I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Thomas MacDonagh: 16 Lives


O’Brien Press





His songs were a little phrase
Of eternal song,
Drowned in the harping of lays
More loud and long.

His deed was a single word,
Called out alone
In the night when no echo stirred
To laughter or moan.

But his songs new souls shall thrill,
The loud harps dumb,
And his deed the echoes fill
When the dawn is come.

(Thomas MacDonagh, ‘On a Poet Patriot’)

The last man to be invited onto the Military Council of the IRB, the body entrusted with planning the Easter Rising, Thomas MacDonagh was by all accounts a warmhearted, humorous and talkative individual. Originally from Cloughjordan in County Tipperary, he had been brought up in a house full of music, story and prayer. His parents were teachers and his mother a convert to Catholicism, who enshrined in her children a belief in acts of individual charity and morality that would considerably influence his character. During his life he was a schoolmaster, a poet, a theatre manager, an astute literary critic, a supporter of women’s rights and the Gaelic League, and a friend to some of the best-known and influential artistic and political figures in literary Dublin. He sought fairer pay and better working conditions for secondary school teachers through the foundation of the ASTI, while his involvement with the Dublin Industrial Peace Committee in 1913 was underlined by a recognisable desire to seek a fair resolution to the Lockout. MacDonagh was sympathetic to the ambitions of the ITGWU, and while not a member of the union and far removed from the realities of its socialist policies, he greatly favoured the workers rather than the employers arising from a sense of justice, fairness and a natural support for the underdog. Finally, he joined the Irish Volunteers out of a sense that nationalist Ireland needed to defend Home Rule. If he had not become involved with the Volunteers and then the IRB, which ultimately led to his execution in May 1916, he could have lived out his life as a well-respected academic. Of particular interest is his final work, Literature in Ireland, a detailed study of the development of language in Ireland that, in a remarkable break from the thinking of many Irish nationalists at the time, rejected the assumption that a truly national literature could only be created within the Irish language. His friend Padraic Colum wrote of MacDonagh as:

A poet bent toward abstraction, a scholar with leaning towards philology – these were the aspects Thomas Mac-Donagh showed when he expressed himself in letters. But what was fundamental in him rarely went into what he wrote. That fundamental thing was an eager search for something that would have his whole devotion.

This book seeks to examine MacDonagh’s place within the Rising and to portray a man who for too long was overlooked in favour of more celebrated figures. In part, it is because his role in the rebellion was a minor one, but it is also because there are no great symbolic tales attached to his name: he did not read the Proclamation to the Irish people from the GPO; his garrison at Jacob’s Biscuit Factory saw little action during the Rising; he did not die strapped to a chair or after marrying his sweetheart in a midnight ceremony; and the famed address he gave during his court-martial is almost certainly an invention. However, his life forms an interesting story of religious fervour, self-doubt, political activity, romance, joy and bitter sadness. His execution in Kilmainham Gaol is punctuated by tragedy: hours before his death, his desire to see his wife Muriel was thwarted, and from his final letter it is apparent that he was ultimately a husband and father concerned for the welfare of his family.

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