Categories
1916 Rising

Waiting for Execution, Playing Cards, Thomas MacDonagh, May 1916

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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Categories
1916 Rising

Irish Volunteer Tunic, The Surrender at Jacob’s Factory, 1916 Rising

 

 

 

During the week of the Easter Rising the site of Jacob’s Biscuit Factory on Bishop Street was occupied by up to 150 Irish Volunteers, Fianna Éireann and Cumann na mBan, led by Thomas MacDonagh, John McBride and Michael O’Hanrahan.

It was surrendered on Sunday 30 April, when one of the Volunteers left this tunic behind.  It was donated to the National Museum in 1917.

 

 

 

 

The Jacob’s complex, where the National Archives and DIT Aungier Street now stands, took up a large area between Bishop Street and Peter Street, and was closely surrounded by mostly tenement housing. It was positioned between Portobello Barracks and the city centre and its tall towers made it ideal for sniping – it was therefore a good position to try to cut off military reinforcements travelling to the centre of action. 

 

 

The main body of Volunteers took the Factory at mid-day on Monday 24th April, and set up outposts in Fumbally Lane, Camden Street, Wexford Street and Aungier Street. The factory was located in the Liberties and Blackpitts area which was quite pro-British, with many families connected to the British Army. The local community, including the ‘separation women’ (the dependents of Irish men in the British Army), was at first hostile to the Volunteers and were verbally abusive to them; one civilian who physically attacked a Volunteer was killed in his defence.

 

 

Thomas Slater, in his witness statement to the Bureau of Military History, tells of how they broke through the door with a sledge, politely telling the employee on duty that the best thing he could do was to get his hat and leave, along with any other employees. Being a bank holiday, the factory would have had a minimal level of staff on that day. The men barricaded themselves in, using sacks of flour against windows and doors.  As the week progressed the garrison saw little action in the form of assault on the buildings, apart from intermittent rifle fire between the Volunteers and the military, and focused on the sourcing of provisions to feed the men, who were otherwise surviving on biscuits and sweet goods.

 

 

 

In Seosamh de Brun’s beautifully descriptive statement he tells of how the men occupied themselves during rest periods inbetween their duties, when the combatants slept, read books from the Jacob’s library, wrote diaries and even formed study circles. Seamus Pounch relates that the men and women held a céilí during a lull in the fighting.

The Jacob’s men were mainly active in supplying nearby garrisons such as the Irish Citizen Army in the Royal College of Surgeons with provisions, forming parties to gather information on what was happening in the city (the last communication from the GPO was on the Wednesday) and supporting other garrisons by sending men to join the fighting. In particular, a group of 20 men was sent to de Valera’s Boland’s Mills and Westland Row Railway Station, which was under heavy fire from the British Army. When they reached the Mount Street area they were fired on and were forced to retreat, with Volunteer John O’Grady mortally wounded – the only member of the garrison to die that week.

 

 

Patrick Pearse officially surrendered to General Lowe on Saturday 29 April, but the news did not reach Jacob’s that day.  On the Sunday, Father Aloysius, a Capuchin father, came to the factory with the order. Thomas MacDonagh, refusing to accept the surrender order as binding as Pearse was a prisoner, went with the priest to confer with him in person. Thomas Slater stated that before he left, he told the men ‘to get away if they could, as there was no use of lives being lost’, and many left at this point.   On his return, he conferred with the other commanding officers, confirming the surrender order and breaking down with the words ‘Boys, we must surrender, we must leave some to carry on the struggle’.

He called the men to the headquarters on the ground floor to inform them. Michael Walker remembered his words, ‘We are about to surrender but we have established the Irish Republic according to international law by holding out for a week. Though I have assurance from his reverence here that nobody will be shot, I know I will be shot, but you men will be treated as prisoners’ (of war).  At this there was uproar, with the men declaring that they did not trust the word of the British, and some urging to continue the fight.  

The men had the option of either marching out and surrendering, or escaping. Some took that option; escaping through windows wearing the civilian clothing which had been supplied to them by the Whitefriars Street Priory. Walker was one of these, though he was later found and arrested.  Seamus Pounch escaped arrest and had to lay low for some weeks, describing ‘how awkward it was now to have appeared so prominently and so often in uniform in the years leading up to the Rising’.

Vincent Byrne, a 15 year old Volunteer who would later become a member of Michael Collins’ ‘Squad’, remembers being lifted out of a window onto the street to escape, where he was taken into a house by a local woman to brush the telltale flour off his clothing.

Those who officially surrendered were brought to Richmond Barracks before being deported to various prisons and internment camps in Britain.  The leaders – Thomas MacDonagh, John McBride, and Michael O’Hanrahan were court martialled and executed the following month.

                                                                                         

 

This Irish Volunteer tunic is of the pattern decided upon by the organisation’s uniform subcommittee in early 1914, and is one of the earliest examples of the type to survive. It was donated to the National Museum in 1917, just one year after the Rising, when its aftermath was still keenly felt by the city, and so it is not only a fine example of contemporary collecting, but is also the earliest object from the 1916 Rising to enter a national cultural institution.

It was found in Jacob’s Factory after Easter Week, and it is likely, given what the witness statements tell us about the surrender, that the Volunteer who wore it made the decision to abandon it before attempting escape.  We don’t know who owned this tunic, or whether or not he avoided arrest and internment.  I believe that it cannot have been an easy decision for him to make. From a personal perspective, he would have paid for this tunic on a weekly basis over a long period of time, and a number of small, neat repairs to the breast pocket show how valued it was by its owner.

On a practical level, if he had been arrested in uniform he would have had a better chance of being treated as a prisoner of war (though this did not in fact happen to the arrested rebels), but being dressed as a civilian increased his chances of escape. To abandon his uniform and escape may also have been regarded as dishonourable, despite having the full permission of his commanding officers to do so. We can assume from the pattern of the uniform that he was a member of the Irish Volunteers from at least early 1914, and that he was dedicated to the cause of the Irish Republic. Perhaps he went on with the struggle for independence, as MacDonagh hoped when he surrendered the garrison and himself, wishing to ‘leave some to carry on the struggle’.