“I say with every confidence that Tom Clarke’s person and Sean MacDiarmada’s energy and organising ability were the principle factors in creating a group and guiding events to make the Rising possible.”
— Denis McCullough.
For a period in Irish history, the Irish Revolutionary epoch and the political vacuum afforded to it by the post-Parnell Irish political landscape, is undoubtedly one of the utmost significance to the advancement of Irish Republican ideals.
The Easter Rising is often cited as the most significant event in this period, after the War of Independence, in that it signified a kind of rebirth for Republican commitments. Pearse and Connolly receive much of the credit for the Rising, partly as a consequence of their political and intellectual personae developed independent from the events of Easter Week, making them the most public facing figures of the Rising. It is inevitable, then, that the most popular members of the Rising would come to characterise one’s interpretation of it, but the diligent work of the real architects of the Rising, Thomas Clarke and Seán MacDiarmada.
The romanticisation of the Rising, as is often associated with Pearse and Connolly, is only negative in its ability to obscure one’s historical reason; it can be a powerful motivational force for a nationalist movement to capitalise upon in its rhetoric, but it should not be done without ample consideration of historical facts.
“As a worker [Seán MacDiarmada] was head and shoulders above P.H. Pearse, but not being a writer he is not known to the people of Ireland as he should be.”
— Kathleen Clarke.
The significance of the other signatories of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, Thomas Clarke, Seán MacDiarmada, Éamonn Ceannt, Thomas MacDonagh and Joseph Plunkett have been unfortunately overshadowed by the figures of Pearse and Connolly, despite their instrumental roles in its planning and execution. MacDiarmada is an especially underrated figure in Irish history, of whom little has been written on, despite his individual importance in not just the Rising, but in developing nationalist organisations and networks through the IRB. Notably only two biographies have been published on Seán MacDiarmada in the time since his death.
Throughout his varied experiences in the AOH, Dungannon Clubs, Sinn Féin, IRB and Wolf Tone Clubs, MacDiarmada would be, as his friend Denis McCullough stated, “the common multiple of all [Republican] organisations.”
MacDiarmada’s personal political development may be perceived as an indication of the winds of change blowing across Ireland in the early twentieth century, which spelled the decline of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) tradition, in favour for a militant Republican Idealism, balanced and checked by the pragmatist Sinn Féin. Therefore, MacDiarmada’s shift from his initial beliefs, as a young member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, in IPP parliamentarianism—towards an avowed separatist doctrine provides the reader with a fascinating insight into the renascent Irish Republican movement through the lens of one of its greatest organisers.
MacDiarmada’s Early Political Career
MacDiarmada’s early political career was primarily focused upon his membership of the Dungannon Clubs, and subsequently, the IRB and Sinn Féin. Within these organisations, he would prove himself a dedicated worker and excellent organiser, rapidly ascending the ranks of Republican leadership. Seán’s introduction to Republican organisations was a product of his membership of Denis McCullough’s Dungannon Clubs, and the reformation of the IRB from a glorified drinking club towards a genuine political operation.
McCullough recounts his inauguration into the Irish Republican Brotherhood, as a particularly shameful one, characterised by the decrepit state of the organisation. He was “duly sworn in, at a side door [of a pub], by a large obese man, a tailor, named Ibbotson, evidently a good steady customer of Donnelly’s. I was disappointed and shocked by the whole surroundings of this, to me, very important event, and by the type of men I found controlling the organisation. They were mostly effete and many of them addicted to drink.”
Bulmer Hobson would become acquainted with McCullough through the IRB, from which the two would set about laying the foundations of a new Republican political scene. The pair would go on to found the Dungannon Clubs, in which they intended to increase the intellectual, material and physical wealth of the Republican movement. MacDiarmada would join the Clubs in 1906 whilst working in Belfast, beginning his career of political activism and striking a friendship with McCullough and Hobson.
MacDiarmada’s relationship with Hobson and McCullough was the first major shift in his political thought away from the Hibernian political line towards a kind of anti-parliamentarian radical republicanism, which, under the guidance of Tom Clarke, would become overtly militant.
Throughout his editorship of the nationalist newspaper Irish Freedom MacDiarmada would, in contrast to the Left-Republican socialist of today, swear himself a staunch anti-socialist. MacDiarmada’s political stance was founded on the principles of Irish nationality, and therefore, he believed all contrary political ideals were to be triumphed by those of the nation
“We are sick of the international democrat who has little effect on Ireland except to further anglicise the country and make her dependent on England, the man who wants Irish social and democratic movements to amalgamate or affiliate with English movements and become so many tails wagged by English committees. When democratic movements in Ireland recognise that they must be national-and if it is a case of conflicting interests, more national than democratic-the democratic idea will fire the imagination of Ireland and Ireland may lead the world in founding a genuine democratic Republic.”
— Seán MacDiarmada.
MacDiarmada’s anti-socialism arose from his nationalist belief in class unity, as in labour disputes “…Ireland loses far more than either party to the dispute can possibly gain. Owing to our abnormal condition, political and economic, every interference with the smooth working of Irish industry gives another slice of our already half-ruined trade to England.”
Such was MacDiarmada’s distaste for socialism that, in addition to his cautionary nature, he was particularly weary regarding the motives of James Connolly and James Larkin, remarking that the latter “…is a danger nationally. Larkin is not a nationalist: he talks nationalism but only insofar as he thinks it is likely to help along his socialist programme.”
The 1908 Aonach na Nollag event held by Sinn Féin in the Rotunda marketplace was one of the Republican movement’s early financial successes, and was largely a product of MacDiarmada’s efforts, demonstrating the value of his planning skills. The Sinn Féin initiative to set up Christmas market stalls in the Rotunda was an endeavour which would serve to be a greater success than had been expected. Throughout Aonach na Nollag, Sinn Féin provided allotments for market stalls to sell their wares to customers under the policy of supporting native Irish industry, thereby buttressing their political stance on developing Ireland’s industrial capabilities.
“With the outstanding success of Aonach na Nollag, MacDiarmada’s organising abilities were acknowledged by those at the forefront of republicanism. Sinn Féin described the event as ‘successful beyond expectation’ with over seven thousand people visiting what, in its opinion, was ‘one of the best practical advertisements for Irish goods that has yet been devised.’”
— Gerard MacAtasney, Seán MacDiarmada: The Mind of the Revolution.
Radicalisation & Militant Republicanism
“The Sinn Féin movement was not militant, but the militant movement existed within it, and by its side. It had for its advocates the two mightiest figures that have appeared in the whole present movement—Tom Clarke and Sean MacDermott. The two movements worked in perfect harmony.”
— Michael Collins, The Path to Freedom.
Throughout Seán MacDiarmada’s political career, no personage would have greater influence on his development than the veteran Fenians Thomas Clarke and John Daly, with whom he would maintain a close political and personal allegiance.
With Clarke’s return from America in December of 1907, he would instil within MacDiarmada a revolutionary spirit unlike his prior adherence to Sinn Fein’s policy of parliamentary agitation, he was now committed to a military uprising. Kaltheen Clarke writes further about MacDiarmada, who whilst involved in campaigning for a Sinn Féin candidate in the Leitrim 1908 by-election, regaled Tom Clarke with stories of the campaigns political antics. Clarke would quickly voice his admonition, speaking sincerely to MacDiarmada: “Seán, I would rather lose an election than resort to tricks to win it. Our cause is too sacred to be sullied with electioneering tricks. No matter who else may indulge in them, we should not, nor should be participate in an election to the British Parliament.” Clarke’s reproach would change MacDiarmada’s outlook so profoundly, that he became resolutely in favour of a military insurrection immediately after this exchange.
Kathleen Clarke, the niece of John Daly and Thomas Clarke’s wife would later write on the strength of MacDiarmada’s relationship to the Clarke family, in which he confessed, that by losing his mother at the young age of nine: “I have never known a mother’s love and I have always longed for it. I have tried to picture what my mother would have been like. You fit that picture. When I see you with your children and the loving care you give them, I ache with the thought of never having known my mother. I missed all you give your children.”
Clarke’s influence on the youth of the Republican movement would be recounted by Denis McCullough, writing that it was Clarke’s reputation which “enabled the younger men, Seán MacDiarmada, Bulmer Hobson, Diarmuid Lynch, P. S. O’Hegarty, etc, to move forward with his backing in organising, preaching and teaching the value and necessity of a physical force movement. It protected them from the usual charges of youthful over enthusiasm and of insincerity.”
MacDiarmada’s networking efforts then became a simultaneous IRB and Sinn Féin recruitment endeavour. He kept in close contact with Republican leaders, to the extent that he rarely slept, often attending several meetings each day, MacDiarmada dedicated his life to the political organisation behind the Rising. From this stage of his life onwards, MacDiarmada would dedicate his life to republican activism, using his position within other Republican organisations to begin IRB recruitment through involvement in other political and cultural groups, ranging from sporting associations like the G.A.A., to the language movement of the Gaelic League.
In 1910, MacDiarmada would suffer a crippling experience with the disease polio, leaving one leg permanently lame, and subjecting him to neuralgia. MacDiarmada’s associates noted his melancholy at having been crippled at such a young age, yet it was acknowledged that shortly “after his recuperation he manifested a renewed vigour and, if anything, was more determined to make a significant contribution to the efforts for national independence.”
MacDiarmada was a central figure to all Republican intrigue, at times even the instigator despite his staunch secrecy, which would motivate him to restrict the flow of information on republican activities, only telling people the little they needed to know about any given subject. By 1912, Clarke and MacDiarmada had ousted the incumbent conservative leadership within the IRB and duly replaced it with militant Republicans, thereby claiming the organisation for themselves, as they would later, between themselves and Denis McCullough, occupy all three leadership positions within the organisation, allowing them under the IRB’s constitution complete control over the organisation.
McCullough’s nomination to the position of Chairman was at the suggestion of Clarke and MacDiarmada, who did so knowing their ability to influence McCullough to their way of thinking, when McCullough briefly suggested Pearse taking on the position of IRB Chairman, he was reprimanded by MacDiarmada under the basis that Pearse, owing to his eccentricities, would be impossible to control.
The Ulster Volunteer Force was the catalyst to the establishment of the Irish Volunteers, though militancy was already a Republican talking-point at this time, they had not yet acted on their policies. By 1913 the nationalist movement had been explicit in its intent organising the Rising, though the splitting of the Volunteers as a result of an IPP ultimatum to effectively commandeer the organisation.
Prior to this event the Irish Volunteers had essentially been a front-operation for the IRB, with Bulmer Hobson even wishing to more closely align the organisations by becoming its Secretary, though this would prove unpopular, causing a rift between Clarke, MacDiarmada and himself. Clarke and MacDiarmada, who had been already furious with Hobson’s breach of IRB secrecy in his public association with the Volunteers, were now openly disdainful towards him. Clarke had idealised Hobson and was subsequently particularly devastated by his personal perception of Hobson’s betrayal of the Republican cause.
Though Clarke and MacDiarmada’s secrecy was of undeniable benefit to the Rising, preventing British Intelligence assets or police from getting wind of the project until the last moment, they were highly suspicious of even the most sincere allies like Roger Casement, whom Clarke believed to be a British spy.
Despite the loss of manpower it caused, the splitting of the Irish Volunteers was ultimately for the better, the IRB now had a far more reliable estimate of men who would be counted on for a Rising, in addition to sudden large financial backings to the organisation, coming from America amounting to $136,000 by the 14th of August 1915.
In 1915, MacDiarmada would be charged under the Defence of the Realms Act for giving a seditious speech and receive a fourth month’s prison sentence. Regardless of his physical condition, MacDiarmada would maintain his assertion of good health while in prison, a testament to his resolute character. For MacDiarmada, his first prison sentence, whilst it was a short one, was a transformative experience in which he had the time to reflect upon his life thus far.
MacDiarmada had dedicated not just his career to Republicanism, but his entire adult life, to the extent that until this four month prison sentence, he hadn’t time to sufficiently sleep nor self-reflect upon it. MacDiarmada would write to his siblings from jail regarding the bliss of his respite: “In prison everything depends on the state of one’s mind. My mind is at ease, my conscience is happy. I have many examples to sustain me. I hear voices from the grave bidding me go on and clear above them all I can distinguish those of my poor father and mother bidding me lots of good cheer, that they understand me… I have only to say that I never felt happier in my life.”
After his time was served, in November of 1915 MacDiarmada would go on to give a series of speeches in Cork and Dublin applauded by onlookers as rivalling those of the Parnellite era. MacDiarmada himself expressing surprise at the success of a Dublin rally, writing in a letter to Min Ryan: “If you try to imagine a dense mass of people packed together in O’Connell St. from the Parnell Monument to the Nelson Pillar it will give you some idea of the crowd but the enthusiasm of the people or rather their earnestness was what impressed me most. I think it was the finest meeting I have ever seen; certainly it was the best I ever had to do with. We spoke very well I think. There is no doubting the feeling of the people–the country is with us”
The Rising & Execution
“As noted in the introduction, the Rising has become synonymous with the personae of Patrick Pearse and James Connolly, yet to those who were intimately involved in events at that time there was little doubt as to where the inspiration for a Rising lay. Kathleen Clarke maintained that both her husband Tom and MacDiarmada were the instigators of the struggle over a period of years. In fact she regarded Pearse as being ‘only a later addition who claimed all the honours for the good of his company.’”
— Gerard MacAtasney, Seán MacDiarmada: The Mind of the Revolution.
Notably both Clarke and MacDiarmada expressed extreme joy at the outset of the Rising, as the two had at that time achieved their life’s goals of a military insurrection in the name of Irish freedom. During the Rising, they would both be dressed as civilians and not engage in combat as a result of their physical conditions, Clarke’s age and McDermott’s disability. Despite their statuses as non-combatants, the pair would take exclusive control over army command, directing the course of the Rising from the GPO.
“Although both Clarke and MacDermott were in civilian clothing their increasingly open authority was accepted without question by the garrison. Those Volunteers who were members of the IRB knew the importance of the pair, an importance now publicly proclaimed by their membership of the Provisional Government and the respect and deference displayed to them in the GPO by Pearse, Connolly and Plunkett.”
–Brian Barton and Michael Foy, The Easter Rising.
Indeed, even in Collins’ Path to Freedom, one may note the authors several references to Tom Clarke and Seán MacDermott, but not once are the figures of Pearse and Connolly mentioned. To those actively involved in the Republican movement, MacDiarmada and Clarke were the true architects of the Rising.
“The Fenian idea left a torch behind it with which Tom Clarke and Seán MacDermott kindled the fires of Easter Week, and, though seemingly quenched, these were soon blazing brightly again at Solohead, at Clonfin, at Macroom, at Dublin, at many a place in Clare, in Mayo, and Monaghan, and Donegal during the recent struggle.”
— Michael Collins, The Path to Freedom.
MacDiarmada was an excellent orator, likely a skill cultivated throughout his involvement in the Dungannon Clubs, which were by no means a small organisation, at its peak having given speeches to a rally of 2,000 members in the streets of Belfast.
These oratory skills were put to the test after a thoroughly demoralising experience during the volunteers flee from the GPO, in which a young girl was accidentally shot dead by a member of the volunteers, out of in anticipation that she was instead a British soldier, following which the Volunteers would later, escaping onto Moore Street, find the corpse of The O’Rahilly, amongst their deceased comrades. The mood amongst the volunteers was akin to a mutiny which Clarke, Collins and Plunkett could not contain. It is here, when MacDiarmada soothed the crowd, as told by a Volunteer and included in full extract:
“Sean MacDermott was the mind of the revolution. And if those others of our remarkable leaders were its body and soul, he showed us often that he was its head. He limped forward briskly, leaning on that light cane, taking great care to call us all together into one group. The recalcitrants had divided repeatedly into several arguing sections. MacDermott released his astonishing wide smile, cobalt blue eyes shining into every face. ‘Now, what exactly is it”, said he, leaning easy on his cane like any civil servant in his still entirely civilian suit ‘that you all want to do?’ There was a silence. And then he was assailed with all of the arguments. He listened, very, very carefully, with a sort of charmed concentration. When everyone had finished, there was another short silence. And then he began to speak, very quietly with enormous concentration. And total confidence. His was the most powerful personality I’d ever encountered. I don’t know if he was a Marxist – he was, as many of us knew, Tom Clarke’s protégé– but it was the sheer scale of his persona that mattered. Politics at its best is the art of knowing women and men. I was told much later, and could believe it, that most women loved him. It was his eyes that did everything. Yet the words were simple enough. He suggested that we take a long look at the dead civilians lying in the street outside our windows. He asked us to imagine how many more of them would be lying there if we fought on. He also stressed that the civilians nearest us were all very poor and would be butchered with us. He said that the rest of ‘this beautiful city’ would be razed. ‘You’ve all seen what happened to the Post Office!’ He told us that the worst that would happen to the Irish Volunteers from England would be a ‘few years’ in jail. He said we’d ‘fought a gallant fight’ and we’d only lose now by fighting further. He told us that our only remaining duty now was to survive. He used the word ‘survive’, I remember, several times: ‘The thing that you must do, all of you is to survive!’ He ended by insisting quietly, and still smiling at that, ‘We, who will be shot, will die happy – knowing that there are still plenty of you around who will finish the job.’ I had heard quite a number of speeches during that week, and the earlier ones were impressive, but that quiet speech was the most potent that I was privileged to hear.”
– Joe Good, Enchanted by Dreams, The Journal of a Revolutionary.
At MacDiarmada court martial, his policy of staunch secrecy on organisational matters would come to be justified, as much of the evidence provided against him was determined to have been sourced from informants and surveillance operations. It is likely that without MacDiarmada’s tight-lipped policy, controlling the flow of information throughout Republican circles, there may have not been a Rising.
MacDiarmada was completely committed to his cause, and demonstrated an acknowledgement that he would have to be executed for signing the 1916 Proclamation, though this did not dissuade a kind of hope amongst republican circles that his execution may be spared as a consequence of British parliamentary squabbling and its condemnations of the harsh military crackdown.
In fact, MacDiarmada almost escaped his fate on two occasions, the first before his court martial immediately following the Rising, in which he was, like Michael Collins, assigned to a group to be imprisoned in England, but, he was recognised by a member of DMP’s G Division, Daniel Hoey. The Second occasion was his delayed execution, which parliamentary pressure suggested that Prime Minister Asquith may order a concession on the part of any future executions.
It is even possible that the executions of MacDiarmada and Connolly were to be prevented on Asquith’s order, as one young soldier recounted of the day of their executions that “he was told that Mr. Asquith, the English prime minister, was in John McDermott’s cell and it was likely that no one would be shot that morning. But after a while a number of officers came out of the governor’s office and among them was an old gentleman whom he was told was Mr. Asquith.”
The day of Asquith’s visit, James Connolly and Seán MacDiarmada were to be executed regardless, undoubtedly as a consequence of their leadership in the Rising, and their signature of the Proclamation.
“Various attempts have been made to over the years to depict what transpired and legends have grown as to what may have happened. For example, some illustrations show MacDiarmada tearing a blindfold off his face in front of the firing squad before being shot.”
— Gerard MacAtasney, Seán MacDiarmada: The Mind of the Revolution.
“Sean MacDermott tramping through Ireland and preaching the Fenian gospel of a freedom which must be fought for, enrolled recruits and, by his pure patriotism and lovable unselfish character, inspired all with whom he came in contact to emulate him to be worthy of his teaching.”
— Michael Collins, The Path to Freedom.
MacDiarmada, despite his physical ailments preventing him from partaking in the fight, was one of its chief instigators. The capture of the Aud was one of many hindrances to the Rising, with the loss of German equipment, the volunteers were on their own. Till this point, MacDiarmada believed the volunteers could succeed in a Rising, and subsequently appears to have adopted Pearse’s blood sacrifice narrative during the acts of the Rising itself, though he was aware of such a concept years prior.
The swift adoption of the blood sacrifice perception of 1916 by Seán MacDiarmada was likely a consequence of his deep respect for the 1803 leader, Robert Emmet, instilling within MacDiarmada with a belief that Emmet did not die in vain.
The historian, Gerard MacAtasney notes that, “[a]t the same event two years later MacDiarmada again stressed the importance of Emmet in that he had bequeathed ‘a national legacy of self-sacrifice which would be an inspiration to Irishmen’ and it was more important that ‘Emmet should have made the attempt and failed than that he should not have attempted it at all.’”
It is noted that MacDiarmada, among other leaders of the Rising, shared an idealised image of Robert Emmet, holding the staunch belief that “Emmet’s plot was no foolish and ill-considered futility but a wholly admirable and well-laid plan promising every hope of success.” Such a trend raises the question: to what extent were the leaders of 1916 inspired by Robert Emmet’s 1803 Rebellion and a desire to posthumously fulfil his ideals?
The status of national martyrdom afforded to the Rising’s leaders compels Irishmen to pursue a greater understanding of all individuals who contributed to the cause of Irish freedom, and especially those who gave their lives for it. Seán MacDiarmada is one of many Irish nationalists whose names are not associated with the recognition and respect that they deserve.
“I have been sentenced to a soldier’s death, to be shot to-morrow morning. I have nothing to say about this only that I look on it as a part of the day’s work. We die that the Irish nation may live, our blood will re-baptise and reinvigorate the old land. Knowing this, it is superfluous to say how happy I feel. I know now, what I have always felt, that the Irish nation can never die. Let our present-day place-hunters condemn our action as they will, posterity will judge us aright from the effects of our actions.”
— Seán MacDiarmada.