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1st Mar 2019 - 25th May 2019

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Irish Poets of the First World War - Thomas MacDonagh


Thomas MacDonagh (1878-1916)

Thomas MacDonagh was an Irish poet, playwright and political activist. He did not volunteer to fight in Europe for the Allies during the First World War. Instead, he fought for Home Rule in Ireland and was one of the seven leaders of the Easter Rising.

MacDonagh was born in Cloughjordan in Tipperary in 1878. Both his parents were teachers. His mother also gave piano lessons to local children. He grew up with his two sisters in house full of music and poetry.

He originally trained as a priest and had ambitions to be a missionary. He soon realised, however, that this was not his vocation. He became a teacher like his parents, teaching first at St. Kieran’s College in Kilkenny and later at St. Coleman’s College in Fermoy, Co Cork. He published his first book of poetry, Through the Ivory Gate, in 1902.

While living and working in Fermoy, MacDonagh formed a branch of the Gaelic League, which promoted the use of the Irish language. Although the organisation was officially politically neutral, it attracted many Irish nationalists. It was through the league that many future political leaders and rebels first met, laying the foundations for the development of nationalist groups such as the Irish Volunteers. For example, Patrick Pearse, another leader of the Easter Rising was the editor of the Gaelic League’s newspaper, An Claidheamh Soluis, between 1903-09.

MacDonagh first met Pearse on a trip to the Aran Islands, where he had gone to improve his fluency in Irish among the native speakers who lived there. In 1908, Pearse opened his own school in Dublin, St. Enda’s. Pearse believed that the educational system in Ireland at the time taught Irish children to be good Englishmen. At St. Enda’s he hoped to teach Irish children to be good Irishmen. Many of the classes at the school were taught in Irish and there was a strong emphasis on the arts. Pearse invited MacDonagh to be the school’s assistant headmaster.

MacDonagh became part of Dublin’s literary circles befriending Yeats, Lady Gregory and Franics Ledwidge amongst others. In 1908, the Abbey produced his first play, When the Dawn Is Come. The play told the story of an Irish nationalist rebellion led by a group of seven nationalists. Although the play’s subject matter seems poignant in retrospect, the play was widely regarded as a failure at the time.

In 1911, MacDonagh completed an MA at University College Dublin and was appointed as a lecturer in English there. In the same year, he married Muriel Gifford. Together, they had two children: a son, Donagh, born in 1912 and a daughter, Barbara, born in 1915.

MacDonagh joined the Irish Volunteers on their formation in 1913 and became a member of the provisional committee. He took part in the Howth gun-running  operation in 1914, helping to smuggle 900 Mauser rifles into the country. In 1915, he was appointed the commandant of the 2nd Battalion of the Dublin Brigade.  Although MacDonagh initially started out as a constitutionalist, his republican beliefs became stronger over time. He came to believe that Irish freedom would be achieved by what he called ‘zealous martyrs’, hopefully through peace but if necessary by war. In April 1915, he was sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood (the ‘Fenians’), a secret oath-bound organisation dedicated to the establishment of an independent democratic republic in Ireland.

Although he is credited as one of the leaders of the Easter Rising, MacDonagh only joined the secret military council planning the Rising a few weeks before it happened. Nevertheless, he was a signatory of the Proclamation of the Republic, which Pearse read out in front of the General Post Office on O’Connell Street to mark the beginning of the Rising on 24 April 2016. During the Rising, MacDonagh was stationed at Jacob’s Biscuit Factory and saw little of the fighting as the British focused their attacks on the centre of Dublin. MacDonagh was ordered to surrender on the 30 April, even though his battalion was prepared to continue the fight.

MacDonagh was court-martialled and shot on 3 May, the same day as his friend Pearse. On hearing that he would be executed, MacDonagh is said to have stated “I accept your sentence with joy and pride, since it is for Ireland that I am to die.” At his execution, he is rumoured to have turned to the firing squad and offered them cigarettes saying, “I know this is a lousy job, but you’re doing your duty – I do not hold this against you.” He then turned to the officer in charge and offered him his silver cigarette case with the words, “I won’t be needing this – would you like to have it?” The British commented of the executed leaders of the Rising: “They all died well. But MacDonagh, he died like a prince.”

On a Poet Patriot

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 a 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