‘If we do nothing else we shall rid Ireland of three bad poets’

Week V

Poetry more than any other art form is intimately connected with the events of Easter 1916. Three of the executed signatories of the Proclamation, Padraic Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh (Tomás Mac Donnchadha ) and Joseph Mary Plunkett were recognised poets of their day, who had used their poems to espouse the cause of revolutionary nationalism.

The most attractive personality among them was MacDonagh. He had met Pearse when they were both learning Irish on Inish Meann. He liked and admired Pearse believing he had the potential to be ’the greatest of Irish writers in imagination and power, if not in language’.

Having abandoned his initial efforts to become a priest, he spent two years in Paris acquiring a thorough knowledge of French language and its literature. MacDonagh joined Pearse as a resident assistant headmaster at Scoil Éanna, and lectured in English at UCD. He was a modestly successful playwright, published his best know collection of poems, Songs of Myself (1910 ), and edited the loss making Irish Review.

Joseph’s sister, Geraldine (later Geraldine Plunkett Dillon )*, recalled her family’s delight when MacDonagh first came into their lives. ‘He had a pleasant, intelligent face and was always smiling. You had the impression that he was always thinking about what you were saying.’

Joseph, who suffered poor health all his life resulting from a serious bout of glandular tuberculosis, was anxious to learn Irish. The Plunketts, a wealthy family who had extensive property investments, were later to become involved in the Easter Rising and the subsequent Republican movement. They had supported Pearse’s progressive Scoil Éanna and naturally sought an Irish language tutor there.

Despite their contrasting characters, MacDonagh attractive and energetic, while Plunkett was quiet and delicate, the two men became deep friends. Both became passionate about the Irish cultural revival at the time, and both attended the inaugural meeting of the Irish Volunteers, and joined its organising committee.

Yet despite Plunkett’s ill health, which plagued him all his young adult life, he displayed a striking organisational ability that he brought through the ranks of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, dedicated to the coming rebellion. He was sent on a mission to seek arms in Germany, and was one of the main military planners of the Rising.**

Teasing Pearse

Despite the gravity of affairs and the approaching climax of Easter 1916, there is an excitement, romance, and mischievous humour between the men as well. MacDonagh encouraged Plunkett’s interest in poetry, and helped him publish a slim volume of verse The Circle and the Sword (1911 ). Both men found time to woo and marry sisters Muriel and Grace Gifford, more of whom next week.

Last week I referred to the teasing of Pearse by his brother Willie and their friend Desmond Ryan as Pearse laboured over his speech at Ros Muc, which he delivered at O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral. Perhaps Pearse’s serious demeanour asked to be taken down a peg or two. It appears that Pearse actually liked making speeches. MacDonagh used to say, jestingly, that the trouble with Pearse was that he had started a school just to be able to make as many speeches as he liked. MacDonagh ‘charmed and laughed them into intellectual curiosity and disputation’.***

The author Peter Costello, in his The Heart Grown Brutal, says of them: ‘They gave themselves to the great theme of their poetry, the cause of Ireland, and made the Rising not merely a political event, but also a poetic creation.’ In contrast to this assessment of their literary importance, Pearse, in a moment of self-effacement, is reported to have remarked that ’Should the Rising fail, if we do nothing else, we shall rid Ireland of three bad poets.’

A wave goodbye

For four days before the Rising the O’Kelly family offered their home as a safe haven to the Pearse brothers, Padraig and Willie. Weapons and ammunition were hidden there. The brothers came and went. I can imagine that as the build up to the Rising drew close, then all the business and the confusion of the cancellation, the frantic debate among the hard men pushing for the rebellion to go ahead, there was a lot of comings and goings at the O’Kelly household. The women of the house wondering what was going to happen.

Mairéad Ní Cheallagh, a young woman and the sister of the future president Seán T O’Kelly, recalled in a moving passage serving the Pearse brothers what must have been their last home-cooked meal. ‘My mother called me to give me instructions about the breakfast for the Pearses. She said she had prepared a tureen of bacon and eggs which she had left on a trivet in front of the dining-room fire. She had also a tureen of mutton chops. She said they must be very hungry and God knows when they will get a meal again. She must have known more than I did. She went out and I went into the dining-room where the table was set.

‘Shortly afterwards I heard the Pearses come down the stairs. They stood shyly outside the door until I called them in. I informed them that my mother had been worried about their taking so little food and had prepared their breakfast herself. I said I hoped they would enjoy it. I placed the two tureens on the table and they ate every bit of the food on the table including a whole loaf of bread.’

The scholar and author Lucy McDiarmid****, adds that here the men who are about to begin an armed revolution were too shy or too polite the enter the dining-room uninvited. Mairéad’s mother was ‘dumbfounded’ to hear all they had eaten. Mairéad continues: ‘They took their bicycles which were in the hall, wheeled them down the four steps. They mounted the bicycles and turned to wave to me.’

Next week: “They all died well but, MacDonagh died like a prince”.

NOTES: *Geraldine and her husband Tom Dillon, professor of chemistry at NUIG, were both active during the War of Independence. She led a very busy life, was one of the founders of An Taibhdhearc, and after her death her diaries and recollections were published in All in the Blood. (2006 ).

** Plunkett had an operation on his neck glands days before Easter. Still bandaged he managed to take his place beside Pearse and the others in the GPO.

*** Ruth Dudley Edwards: The Seven - The Lives and Legends of the Founding Fathers of the Irish Republic, published by One World, on sale €21.99

****At Home in the Revolution - What Women Said and Did in 1916, By Lucy McDiarmid, published by Royal Irish Academy, on sale €25

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