Thomas MacDonagh (Tomás Mac Donnchadha) (1 February 1878 – 3 May 1916) was an Irish nationalist, poet, playwright, and a leader of the 1916 Easter Rising.
MacDonagh was born in Cloughjordan, County Tipperary. Throughout his life he had a keen interest in Irish heritage and the Irish language. He moved to Dublin where he joined the Gaelic League, soon establishing strong friendships with such men as Eoin MacNeill and Patrick Pearse.
His friendship with Pearse and his love of Irish led him to join the staff of Pearse’s bilingual St. Enda’s School upon its establishment in 1908, taking the role of teacher and Assistant Headmaster. He also founded the teachers’ trade union ASTI (Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland). Though MacDonagh was essential to the school’s early success, he soon moved on to take the position of lecturer in English at the National University. MacDonagh remained devoted to the Irish language, and in 1910 he became tutor to a younger member of the Gaelic League, Joseph Plunkett. The two were both poets with an interest in the Irish Theatre, and formed a lifelong friendship.
In January 1912 he married Muriel Gifford, a Protestant who converted to Catholicism; their son, Donagh, was born that November, and their daughter, Barbara, in March 1915.
In 1913 both MacDonagh and Plunkett attended the inaugural meeting of the Irish Volunteers and were placed on its Provisional Committee. He was later appointed commandant of Dublin’s 2nd battalion, and eventually made commandant of the entire Dublin Brigade. Though originally more of a constitutionalist, through his dealings with men such as Pearse, Plunkett, and Sean MacDermott, MacDonagh developed stronger republican beliefs, joining the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), probably during the summer of 1915. Around this time Tom Clarke asked him to plan the grandiose funeral of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, which was a resounding propaganda success, largely due to the graveside oration delivered by Pearse.
The Easter Rising:
Though credited as one of the Easter Rising’s seven leaders, MacDonagh was a late addition to that group. He didn’t join the secret Military Council that planned the rising until April 1916, weeks before the rising took place. The reason for his admittance at such a late date is uncertain. Still a relative newcomer to the IRB, men such as Clarke may have been hesitant to elevate him to such a high position too soon, which raises the question as to why he should be admitted at all. His close ties to Pearse and Plunkett may have been the cause, as well as his position as commandant of the Dublin Brigade (though his position as such would later be superseded by James Connolly as commandant-general of the Dublin division). Nevertheless, MacDonagh was a signatory of the Proclamation of the Republic.
During the rising, MacDonagh’s battalion was stationed at the massive complex of Jacob’s Biscuit Factory. On the way to this destination the battalion encountered the veteran Fenian, John MacBride, who on the spot joined the battalion as second-in-command, and in fact took over part of the command throughout Easter Week, although he had had no prior knowledge and was in the area by accident. MacDonagh’s original second in command was Michael O’Hanrahan.
As it was, despite MacDonagh’s rank and the fact that he commanded one of the strongest battalions, they saw little fighting, as the British Army avoided the factory as they established positions in central Dublin. MacDonagh received the order to surrender on April 30, though his entire battalion was fully prepared to continue the engagement. Following the surrender, MacDonagh was court martialled, and executed by firing squad on 3 May 1916, aged thirty-eight.
His widow died of heart failure while swimming in Skerries, Co Dublin on July 9, 1917; his son Donagh MacDonagh became a prominent poet, playwright, songwriter and judge. He died in 1968.
Reputation and Legacy:
MacDonagh was generally credited with being one of the most gregarious and personable of the rising’s leaders. Geraldine Plunkett Dillon, a sister of Joseph Plunkett gives a contemporary description of him in her book All in the Blood:
“As soon as Tomás came into our house everyone was a friend of his. He had a pleasant, intelligent face and was always smiling, and you had the impression that he was always thinking about what you were saying.”
In Mary Colum’s Life and the Dream, she writes of hearing about the Rising from America, where she was living with her husband, Pádraic Colum, remembering Tomás MacDonagh saying to her:
“This country will be one entire slum unless we get into action, in spite of our literary movements and Gaelic Leagues it is going down and down. There is no life or heart left in the country.”
Thomas MacDonagh Tower in Ballymun, Dublin, which was built in the 1960s and demolished in June 2005, was named after him.
His works include:
April and May
When the Dawn is Come
Songs of Myself
Thomas Campion and the Art of English Poetry
Literature in Ireland (published posthumously)