. The Exodus, based on the escape of the Israelites from Egypt and was submitted to Feis Ceol at the Royal University, Dublin. It was first performed on May 19th, 1904, and featured a baritone accompanied by tenors, sopranos and a boys’ choir drawn from St Mary’s College. A resounding success, the cantata was so popular that MacDonagh and Palmieri won first prize at the festival and Doremi & Co, a London publisher, published it later that year.
Moving to Dublin, MacDonagh began working with Patrick Pearse, whom he had met on a visit to the Aran Islands. He held Pearse in high regard, describing him as “the greatest of Irish writers in imagination and power, if not in language”. Pearse had wanted to establish a bilingual educational project and a school, Scoil Éanna at Cullenswood House, Ranelagh (later Rathfarnham). MacDonagh was effectively his right-hand man, employed as deputy headmaster. He was responsible for internal organisation, administration and the day- to-day running of the school – and, as the face of Scoil Éanna, regularly meeting high-profile visitors and lecturers.
He was also committed to teaching English and French and thoroughly enjoyed the experience, thinking the students “splendid”. He reported how he had “the little lads now talking French” on a regular basis. Relishing this role, MacDonagh used it to network within the bustling academic and literary scene, meeting among the many varied guests Shane Leslie, George Moore, WB Yeats, Lady Gregory, Francis Ledwidge, AE Russell and Padraic Colum.
Embracing the Dublin literary scene, however, MacDonagh was frustrated at his inability to become a recognised poet – despite his best efforts, his poetry was never a commercial or academic success.
That same year the Abbey Theatre produced his first play, When the Dawn Is Come, poignantly based upon the theme of a rebellion led by a council of seven. His protagonist, Turlough, is a rebel poet who, in a complicated narrative, attempts to trick the British government into believing he was a spy. The play was extensively criticised by the media, and opening night was regarded as a failure.
This was no fault of MacDonagh. Pre-production was blighted by several factors, including poor management on the Abbey Theatre’s part and the fact that the star, Ambrose Power, had refused to learn his lines.
Though disappointed by the play’s failure, MacDonagh remained committed to theatre work and produced two more plays: Metempsychosis, in which he lampooned Yeats, whom he partly blamed for the failure of his first play, and Pagans, his only play to have strong believable protagonists showing tangible human emotion.
In Pagans, a married couple eventually part due to irreconcilable differences, followed by a throwaway remark in which the main character announces to his former wife: “You will not know yourself in the Ireland that we shall make.”
Around this time MacDonagh met fellow poet Joseph Plunkett, a more bohemian character who, in the hope of getting in to UCD, had advertised for an Irish tutor to improve his chances. He hired MacDonagh, and the two developed an instant friendship through a mutual love of poetry, history language and art. Both offered constructive criticism on each others’ work, and Plunkett dedicated his first book of poetry, The Circle and the Sword (1911), to MacDonagh.
Teaching Plunkett the Irish language, MacDonagh threw himself into linguistic studies. Taking his friend’s advice, he accepted a position lecturing in UCD, where he taught English literature in 1912. Here he had earlier completed an MA thesis on the works of English writer Thomas Campion and strongly considered a PhD on the theme of language in Ireland, which he worked on until his death in 1916. This PhD was published posthumously under the title Literature in Ireland. In it, MacDonagh asserts that the English language, as spoken in Ireland, was a new form of Irish and that a national literary culture could be written in English.
In 1911, MacDonagh proposed to Muriel Gifford, whom he had earlier met at St Enda’s. Writing to Muriel, he humorously described his proposal was a “testament of intentions” from a “bachelor of arts and artfulness, being in a state of perfect poverty and health (barring a slight cold)”. The following year MacDonagh and Gifford wed on January 3rd, 1912, in a small informal wedding. Celebrating his new wife, he joyfully wrote:
Now no bitter songs I sing:
Summer flows for me now;
For the spirit of the Spring;
Breathes upon the living bough;
All poor leaves of why and how?
Fall before this wonder, dead:
Joy is given to me now,
In the love of her I wed.
The new couple moved into an apartment in Dublin city centre at No 32 Baggot Street, and by November of that year had their first son. Donagh MacDonagh was later joined by Barbara, who was born in March 1915.
By 1914, MacDonagh and Plunkett had formed a partnership with Edward Martyn to establish a new theatre in Dublin. The three were eager to counter the influence of the Abbey, which they believed gave too much emphasis to peasant plays and a stereotypical view of rural Irish life.
Their new venture, the Irish Theatre, was located at Hardwicke Street. MacDonagh was its manager and it listed a troupe of actors that included Frank Fay, Máire Ní Shuibhlaigh and Una O’Connor. According to Fay, MacDonagh had desired a company of young actors who would assist in staging avant-garde plays written by Irish and European playwrights.
Such was MacDonagh’s dream of an avant-garde theatre, the partnership became the first theatre in Ireland to perform Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in June 1915, followed by August Strindberg’s Easter and Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. Serendipitously, the Ireland that the Irish Theatre was created in was politically changing and the project was operating in a new political environment.
Inspired by political events in Ireland and abroad, notably the Ulster crisis and the first World War, MacDonagh was swept up in a prevailing current of militancy and found himself elected to the the provisional committee of the Irish Volunteers.
By March 1915 he was appointed commandant of the 2nd Battalion of the Dublin Brigade and regularly produced headquarters orders and notes for the training of volunteers. This was alongside a series of lectures and rallies which he addressed on military themes.
MacDonagh insisted upon a programme of regular training, including drilling, scouting, ambushes and fieldwork, often involving two companies of Volunteers in manoeuvres with the object of war games, skirmishing and seizing strategic points. This, MacDonagh speculated, would familiarise the Volunteers with discipline and obedience to their senior officers, company formation, tracking advance guard and frontal assault strategies.
In his training style, MacDonagh also favoured the establishment of instruction centres and rifle ranges parallel to inter-company rifle competitions as a means of “stimulating healthy rivalry in what is after all the most important part of training”.
In April 1915, he was sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood – and he recruited Éamon de Valera into the conspiracy. Discussing this with fellow republican Éamonn Ceannt, who was sceptical about de Valera, MacDonagh prophetically commented “don’t you worry about de Valera, he always lands on his feet”.
As the last man to be co-opted onto the military council, it is wrongly assumed that MacDonagh knew nothing of the Rising until a few weeks beforehand. In fact, he was well aware of the plans for the Rising: the evidence indicates that he had been working on these plans with Plunkett prior to his co-option to the military council. Such was the demands of his Volunteer work that his work at UCD and the Irish Theatre was greatly hindered.
Meeting his friend Edward Martyn for one final time, McDonagh explained his belief that Ireland would change forever due to the Volunteers. Almost prophetically, Martyn warned him: “Remember, dear boy, you’ll be shot.”
When the Easter Rising began, MacDonagh found himself in charge of the Jacob’s factory, an impregnable fortress with two large towers. It is wrongly assumed that MacDonagh’s garrison saw little action – while the garrison was isolated, they were regularly engaged in sorties, sniper fire with Dublin Castle and provided relief to de Valera at Boland’s Mills and Michael Mallin in the Royal College of Surgeons.
The atmosphere in the Jacob’s garrison was tense, though there were moments of levity, with assembled volunteers organising céilís and reading circles. Here the rebels discovered a gramophone, but to their horror the only record they could find was God Save the King.
As the Easter week wore on, the Jacob’s garrison was wholeheartedly dejected. It was recalled that MacDonagh, dishevelled and worn looking, had become more of a figurehead within the garrison, with real authority passing to second-in-command John MacBride.
By Wednesday the garrison stood on top of the roof of Jacob’s and saw the city ablaze, watching as the British used heavy artillery to pound the distant GPO.
Throughout the course of the week MacDonagh wrote extensive propaganda to keep the rebels spirits up and rumours of German landings and national uprisings spread through the garrison. When he eventually agreed to a surrender, the garrison collapsed in pandemonium amid calls of “fight it out, fight it out”. One rebel, Peader Kearney, recalled men in tears and others prostrate with disbelief.
Addressing his men for the last time, MacDonagh lamented that “we have to give in. Those of you in civilian clothes go home. Those of you in uniform stay on – you cannot leave.”
MacDonagh was was sentenced to be executed in the Stone Breakers Yard at Kilmainham Gaol on May 3rd, 1916. Unable to see his wife Muriel, MacDonagh wrote to her hours before his execution: “I am ready to die, and I thank God that I am to die in so a holy a cause. My country will reward my deed richly. I counted the cost of this, and I am ready to pay it.”
In what would become the most iconic execution of the Easter Rising, MacDonagh addressed the firing squad and offered them a cigarette. “I know this is a lousy job, but you’re doing your duty – I do not hold this against you.” Turning to the officer in charge of the firing squad, he offered him his silver cigarette case, holding: “I won’t be needing this – would you like to have it?” He was shot shortly afterwards.
The British commented that “They all died well. But MacDonagh, he died like a prince.” Shane Kenna is a postgraduate student of history in Trinity