The year after the Easter Rising was a fraught one for the families of those executed by the British.
Compounding their sense of grief, many families with children had lost the principal breadwinner and were facing immediate penury.
The Irish National Aid Association and Volunteers’ Dependents’ Fund (INAAVDF) was set up in the aftermath of the Rising to provide financial support to the republican families left in straitened circumstances.
Muriel MacDonagh, the widow of Thomas MacDonagh, was a recipient. The couple had two children, Donagh (4), also known as Don, and Barbara (2). Though she was one of the Gifford sisters and from a prosperous south Dublin family, the rebellion had cost her the support of her mother Isabella and she was forced to move out of home.
Thomas MacDonagh’s sentiments in his final letter to his wife and two children were becoming a painful reality. He had, he regretfully suggested, “devoted too much time to national work and too little to the making of money to leave them a competence”.
To give the families involved a break, the association rented out a large guest house, Mirimar, on Strand Street in Skerries, Co Dublin.
The widow and children of James Connolly were there along with those of Michael Mallin. Fr Joe Mallin, the only surviving child of an executed leader of the Easter Rising, lists the Skerries holiday as one of his earliest memories.
Áine Ceannt, the widow of Éamonn was there with her son Ronan. Also present were some of the MacDiarmadas and Pearses.
Muriel MacDonagh nearly did not make it. The fund skilfully used the medium of photography and the powerful imagery of the widows and children of the executed leaders to elicit sympathy and donations especially in the United States.
During a photoshoot at Switzer’s, now Brown Thomas on Grafton Street, Don fell down the stairs and hurt his back.
Muriel was reluctant to go to Skerries as a result, but was told that if she did not go, neither would her sister Grace, herself an Easter Rising widow following the death of her husband Joseph Mary Plunkett.
After much cajoling, Muriel decided to leave Don in hospital. She promised to write to him every day and bring him back a box of shells.
Don never saw his mother alive again. A week later, he saw the hearse carrying her body pass by the window of his hospital, the horses with their feathered plumes and the ranks of volunteers following behind- it was a huge funeral, the biggest since the Rising.
His mother died attempting to swim to Shenick Island, a kilometre or so from the South Strand beach. This hilly little island with its Martello Tower is accessible by foot at low tide, but when the tide is full, treacherous currents swirl around it.
Muriel went for a swim on the late afternoon of July 9th, 1917 leaving Barbara, known as Babilly, with Grace.
James Connolly’s daughter, Ina (22), asked Muriel to promise not to try to swim to the island. Muriel agreed, but reaching the island was a personal and political goal for her.
While in Skerries, she wrote to her son in hospital. “Dearest Don, I had a lovely big swim today and nearly got out to the island. I’ll have some lovely seaweed and shells when we go back. Love and million of pops from Babilly and Murielly.”
She prided herself on being a strong swimmer, having learned to swim on family holidays at Greystones.
Her other motivation was to place a tricolour on the island out of the reach of the local Royal Irish Constabulary who had removed one from the beach. There is no evidence, though, that she had the flag with her when she went swimming that day.
There is a clear line of sight between the beach and the island. As Muriel swam further away from land, Ina Connolly exclaimed: "My goodness! She is an awful distance out". Some of their party called out to her from the shore, but she either did not hear or did not respond. There was a rowing boat on the beach but, when some of the party went to get the oars for it, they were refused by a servant in a local house.
By the time they returned to the beach, Muriel had disappeared from view. Her body was found on the rocks near Loughshinny Island the following morning. A coroner's inquest revealed there was no water in her lungs. Therefore, she did not drown, but died of heart failure brought on by exhaustion.
The distinction is important, says her granddaughter Muriel McAuley, whose mother was Barbara. It proves conclusively that, contrary to rumours that circulated for years afterwards, her grandmother did not kill herself. “She fought until her heart gave out,” she explained.
Had circumstances been different, the MacDonagh children might have grown up in a comfortable middle-class environment; their father a Professor of English, a career path he was following. Instead, his two children were orphaned at a young age.
The sense of tragedy is compounded by the voluminous correspondence now in the National Library of Ireland. Thomas and Muriel loved each other deeply and transmitted that love to their children.
“They were a very close knit family,” says McAuley. “If you read any of the letters, he’s (Thomas) writing to Don and to Barbara and to Muriel a few times a day. They were an extraordinarily loving family.”
From such love, came such tragedy. “It’s gone. It was so traumatic and so devastating for anyone, but for young children”. Her voice trails off.
The deaths of their parents within 14 months of each other would have life-long consequences. What happened next would compound the tragedy.
The children were taken in by Katherine (Kate Wilson), the oldest of the Gifford sisters, and her sister, Grace. Two months after Muriel’s death, her Catholic father Frederick Gifford died too, leaving his wife Isabella, a staunch Protestant, as head of the household.
Thomas MacDonagh’s sister Mary, a nun known as Sister Francesca, took a court case to gain custody of the children.
Several of MacDonagh’s siblings offered to take the children in, but Mary decided to foster them out to strangers. Why?
“Mary was a very strong character. She was older than the others. She laid down the law,” McAuley says.
The fostering arrangement did not go well. “We won’t go there,” said an otherwise candid McAuley.
Barbara Cashin, another granddaughter of Thomas and Muriel MacDonagh, offers one vignette as to the hardships the children endured, particularly her father, Don. "He was going to the Iveagh Baths even to have a wash," she said.
Education and careers
The children did, however, receive secondary school educations. Don at Belvedere College; Barbara at Leeson Street and Mount Anville. Both went to UCD with their education fees paid by the State. It was a privileged education by the standards of the time.
Don qualified as a barrister and became a district court judge at the age of 31. Barbara trained to become a librarian, but married the actor Liam Redmond and could not pursue her career because of the marriage bar. They had four children.
Don was best known as a poet, playwright and broadcaster. His play Happy as Larry became a West End success. Another was produced by Sir Laurence Olivier. He wrote radio plays for RTÉ and the BBC and edited volumes of poetry. Ostensibly, he was a successful public man, but his fractured upbringing left him vulnerable.
“He was a flawed genius,” says Cashin. “As a family man, he was not a good father, but fascinating all the same.
“I remember Yeats’ son saying that it was like having an institution for a father or something like that. I suppose my experience of my father wasn’t all very positive.”
He was a damaged man, his daughter believes, by his upbringing and could never talk about the tragedies that scarred his life which included the death of his first wife Nellie who had an epileptic fit and drowned in the bath in 1934.
“He would not talk about that. He talked about nothing. It was all internalised. I suppose he had to.”
He was also ambivalent about the Easter Rising, recognising its centrality to the creation of the Irish State, but weighing that against his great personal loss. Cashin recalls: “I remember saying as a little girl, `weren’t they very brave?’. ‘Or fools,’ he said.”
By contrast, McAuley says her mother, who married the actor Liam Redmond, never doubted that her father’s role in the Rising was justified, but she, too, was damaged by her childhood experiences.
“Going to Arbour Hill every year was important. She was very moved by that. In the main, she did not express emotion, that’s what I mean by damaged. I would have given other people hugs, but we simply didn’t do that,” she said.
“Did you find that with Don?” she asks her cousin. “Absolutely,” says Cashin.
McAuley continues: “Anybody they loved, anybody to whom they became attached ‘went away’ and they did not see them again.”
Both MacDonagh children made sure their children could swim. “If I went near the sea, you could almost find the vibes coming off my mother,” McAuley says. “I picked up her fear of the water. I was determined to learn, but it was sheer bloodymindedness.”
Cashin too says her father brought her to Dun Laoghaire Baths. “It was his absolute intention to make sure I could swim.”
The experience of Don and Barbara MacDonagh is a timely reminder of the suffering experienced by many of the descendents who fought in the Easter Rising. There was a price to be paid for Irish freedom and it was paid by more than those who were willing to give their lives for it.
Details of the Muriel MacDonagh commemoration weekend taking place from 8th-9th July can be found at https://www.facebook.com/MurielMacDonagh