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The Insurrectionist

Thomas Fitzgerald
Sean MacDiarmada: 16 Lives, by Brian Feeney, O’Brien Press, 336 pp, €12.99, ISBN: 978-1847176530 Ireland will not see another Sean Mac Diarmada. ‑ Michael Collins, 1917 In August 1914, following the successful landing of weapons at Howth by the Irish Volunteers, the Irish Republican Brotherhood’s newspaper, Irish Freedom, declared that “the dawn is very near now”. Undoubtedly, this dawn referred to the IRB’s long-cherished dream of rebellion. And indeed, within two years of the Howth arms landing, a rebellion, which made use of some of those weapons and which was organised by IRB leader Sean Mac Diarmada, took place. In 1916 many nationalists would have seen Ireland’s revolution as effectively over: a mass movement had helped undermine an archaic system of land ownership, Catholics had achieved religious freedom and some form of autonomy within the British empire seemed inevitable. Violent insurrection, for most, was not considered, being seen rather as the outlook of the smallest of minorities. But while moderate and pragmatic nationalism dominated politically, there was also a growing romantic cultural current whose ultimate political logic was in fact separation from Britain. This implication was generally unexplored in the cultural sphere, and still less were the means by which separation was to be achieved. In a sense the secretive IRB insurrectionists pursued the logic of this romantic current. The realisation of a connection between cultural romanticism and political romanticism was a shock to many engaged in the cultural world .The insurrection organised by Mac Diarmada forced many such figures to address that connection and related political questions which had not engaged them previously. Thus the shock reflected in Yeats’s almost alarmed acknowledgement, following the Rising: “All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.” The driving force behind the rebellion, which caused Yeats to realise there was still political passion in Ireland, located somewhere between the Palladian and the Paudeens at pitch and toss, was the Leitrim native, occasional gardener, tram conductor, publican and newspaper manager Sean Mac Diarmada. Mac Diarmada was a secretive and background figure; he did not hold rank in the Irish Volunteers and being wary of arrest wrote very little down on paper. The sheer weight of written material left behind by Connolly, Pearse and Casement has made them attractive to historians, each having several biographies, leaving the highly influential but secretive Mac Diarmada in relative obscurity. In his well-researched book on the most enigmatic…

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