In the previous blog post I looked at a letter written by Eamon de Valera in May 1916 in Kilmainham after he was sentenced to death for his part in the 1916 Rising. Like the majority of the 93 prisoners who received the death sentence in that month, de Valera’s sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life. In total, 16 men were executed; 14 in Kilmainham in Dublin, Thomas Kent in Cork Military Detention Barracks and Sir Roger Casement in Pentonville Prison in London.
One of the leaders whose sentence was enacted was Thomas MacDonagh. On 2nd May, MacDonagh, Patrick Pearse and Tom Clarke were court martialled and transferred to Kilmainham Gaol, where they were shot on the morning of the 3rd May. This deck of playing cards is said to have been used by MacDonagh in his cell in the hours before his execution, and were given to the uncle of the donor by MacDonagh’s sister, a nun, who visited him in Kilmainham the night before his death. They were gifted to the National Museum in 1947.
Thomas MacDonagh, born in Tipperary, started his career as a teacher, poet and playwright. He met Pearse on the Aran Islands while there to improve his Irish language skills, and in 1908 helped him found St. Enda’s School in Ranelagh, Dublin, becoming a teacher of English and French. Through his membership of the Gaelic League he met Joseph Plunkett, with whom he edited The Irish Review.
He joined the Irish Volunteers at its inception in late 1913, and was permitted to join the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1915. By the time of the rising, he was the commander of the Irish Volunteers Dublin Brigade, a member of the military council and was one of the seven signatories of the Proclamation.
MacDonagh was first in command of the garrison at Jacob’s Biscuit Factory on Bishop’s Street during Easter Week. The area saw relatively little in the way of action, serving mostly to try to cut off British Army troops moving into the city centre from Portobello Barracks, and later supplying provisions and men to support other rebel outposts. The news of the surrender reached them on Sunday, and MacDonagh immediately went to Pearse, who at that point was detained, to confirm the order. On his return, he gave the news to his men; the surrender was official. He also gave them a choice – to surrender with him or make their escape, in the hopes of carrying on the fight for an Irish nation. You can read more about the surrender of the Jacob’s garrison in a previous blog post here.
This deck of playing cards is not quite complete – there are 51 cards of the same set, branded ‘Gallaher’s Gold Bond Mixture’ tobacco, a Joker and Ace of Spades from a second deck, and another Joker from a third, replacing missing cards from the Gallaher’s deck. Two of these have their numbers and suits written on them, both in a different hand. They are well worn, to the extent that the Ace of Clubs symbol has been re-drawn on the card face. While it’s possible that they may have belonged to MacDonagh, it is more probable that they were given to him in the prison, perhaps by a warden, to occupy him in his final hours.
Father Augustine of the Capuchin Order, in his published personal recollections, stated that on the night of the 2nd MacDonagh had wished for his ministrations. He heard the confessions and gave Holy Communion to both he and Pearse, leaving them in prayer between 2 and 3am. He was ordered to leave the prison, and, unable to attend the executions, he returned to the gaol the next morning to retrieve the rosary beads given to MacDonagh the previous night by his sister, the nun Sister M. Francesca. There is no mention of the playing cards, which is perhaps not surprising given that card playing was disapproved of as gambling by the Church, and perhaps seen at the time as unfitting to MacDonagh’s memory.
MacDonagh’s last address to the court martial at his sentencing showed him to be proud to die for the cause of Irish freedom, and his friend James Stephens wrote that a British Officer who was witness to his execution said of him ‘They all died well, but MacDonagh died like a prince’.
In whatever way he spent his last hours, the playing cards bring to mind how it must feel to sit alone and wait for death in such a situation. MacDonagh had married Muriel Gifford in 1912, and together they had a young son, Donagh, and baby daughter, Barbara. Though he was accepting of his death, he must have felt the pain of knowing he was leaving his family without a husband and father.
Like Liam Mellow’s chessman, the cards may have provided some small distraction for him in those hours.