The Seven Signatories of the Proclamation
Thomas MacDonagh, member of the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic and commandant of the 2nd Battalion of the Irish Volunteers
Thomas MacDonagh (1878-1916) was born in Cloughjordan, Co. Tipperary, the son of Joseph MacDonagh and Mary Parker, both of whom were teachers. He was educated at Rockwell College near Cashel, Co. Tipperary, where he spent seven years training for the priesthood.
On leaving Rockwell, MacDonagh worked as a teacher at St Kieran’s College, Kilkenny (1901-3) and at St Colman’s College, Fermoy, Co. Cork (1903-8). During this time he joined the Gaelic League, which ﬁrst introduced him to nationalist ideals. To improve his ﬂuency in Irish he visited the Aran Islands, where he ﬁrst met Patrick Pearse. When Pearse opened St Enda’s in 1908, MacDonagh joined the staﬀ as assistant head teacher. While teaching full-time, MacDonagh also studied part-time at University College, Dublin, graduating as BA in 1910; the following year he gained the degree of MA for his thesis, ‘Thomas Campion and the Art of Poetry’ (published in 1913). Also in 1911, he was appointed lecturer in English at UCD.
Meanwhile, MacDonagh was developing his talents as a poet, his ﬁrst volume, Through the Ivory Gate, being published at his own expense in 1902; it was followed by further volumes including his most accomplished work Lyrical Poems (1913). He also wrote three plays; When The Dawn is Come had an Irish insurrection as its theme; and Pagans contrasted the conventional with the bohemian. In addition, he contributed articles to various journals, including The Nation and The Leader, establishing a reputation for himself in Dublin literary and theatrical circles.
He was also active on other fronts. He was an enthusiastic member of the National Literary Society, and in 1909 he was a founding member of the Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland. He was also a founding member of the literary monthly Irish Review (1911), which he edited jointly for a period. Believing in the need for a theatre devoted to the drama of realism (as an alternative to the romanticism of the Abbey Theatre), in 1914 MacDonagh, Joseph Plunkett and Edward Martyn established the Irish Theatre in Hardwicke Street.
MacDonagh was always politically aware: he was active in the Irish Women’s Franchise League set up in 1911, and he was a member of the Dublin Industrial Peace Committee during the 1913 labour dispute. He joined the Irish Volunteers on their formation in November 1913, becoming a member of the provisional committee and taking part in the Howth gun-running. He also wrote ‘The Marching Song of the Irish Volunteers’. In March 1915 he became commandant of the 2nd Battalion of the Dublin Brigade. At this time he believed that Irish freedom would be achieved by what he called ‘zealous martyrs’, hopefully through peace but if necessary by war. Although a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood from April 1915, he was not co-opted to the Military Council until early April 1916, and so had little part in planning the arrangements for the Rising. He is believed, however, to have contributed to the content of the Proclamation.
As one of the four Dublin battalion commandants, he took an active part in the Rising, being in charge at Jacobs’ biscuit factory in Bishop Street. His two most senior oﬃcers were Major John MacBride and Michael O’Hanrahan, a close personal friend. Mainly because of its location in a densely built-up area providing no easy approach, Jacob’s was not directly assaulted. When Pearse’s surrender order reached the garrison on Sunday, MacDonagh and his men were initially reluctant to comply.
Thomas MacDonagh was tried by court-martial and executed by ﬁring squad in Kilmainham Jail on 3 May. He was survived by his wife Muriel Giﬀord and his children Donagh and Barbara.