The MacDonagh brothers – a rich artistic legacy

Thomas, John and Joe

A chara, – Well done to Frank McNally (An Irishman’s Diary, February 10th) in describing my grand-uncles, Thomas and John MacDonagh, cultural forerunners of current filmmakers Martin and John McDonagh. Thomas and John were active at different stages in the vibrant intellectual scene of early 20th-century Ireland and Europe.

But there was a third MacDonagh brother – Joe, my grandfather – who was equally involved culturally and politically. Joe MacDonagh took over St Enda’s after Thomas was killed by the British, supported John in his filmmaking, was an early minister for labour and then a leader of the Belfast Boycott that supported Catholics in the North. He had an important and varied life before dying in the Civil War on Christmas Day 1922. Perhaps Mr McNally could feature him in a forthcoming column? – Is mise,


Dublin 6.


Sir, – Frank McNally draws welcome attention to the filmmaking career of John MacDonagh, the brother of Thomas MacDonagh and of Joseph MacDonagh, who like John was involved in the Film Company of Ireland. This is certainly a history worth remembering.

However, John didn’t direct Knocknagow; Abbey Theatre actor and sometimes manager Fred O’Donovan did, taking over the role of the company’s director of choice from his Abbey colleague JM Kerrigan after his departure for stage and screen in the US in early 1917. John would assume directing duties when the company was restructured and set out in 1919 to make Willy Reilly and His Colleen Bawn at St Enda’s in Rathfarnham, with its clear links to Robert Emmet, Padraig Pearse and Thomas MacDonagh.

Willy Reilly was made against the backdrop of the War of Independence, and John left for Scotland to evade arrest after production work finished. Partly for this reason, but also for the commercial one of accessing a large audience, the film premiered in Manchester in January 1920.

As Frank observes, John was again director for the new but related company Irish Photo-Plays, which released the comedies Casey’s Millions and Wicklow Gold in November 1922.

Their third film, the racing drama Cruiskeen Lawn, however, wasn’t released for another two years, and then it went on the UK market first, in December 1924, with the Irish premiere held over for St Patrick’s week 1925.

Light comedies though these films were, their histories attest to the difficulties of the Civil War period and the commercial realities of releasing Irish films. – Yours, etc,


Departments of English

and Media Studies,

Maynooth University,

Co Kildare.