‘They all died well, but MacDonagh died like a prince.’

Week VII

Padraic Pearse, the self-identified President of the Provisional Government, and Commandant-General of the Army of the Irish Republic was rushed to the gallows, or in this case to the grim stonebreakers yard at Kilmainham jail.

In the chaos that followed the Rising during which 450 people were killed and more than 2,500 wounded, around 3,500 had been arrested, 79 of whom were women.* The signatories of the Proclamation, and the leaders of the various rebel held garrisons around the city, were either already separated out, or quickly pointed out among the crowd.

Pearse was tried at Richmond Barracks on May 2. He claimed responsibility for the Rising; admitted treason by acknowledging the request or foreign aid, but claimed a dedication since childhood to free Ireland. He told the court that ‘You cannot extinquish the Irish passion for freedom. If our deed has not been sufficent to win freedom, then our children will win it by a better deed.’

His bearing and words won the admiration from presiding officer Brigadier- General Blackadder. Nevertheless the sentence was death. Pearse was immediately moved to Kilmainham, and shot at 3.30am the following morning, May 3. But in the intervening hours Pearse was consumed by a frenzy of creativity. He wrote instructions about his literary and complicated financial affairs , and his regret that he would be unable to pay his many friends and creditors the money owed to them.

He wrote three poems, two ‘to the two people he had loved inarticulately but devotedly all his life.’** He thanked his mother for her great love for him, and for her great faith;

‘Lord, thou art hard on mothers.’

To his devoted brother Willie (unaware that he would follow him to the stonebreaker’s yard the following day ), he included the lines:

‘Of all the men that I have known on earth

You only have been my familiar friend

Nor needed I another.’

He wrote, perhaps his most familiar poem, The Wayfarer, which every Irish schoolchild knows begins:

‘The beauty of this world hath made me sad

This beauty that will pass’

He said that he would call to all his family at the last moment.

‘Couldn’t talk at all’

There was a bizarre drama surrounding Joseph Plunkett’s execution the following night, May 4. I wrote last week that the two close friends Plunkett and Thomas MacDonagh found time in all the excitement of the build up to the Rising, to seek their sweethearts and eventually marry Muriel and Grace Gifford, two sisters from a large Protestant and well-to-do legal family in Palmerston Park, who did not appreciate the religion nor the politics of the two young men.

Grace, a talented cartoonist, who developed strong Republican views, was, according to her mother, ‘A very head strong and self-willed girl’, converted to Catholicism. Her mother blamed Constance Markievicz for leading her girls astray.

Grace and Joseph had agreed to marry on Easter Sunday 1916, but the Rising quickly shattered those plans. Instead, with only hours before his death, Grace managed to get permission to marry Joseph in his Kilmainham prison cell.

Only British soldiers were witnesses. The couple were immediately separated; but surprisingly Grace got permission at 2am for another visit. They were allowed 10 minutes alone.

Grace later remarked “We, who never had enough time to say what we wanted to each other, found that in that last 10 minutes we couldn’t talk at all.”

Despite her great efforts, probably motivated by her pregnancy, and to bring some comfort to Joseph, Grace does not get much credit. The Plunkett family was appalled at the marriage. But what could it do?***

Grace was allowed to move into the Plunkett house at Larkfield, where according to her sister-in-law, Geraldine Plunkett Dillion, she suffered a miscarriage. Grace was refused access to her late husband’s estate, and had to go to law to win her rights.

Geraldine described her as a “loner and often very difficult.”

‘A lousy job’

The marriage between Thomas MacDonagh and Muriel Gifford was the very opposite. Muriel also infuriated her family by becoming Catholic. She and Thomas were married in January 1912. They enjoyed four years of very happy marriage. They had one son, later the author and barrister Donagh MacDonagh, and a daughter Barbara MacDonagh Redmond.

Muriel had tried to see her husband on the evening before his execution but was turned back at a road block. He was visited by his sister Mary and a family friend Father Aloysius OFM Cap. Thomas accepted a rosary beads to take to his execution. He fretted about leaving his wife and children, and worried that they would not have enough money to survive. He hoped that his book Literature in Ireland, would bring them some financial security. He sent messages and blessings to his children whom he had ‘loved more than ever a child has been loved’. He thanked Muriel, his dearest love, ‘for all you have done for me...Goodbye, my love, till we meet again in heaven.’

Stepping into the stonebreaker’s yard, he was affected by the youth of some of the 12 man firing squad, and their nervousness. He gave them cigarettes, and handed the officer in charge his silver case: ‘I won’t be needing this, would you like to have it?’

He was then reported to have said ‘I know this is a lousy job, but you’re doing your duty - I do not hold this against you.’

A British officer was reported to have said afterwards: ‘They all died well, but MacDonagh died like a prince’.****

Next week: Happier days in Ros Muc, and Pearse’s unpaid bills!

NOTES: * Among the dead were 116 soldiers, 16 policemen, and 242 civilians including some 40 children. Seventy-six rebels died, of whom 15 were executed between May 3 and May 12. Roger Casement was hanged in London in August.

**I am leaning heavily on Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven - The Lives and legacies of the Founding Fathers of the Irish Republic, published by One World, on sale €21.99; and an essay by Frances Clarke in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, for all the quotes above.

***The Plunketts were totally preoccupied by the Rising. Count and Countess Plunkett, mum and dad, were in prison for Republican activity. Their son Joseph was executed. Their daughter Philomena served as a courier between the IRB military council and supporters in America, and afterwards became secretary of Cumann na mBan. Sons George and John fought in the GPO and were also sentenced to death (later commuted ). Geraldine and her husband Tom Dillon were married on Easter Sunday, and saw the initial fighting at the GPO from their hotel window. They later became active in the War of Independence in Galway.

The last daughter Moya, became a nun.

****Poor Muriel was emotionally devastated by her husband’s death. She drowned while swimming off Skerries, Co Dublin, July 9 1917.


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