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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 of the Rising’s leaders Brian Feeney addresses the difficulty of writing a biography of a figure who left little in the way a documentary trail.

The future IRB leader Michael Collins retained a great respect for Mac Diarmada, though some of his colleagues were not particularly impressed or enamoured of him or his methods. A leading Brother, Patrick McCartan, felt Mac Diarmada was “superficial” and “cunning rather than clever”. Whichever view is more accurate, it is certain that Mac Diarmada was a man committed to a physical and violent revolution.

The conspiratorial orientation of Mac Diarmada was not the only tendency within the IRB. Over the previous ten years the organisation had been going through a period of renewal and change. The IRB leader and Belfast Quaker Bulmer Hobson tried to move it away from its conspiratorial roots and believed in promoting its republican ideals within mainstream Irish life. Mac Diarmada was one of a number who opposed Hobson.

To understand the central division within Irish nationalism it is necessary to understand the bitter and emotional rejection of constitutionalism which characterised what was known as advanced nationalism. Irish Freedom, for which MacDiarmada acted as business manager, seethes with contempt for the Irish Parliamentary Party. In March 1911, on the coronation of King George V, the party issued a statement saying that until Ireland had achieved some form of autonomy within the empire “we are compelled to say that the time has not yet come when we feel free to join with the other representatives of the King’s subjects …” Irish Freedom denounced this statement as “treason to Irish nationalism” and as “slavishness and snobbery”. Presumably it was the reference to the Irish as “subjects” that was most abhorrent to republicans, who sought a complete break with the crown.

In February 1912, after John Redmond had asserted the loyalty of all Irish people to the British empire, the paper asked: “Have the best and greatest men of our race worked and suffered and died to liberate this country from English rule for this that a man can stand up to day and pledge the allegiance of every Irishman on the habitable globe to England’s robber empire?” This was more than a question of tone: Redmond was not hostile to the British empire as such whereas the IRB regarded it as an oppressive institution to be condemned.

Mac Diarmada and his colleagues bemoaned the extent to which Irish politicians and constitutionalists were becoming involved in Westminster. All Irish people, in the IRB view, would benefit from distancing themselves from Britain. In October 1912, Irish Freedom criticised unionists for relying too heavily on the Conservative party and constitutional Irish nationalists for relying too heavily on the Liberal party. The paper argued that Britain cared little for Ireland and that both parties would ultimately be let down. Patrick Pearse, who MacDiarmada had been keen to see join the IRB, argued that Irish autonomy had nothing to do with Britain or its parliament. In Ghosts (1915) he declared that Irish freedom “has not meant a limited freedom, a freedom conditioned by the interests of another nation, a freedom compatible with the suzerain authority of a foreign parliament”. Irish Freedom echoed Pearse’s view, declaring that British politics were in fact as irrelevant to Ireland as Chinese politics. Constitutional politics was regarded by these ultranationalists with scorn; as Fearghal McGarry has written, the IRB regarded the Irish party “as not only ineffective but corrupting”. The corruption embodied in IPP pragmatism was in the world view of advanced nationalists ultimately a moral corruption.

When unionists imported arms into the country, IRB members such as Tom Clarke welcomed this as a sign of Ireland moving away from constitutionalism and politics towards action, an interpretation which suggests a limited engagement with the reality of Ulster opposition and a low awareness of the danger of a bloody civil war. Advanced nationalists before the rising were chiefly defined by or united around a rejection of the Irish party. It could be argued that the rising of 1916 was as much against the reviled IPP’s moderate nationalism as against British rule. Mac Diarmada and his colleagues were obsessed with taking action –which they believed would, of itself, change the situation ‑ after years of what they considered fruitless IPP talking. The European war in 1914 seemed to be the opportune moment to take that action and effect that permanent change.

Feeney writes that for Mac Diarmada the war was a crucial turning point and adds that “the priority was to organise a powerful insurrection and strike a blow to demonstrate that Irish men and women rejected any English claim to govern Ireland. He believed it was right to strike that blow in any case, but that it was essential to do it before the war was over so that Ireland could stake a claim to independence at the inevitable peace conference”. He describes Mac Diarmada as a “man of his time”, aware that in the postwar world countries all over Europe would be seeking to escape from imperialism and that Ireland had to be part of that process. It is not clear whether Mac Diarmada believed this escape from imperialism depended on a German victory.

In March 1916, he outlined his thinking in a speech at the Robert Emmet commemoration, stating that “the present time was opportune for preparation [to succeed where Emmet had failed]. They had the means, and the young men of Ireland would be unworthy of their country if they did not avail of them”. The late Peter Hart wrote that Mac Diarmada knew that the war distracting the British, together with the presence of an armed and disciplined volunteer force, provided the perfect chance for the IRB to organise a rebellion: it was a case of “use it or lose it”.

Once again it is unclear whether the organisers believed a German victory to be inevitable or whether they were moved by a desire for action regardless; in the case of Mac Diarmada, the latter seems more likely. In Berlin, Casement and Plunkett tried to convince the Germans that a rising in Ireland with German assistance “would tax the military and moral resources of Great Britain to the utmost”, implying that it would lead to a German victory. In private Casement was sceptical of German effectiveness and the possibility of receiving any aid, declaring “England will surely beat them”. Mac Diarmada’s view on German assistance is hard to fully grasp. Shortly before the rising he informed Denis McCullough of Belfast, who was deliberately kept in the dark about the plans, that a rebellion would take place and that the Germans would lead the fighting. McCullough did not think Mac Diarmada really believed what he was saying: “I can’t decide in my own mind even yet, whether or not he was trying to deceive me or was deceiving himself.”

Feeney is adamant that Mac Diarmada was organising what he considered to be a potentially successful rising. He emphasises the time and effort he and Joseph Plunkett put into preparation, emphasises Mac Diarmada’s attention to detail and the elaborate planning that went into the insurrection both in Dublin and around the country. Mac Diarmada’s organisational abilities are described as “wondrous” and we are told that Plunkett’s military plans amounted to a “grand strategy”, though the author also argues that there was an acceptance that success would depend on German aid. Feeney is adamant that for Mac Diarmada the rising was inspired by a desire “to secure Ireland’s place at any post war peace conference”, which he sees as evidence that “for men like MacDiarmada … the motive for a rising was nothing to do with ‘blood sacrifice’”.

Thomas MacDonagh apparently also told volunteers that “if we were able to stand up against the British for one week as a uniformed disciplined force we would be able to claim recognition at the peace conference that would be held at the end of the war”. The suggestion of limited military expectations is confirmed by the disposition of volunteer battalions during the rising. They were scattered across the city, making communication difficult; no serious attempts were made to link up or make a defensive cordon around the city or occupy key sites such as Dublin castle or Trinity. Instead the rebels occupied parks, post offices and factories and then simply waited. In most, but not all, cases this allowed British troops to advance into Dublin unimpeded.

The overwhelming desire to act is reflected in the decision of the military council to go ahead with the rising knowing their full capabilities had been severely reduced thanks to MacNeill’s countermanding order, Casement’s arrest and the loss of German arms. Mac Diarmada, terrified that the rising would be called off, declared that it “should take place even if there were only sticks and stones to fight with”. When shown the countermanding order he was reported to have “rent the coat of his pyjamas to shreds crying inconsolably”. As Charles Townshend commented: “On Monday, only those who were indeed ‘anxious for war’ would turn out.”

The importance of the IRB to the rising cannot be overstated. Feeney shows how Mac Diarmada spent much time and effort enlisting the right men into the IRB and having them in the optimum positions coming up to the rising. In fact in the run-up to the insurrection, the only people who fully knew it was about to take place were in the IRB. The duping of the Irish Volunteers’ chief of staff, MacNeill, who was not a member of the brotherhood, is evidence that for Mac Diarmada and Clarke the volunteers were really only a tool for the IRB’s ends; their command structure was blatantly disregarded. This was part of a long IRB tradition of having its members infiltrate potentially sympathetic organisations, the GAA and the Gaelic league being the most notable examples.

Following the rising, Michael Collins would keep up this practice of ensuring that IRB men occupied the top ranks in the IRA. The effective leaders of the IRA in the War of Independence, General Liam Lynch and General Richard Mulcahy, were both senior members of the brotherhood. But Mac Diarmada also had no problem with pushing potentially irksome brothers aside: he deliberately kept the influential Bulmer Hobson in the dark and would not let anyone, even from within the IRB, stop him carrying out what he considered to be the IRB’s mission. This mentality would continue into 1921 as Collins, Lynch and Mulcahy ostracised and removed Paddy Cahill in Kerry as they needed someone who fulfilled their requirements more exactly in that strongly republican area.

After years of pragmatic IPP domination, the committed romantic nationalists of the IRB were exhilarated to be finally taking action. One participant described it as a “dream like sensation”. Feeney quotes Diarmuid Lynch’s recollection that on the first day of the rising in the GPO Clarke and Mac Diarmada were seen to be delighted, “beaming with satisfaction” as, in Feeney’s words, they had “achieved their objective which was to have an insurrection”. The strong feeling among many radicals was that the physical force tradition needed to be maintained whether the outcome involved victory or not. Tom Clarke was driven by his sense of shame that there had been no Irish rebellion during the Boer war. Something had to be done to assert a rejection of constitutionalism and British governance.

Mac Diarmada’s intensity of feeling and commitment were typical of the advanced nationalist mood. Pearse was so intent on rebellion and full of rage against the nature of the Ireland around him that he announced to his pupils: “I would rather see all Dublin in ruin than that we should go on living as we are at present.” Robert Brennan wrote in Irish Freedom that “there is not a country in the world where men have not at one time killed their fellow citizens in the name of patriotism”.

Mac Diarmada was focused on the politics of national rebellion and measured all questions against that standard. Feeney writes that he “had no patience with people who held political views different from his own” and he saw trade union activity as a “distraction from the main direct task of direct action against the British”. During the lockout of 1913 he was particularly appalled at the idea of co-operation between British and Irish unions. He wrote to the American-based Joe McGarrity in December 1913:

But all the talk about the friendliness of the English working man and the brotherhood of man, the English food ships etc have a very bad unnational influence … before the present trouble is ended the bogy (sic) of the ‘English working man’ will have spent itself and all will have learned a lesson not to place their faith in the English working man any more than in the English lord.

This stance of political exclusiveness was not always easy to maintain in practice. In the case of the lockout, Irish Freedom was very much on the side of the workers. It also supported the suffragette movement. It urged it readers to attend the Abbey theatre and visit an exhibition of post-impressionist paintings in Dublin. The paper also welcomed Connolly’s Labour in Irish History but argued that the author’s concept of the nation was too narrow. As Feeney says, Mac Diarmada was a “modern man”, but if so he was one totally committed to insurrection.

MacDiarmada expected and even welcomed the possibility that the Rising would lead to his own death. The notion of blood sacrifice has always been a controversial topic. In recent years some historians of the rising have re-examined the issue by placing it within the broader context of the European war. Joost Augusteijn has described Pearse’s more extreme language relating to death as being “couched in terms of the public debate of the period”. Likewise Peter Hart regarded “blood sacrifice” as “part of the shared volunteer lexicon”.

Feeney writes that Mac Diarmada “expressed the view that his execution, along with that of the other signatories of the Proclamation, was inevitable and necessary for the Rising to have maximum impact”. In Tralee in 1914 Mac Diarmada told a group of Irish Volunteers that  “the Irish spirit will die forever unless a blood sacrifice is made” and “it will be necessary for some of us to offer ourselves as martyrs if nothing better can be done to preserve the Irish national spirit and hand it down to future generations”. In a last letter before his execution to his friend the old Fenian John Daly of Limerick he wrote: “We die that the Irish nation may live, our blood will re-invigorate the old land”.

Feeney acknowledges that “MacDiarmada used language that leads people to think that the reason he pressed on was because he was a believer in the concept of a blood sacrifice”. In January 1914 Irish Freedom expressed the view that “the test of the virility of a race is the number of men who are prepared to right the wrongs of their country at a cost to their lives”.

MacDiarmada had a particularly strong reverence for Robert Emmet: he had always “set great store by Emmet’s rising”, Feeney writes. In March 1916 at a volunteer meeting, when the feasibility of a rising was discussed, some of those present were adamant that any such outbreak would be a failure. Mac Diarmada responded with the question “Was Robert Emmet a failure?” His commitment to the possibilities of the peace conference is not to be doubted, but alongside this he clearly believed that noble republican executions were needed for “maximum impact”.

The blood sacrifice concept has given rise to debate since the mid-1960s and much of it has been unhistorical in tendency. By emphasising the idea of self-sacrifice, the rising’s leaders have sometimes been portrayed as detached, overtly spiritual and even as precursors to modern suicide bombers. The much maligned Peter Hart was particularly dismissive of this interpretation, arguing that the volunteers and citizen army were not some cult and were dedicated to achieving the revolution, not their self-destruction.

Arguably the two positions are not incompatible. It is possible to seek maximum military impact while being prepared to risk one’s own destruction and, while seeing that destruction as highly likely, embracing the idea that such a bloody sacrifice would impact on the mood and politics of the wider community. Feeney is perhaps a little too anxious to detach his subject from the blood sacrifice idea but ultimately the desire for sacrifice and a noble and courageous death is perfectly compatible with the desire to strike a blow and in the process change the political narrative. Mac Diarmada clearly fits this profile. Following the surrender he appears to have made efforts to join those who were to be imprisoned in Britain. When it came down to a choice of certain death or living to fight another day, in some accounts it seems that he chose the latter. On the other hand, he was correct in his estimation of the impact the leaders’ executions would have on public opinion.

The question of Mac Diarmada’s legacy falls outside the scope of Feeney’s enquiry. Michael Collins offers the most obvious example of his influence. .Mac Diarmada recognised Collins’s potential and took pains to have him inducted into his own IRB group and ultimately into the organisation’s innermost circles. Mac Diarmada described Collins as “a very valuable person” and it has been suggested that he saw Collins as a protégé. In 1917 Collins wrote that when remembering the fallen leaders “I think chiefly of Tom Clarke and Mac Diarmada” Collins did employ many of Mac Diarmada’s methods, such as an emphasis on efficiency, having the right man in the right place, boundless energy, not incriminating himself and a fierce loyalty to the IRB. Unlike Mac Diarmada Collins was not interested in rebellion for the sake of striking a blow. He wanted more concrete results.

This short volume is a fine addition to the ever increasing literature on this period. MacDiarmada comes across as a committed and driven man, charming and sometimes funny yet single-minded and capable of manipulation. In the run-up to the centenaries the great dangers are to be on the one hand overly reverential or on the other overly critical. Feeney avoids these dangers.


Thomas Fitzgerald is an Irish research council research fellow at Trinity College Dublin



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