Member of the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic
and commandant of the 2nd Battalion of the Irish Volunteer in 1916
Thomas MacDonagh is best known as one of the leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916 and signatory of the Proclamation of the Provisional Government, one of the most significant events in Irish history. The people of Cloughjordan are honoured to count him as a native son. They read with pride the many references he has made, through his poetry, to the places and events of his childhood, happily spent in Cloughjordan. His parents, Joseph MacDonagh (native of Rooskey, Co Roscommon) and Mary Louise Parker (Dublin) came in 1877 as the first teachers to the newly opened catholic school. They arrived with their daughters, Mary and Eleanor, from Cloghan, Co. Offaly.
Thomas was born on the 1st of February 1878 in Cloughjordan. His brothers John, Joseph and Jim were born in Cloughjordan. Residents of that time recalled with affection this talented and well loved family. Their mother gave piano lessons to local children after school. They recalled the MacDonagh children as ‘high-spirited’, playing games with them and roaming the fields and surrounding countryside. Thomas made many references to the local places of his youth in his poems;
‘I wish I were today on the hill behind the wood-
My eyes on the brown bog there and the Shannon river-
Behind the wood at home,’
Thomas grew up in a happy home in the town where doors were always open to neighbours. The talk at that time was of the Land League and Parnell. His writings and poetry reflected the impressions of his happy childhood;
‘I’ve found wise books but never such
As could teach me a single word
To set by what my childhood heard’.
When Thomas was 16 years old his father died and he was aware of his mother’s struggle to rear and educate the family. He returned frequently to his home in Cloughjordan until her death in 1908.
“From the rich land of Tipperary he learned security and from the witty soft spoken people he learned his gaiety”
wrote Donagh MacDonagh, his son.
Thomas was sent to Rockwell College in 1894 where he matriculated two years later. He intended joining the Order of the Holy Ghost Congregation and so remained in their college at Rockwell as a trainee teacher. Finding that he did not have a vocation he accepted a post, teaching English and French, at St. Kieran’s College, Kilkenny. While in Kilkenny he became deeply involved in theGaelic League. At this time he published a collection of poetry Through the Ivory Gate. Amongst the poems was Knocknacree, referring to the happy memory of these woodlands he frequented his youth.
From 1901 to 1906 he taught in St. Colman’s College in Fermoy, Co. Cork. During that period he co-founded the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland. He was vice-president of local branch of the Gaelic League. He also published two books of poetry; April and May in 1903 and The Golden Joy in 1905.
Appointed assistant headmaster at Scoil Eanna, Oakley Road, Ranelagh, his association with Padraic Pearse began. His “zeal for his subject and his breezy manner” captivated the minds of his students.
In 1910, his best known poem ’John, John’, appeared in a new collection of poetry, Songs of Myself. By this time he had met W.B. Yeats, who began advising him on how to develop his talent. He had also come in contact withArthur Griffith, founder of Sinn Féin, pacifist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington,Pádraic Colum, George Russell and James Stephens.
He spent a while in Paris before returning to his studies and in 1911 he was awarded an MA degree, with 1st class honours, from University College Dublin. His study of Poetry and English Literature led to his appointment as assistant lecturer in English at the college. His scholarly work Thomas Campion and theArt of English Poetry was published
He married Muriel Gifford the following year. Muriel was from Dublin. Her sister, Grace, later married Joseph Mary Plunkett, (a private pupil of Thomas), who was also to become a signatory of the Proclamation. Thomas and Muriel had a daughter, Barbara and a son, Donagh. These were happy, busy years filled with family and scholarship.
Lyrical Poems was published in 1913, described by Thomas as containing “all that I wish to preserve of my previous work”. Reminiscences of Cloughjordan inspired two poems in particular; The Man Upright and The Night Hunt.
In 1913 the Irish Volunteers were formed and Thomas MacDonagh was appointed a member of the Central Committee. He was given command of the Second Dublin Battalion. He co-organised the Volunteers’ march to Howth, in July 1914, to receive the guns landed by Erskine Childers aboard the yacht, ’Asgard ‘. After the outbreak of World War I the volunteers split over the issue ofjoining the British Army to fight in the war. While John Redmond supported this issue, MacDonagh sided with Eoin MacNeill in opposing it. The Nenagh Guardian reported on a public meeting in Cloughjordan at which he spoke his views. Soon after that MacDonagh was appointed to the General Council of the Volunteers and became Director of Training. In July 1915 he was chief organiser for the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa.
The following September he was stage-directing in conjunction with Edward Martyn and Joseph Mary Plunkett. His play Pagans was staged in the Hardwicke Street Theatre in 1915. He continued his work on Literature in Ireland, his classic work of literary criticism, which forms a study of the relationship between language and history, and in which he argues the case of the separate identity of Anglo-Irish literature. This was published in January 1916, just a few months before the Easter Rising.
In the Easter Rising, which began on Monday the 24th of April, 1916, Thomas MacDonagh, with the rank of commandant, was in command of Jacob’s Biscuit Factory in Bishops Street. His unit, which included his brother Jack, was not subject to any full scale attack. When Pearse and Connolly surrendered on April 26th, MacDonagh was then in supreme command of the insurgents still in action. He surrendered, however, on the following day, Sunday April 27th.
Thomas was imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol, where, under court martial he was sentenced to death. He was executed with Clarke and Pearse on May 3rd 1916, in the yard of Kilmainham Gaol. He was one of the sixteen leaders of the Rising who were executed. His son Donagh was three and-a-half years old and his daughter, Barbara, only a year. His last letters to Muriel are now in the museum of Kilmainham Gaol. Thomas’s widow lived for a while in Thurles with Thomas’s brother Joe. Muriel prepared her husband’s The Poetical Worksfor publication in September 1916. The following year she died tragically, suffering a heart attack while swimming. Francis Ledwidge composed a much quoted elegy to MacDonagh, He shall not hear the bittern cry, on hearing of his execution. Ledwidge was killed in action in World War I, that same year, 1917.
He shall not hear the bittern cry
in the wild sky, where he is lain,
Nor voices of the sweeter birds
Above the wailing of the rain
Nor shall he know when the loud March blows
Thro’ slanting snows her fanfare shrill,
Blowing to flame the golden cup
Of many an upset daffodil
– From Lament for Thomas MacDonagh by Francis Ledwidge
Thomas’s brother Joe continued to be politically active and canvassed on behalf of Eamon de Valera in the historic by-election in Clare in 1917. Joe was elected Sinn Féin MP for North Tipperary in 1918. He died, while on hunger strike during the Civil War, on Christmas Day, 1922.
The intimate MacDonagh connection with Cloughjordan has been strongly fostered over the years and Thomas’s grandchildren, great-grandchildren and descendants of his siblings still maintain contact with the village and its people. Thomas’s parents are buried in the old graveyard at Grawn, on the outskirts of Cloughjordan. A commemorative headstone was erected to the memory of Joseph and Mary MacDonagh in 1993 by the local ICA Guild.
To mark the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising, a library building was erected in the former playground of the old school, where Joseph and Mary MacDonagh had taught. This was officially opened and dedicated to the memory of Thomas MacDonagh. His daughter, Barbara, married to Liam Redmond, actor and film maker, performed the unveiling ceremony. The library contains a selection of MacDonagh’s books and those of his son, Donagh. In front of the building a rose was planted and a plaque inscribed with the wish expressed in Thomas’s 1902 poem, Singer’s Grave;
If in my life I shall have sung or done something,
For which mankind may praise me when I’m gone,
Then bring a rose-tree to my grave, and plant it in the Spring.
The GAA Park in Cloughjordan also commemorates its famous native son by being named in his honour, and the parish GAA Club bears the name Kilruane MacDonaghs. The MacDonagh family have erected a plaque on the wall of the old school building where his parents were teachers and where he and his siblings had their early schooling.
Cloughjordan continues to remember Thomas MacDonagh actively. In 2009 the first annual “Cloughjordan Honours MacDonagh” event was held on the May weekend to celebrate his life and work. At the event, attended by members of his family, it was announced that a heritage centre would be developed in the town in the name of MacDonagh. A house, lived in by the MacDonagh family, had been acquired and would be renovated as part of the development. A fund was established and a generous donation was made by local Councillor Jim Casey to enable work to be started quickly.
The MacDonagh Heritage and Cultural Centre will house a MacDonagh museum and a genealogical centre with facilities for visitors and meeting areas for special events.
To donate to the centre and for further information