Thomas MacDonagh: 16 Lives, by Shane Kenna, O’Brien Press, 304 pp, €12.99, ISBN: 978-1847173362
Eamonn Ceannt: 16 Lives, by Mary Gallagher, O’Brien Press, 400 pp, €12.99, ISBN: 978-1847172716
In April 1916 a small group of Irish republicans staged a rebellion in Dublin whose suppression left much of the inner city destroyed, hundreds dead and maimed and led to the execution of the men who had planned it. The leaders included a schoolteacher and poet, a wealthy eccentric, two Fenians, a militant socialist, an academic and a member of Dublin Corporation. The actions of these men created a sea change in Irish political, cultural and even emotional life. Writer Frank O’Connor recalled that “a revolution had begun in Ireland, but it was nothing compared to the revolution that had begun in me”.
Thomas MacDonagh, the academic, and Eamonn Ceannt, the member of Dublin of Corporation and Uileann pipes player, are the leaders whose lives are explored in these two new biographies. MacDonagh, a lecturer in English literature and a poet, was energetic and charming though prone to melancholy, had a stable career in front of him and was happily married with two children in 1916. Eamonn Ceannt was a less bohemian character, more meticulous and less dramatic. He had a desk job and spent his free time playing and researching Irish music and working for the Gaelic League. Like MacDonagh he was happily married with a young son and had a good if not particularly fulfilling job.
Interestingly both men had close links with Britain and the British administration in Ireland. MacDonagh, like Pearse, had an English parent while Eamonn Ceannt’s father was a head constable in the Royal Irish Constabulary, a force against which Ceannt’s successors in the IRA would wage a guerrilla war between 1919 and 1921. His brother William Kent would also die, but in a British uniform on the Western Front in 1917. If anything these links perhaps tell us the extent to which Ireland had become tied in with Britain in the early twentieth century. This process is perhaps best seen in the leader of mainstream nationalist Ireland John Redmond being offered a position as a cabinet minister in 1915. Ireland’s future for many in 1916 would have seemed inextricably linked with that of Britain and Ireland not having some position within the empire would have appeared unthinkable. Between 1916 and 1923 a small group of idealists reversed this process and Ireland as a republic came to seem a real possibility rather than a dream.
This series of sympathetic biographies attempts to show the day-to-day lives of the rebel leaders and the Ireland in which they lived. Historian Shane Kenna’s biography of MacDonagh reveals a nuanced and complex man. He declared that before joining the Gaelic League he was “the greatest west Britisher in Ireland and suppressed the Irish language”. Kenna, however, explores the range of MacDonagh’s intellect, showing a man deeply interested in cultural developments outside Ireland. He was responsible, we learn, for staging Chekhov in Dublin; he earned an MA for his work on the seventeenth century English poet Thomas Campion. He envisaged a more inclusive Irish literature and defended JM Synge’s Playboy of the Western World.
Kenna presents MacDonagh as an individual involved more in the cultural sphere rather than the political. His own political logic is actually hard to entirely discern. In May 1914 he made a speech at a meeting of Irish Volunteers in Kilkenny declaring that “it was time that the Irish people should now be able to enforce their claims by the use of arms”, having earlier written in a letter that “constitutional politics are no good, we must depend on ourselves and our arms”. However, he was not a doctrinaire republican and was not at first involved in the planning of the Rising. Kenna argues that he was in fact drawn into the inner circle that planned the outbreak in order to convince Eoin MacNeill, the Irish Volunteers Chief of Staff, of whom he was a close friend, of the Rising’s potential success. MacDonagh in effect became an intermediary between the military council and MacNeill.
MacDonagh saw the Rising, Kenna argues, in practical rather than spiritual terms: “MacDonagh predicted that the First World War would soon come to an end and there would be a peace conference. Having declared an Irish Republic, Ireland would have to be recognised as a belligerent nation and permitted to attend.” Father Aloysius, who helped arrange the surrender of MacDonagh’s garrison in Jacob’s factory, recalled that after the surrender MacDonagh believed “Ireland would command attention and a right to participate (at the peace conference at the end of the war) and a right to participate if it were a belligerent”.
In 1916 it was by no means clear that the Allies would eventually win the war and republicans felt if Ireland, as a belligerent nation, allied with Germany it would stand to gain in the postwar dispensation if Germany won. This was crucial in the thinking of Séan MacDiarmada, the principal architect of the Rising along with Tom Clarke. However, MacDonagh was clearly frustrated with his achievements and embraced his own destruction declaring before the Rising that “A man who is a mere author is nothing … I am going to live things that I have before imagined.” In 1904 he wrote his first play, When the Dawn is Come, in which through sacrifice and death Ireland is set free and the Irish nation redeemed. In his last days he declared: “It is a great and glorious thing to die for Ireland.”
Mary Gallagher, a grandniece of Eamonn Ceannt, presents a picture of a less colourful character, more balanced and with a more stable private life in contrast to MacDonagh’s heartbreaks and loving but troubled marriage. Unlike MacDonagh, Ceannt was also more organised, excelling at all administrative duties. However, he was a far more aggressive character in his politics. MacDonagh welcomed the passing of the Home Rule Bill in 1912 and though not a follower of the Irish party, unlike many of his colleagues, he never vehemently denounced it. Ceannt on the other hand denounced Sinn Féin, of which he was a member, for in principal accepting the idea that Ireland’s future would be in the British empire. Ceannt completely dismissed constitutionalism, declaring that “agitation should be confined to constitutional methods only where the laws of the country have been made and are being administered by the people of that country”. At the outbreak of the First World War he vigorously denounced British colonialism, described Irish people who listened to Johnn Redmond and Joe Devlin as “slaves” and would go on to use the tune of Deutschland Über Alles for his own composition Ireland Over All.
Ceannt with his two subordinates, and future opponents, Cathal Brugha and WT Cosgrave commanded the South Dublin Union garrison and were involved in some of the fiercest fighting of the week and Ceannt emerges from the book as a natural leader. He seems to have in fact enjoyed the fighting. MacDonagh, on the other hand commanded the Jacob’s biscuit factory garrison which never experienced a British assault and though personable and cheery throughout proved indecisive. Kenna writes: “MacDonagh gradually became more of a figurehead, lacking the military experience of [his deputy John] MacBride”. The Rising placed him under severe mental strain and by the time of the surrender he was described as “lacking a commanding presence”. MacDonagh made no effort at defence during his court martial and seems to have been accepting of his fate. In a last letter to his son Donagh he wrote that his actions were the first step towards a free Ireland and that “[b]ut for your suffering this would all be joy and glory”.
Ceannt on the other hand had no desire to die and “he set about defending himself in his usual calm, methodical way”. He and WT Cosgrave did all they could in their defence, in Ceannt’s case apparently motivated by a desire to begin the fight again. He bitterly resented having to surrender, writing in a letter to the Irish people “I see nothing gained but grave disaster caused by the surrender which marked the end of the Irish insurrection of 1916” and advised his successors never to surrender to the British. Having to order the surrender seems to have been the most abhorrent task for him. Annie O’Brien, a member of Cumann na mBan, recalled that he “was like a wild man, his tunic was open, his hair was standing on end and he looked awful. He hated the task of having to ask the garrison to surrender”.
MacDonagh, along with Pearse, Plunkett, Mac Diarmada and Connolly, believed in the necessity of their own deaths for the Rising to create real impact. Ceannt was unusual among the leaders in that he seems to have put more emphasis on the fight itself rather than the outcome. He is the only one of the signatories who actually killed a man during the Rising.
These two biographies are valuable additions to the historiography of the Rising and revolution, especially in highlight the diverging ambitions, desires and visions of the men who organised it.
Thomas Fitzgerald is an Irish Research Council research fellow at Trinity College Dublin.